Chapters 1–6: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3095

Chapter 1 Summary

It is night at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heartland of the Republic of Gilead. The Center, housed in a former high school, is where young white women are prepared for their role as replenishers of the population, Handmaids. On her army cot...

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Chapter 1 Summary

It is night at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heartland of the Republic of Gilead. The Center, housed in a former high school, is where young white women are prepared for their role as replenishers of the population, Handmaids. On her army cot in the dormitory, once the school gym, Offred muses about what the room must have been like before Gilead.

She thinks about the basketball games played here, and how it must have looked decorated for school dances: the excitement, the fashionable clothing, the music. Now it’s such a sad place, and so silent, since talking is forbidden.

As she often does, Offred remembers her past life, how as a teenager she yearned for the future with all its possibilities. Ruefully, she reminds herself that this Red Center, with its armed guards and barbed wire, is her future.

All she can yearn for now is an exchange of glances with the other inmates, even a few words with the armed Angels who stand outside the fence with their backs firmly turned away from the exercise yard. But any Angel (Gilead’s Gestapo) who looked at her or spoke to her would be severely punished, as would she.

Instead, she thinks about the ways she and the other Handmaids secretly communicate by furtive touch or silently mouthing words, which the others lip-read. The one thing they want to communicate is their real names, no longer allowed to them. On her cot, Offred recites these names to herself.

Chapter 1 Analysis

In this brief chapter, Atwood establishes the sense of fear and repression in the new Republic of Gilead by emphasizing the differences between life in this society and life in earlier times. This causes the reader to wonder how this situation came about.

The Red Center is like a reform school or prison, but with differences: in what prison are the guards called Aunts and prisoners stripped of their names?

This raises the question: why must these women’s names be changed? What is going on here?

Chapter 2 Summary

Offred, recently arrived at her new posting, describes her room. Later it is indicated that this is her third posting to a Commander, and apparently each posting lasts somewhere between three and six months.

At this point, there is no clear indication as to how many postings a Handmaid has before it is concluded that she is infertile and ceases to be a Handmaid, but it is implied that when that happens she will be declared an Unwoman and exiled to one of Gilead’s Colonies to clean up toxic waste and die.

In her room, Offred notes that there is nothing from which a rope can be hung; apparently Gilead authorities want to prevent any chance of a Handmaid’s suicide. She also notes that there is no glass in front of the watercolor of blue irises, her window glass is shatterproof, and the windows can only be opened enough to let in air, but without room for escape. Although there are a few homey touches—the watercolor and a hooked rug on the floor—the room is just another prison cell, but better than a dormitory. At least she has privacy.

Here, as at the Red Center, time is measured for her by bells. When the bell rings, she dons her Handmaid uniform. It is an ankle-length red gown and a white, winged headdress that allows her only to see straight ahead and prevents others from seeing her. With these she wears red gloves and low-heeled red shoes. She thinks that this costume makes her look like a fairytale figure.

As she goes downstairs to the kitchen, she remarks that her door is unlocked and, in fact, won’t close properly. In the kitchen, Rita is kneading dough, wearing the Martha uniform—a long green gown and white apron. Rita merely nods to Offred and hands her three shopping tokens for eggs, cheese, and meat.

In the kitchen, Offred must suffer Rita’s surliness. Rita disapproves of Handmaids on moral grounds because they act as a sort of prostitute for the country. The Handmaids, however, have no other choice; if they refuse to be handmaids, they would be sent to certain death in the Colonies. Offred longs to help Rita knead the bread, but she knows Rita would be too afraid of the consequences to allow it.

Despite the abuse, Offred enjoys spending time in the kitchen with Rita and Cora. Offred fantasizes about drinking coffee, gossipping about neighbors, and discussing their aches and pains with Rita and Cora. Offred knows, however, that she cannot grow close to them as the Marthas are not allowed to fraternize with the Handmaids.

Chapter 2 Analysis

This chapter makes clear that these young mothers (for Handmaids are recruited from women of proven fertility) had the choice of becoming Handmaids or Unwomen doomed to an agonizing death. It is clear that most, if not all, of the Handmaids are unhappy with this new life because all means of escape or suicide have been eliminated.

Offred’s remark that Commanders’ homes have real coffee shows that Gilead is having problems maintaining its former standard of life. Perhaps other countries, including the coffee-growing ones, are boycotting the new government. Or perhaps the resistance movements, that will be described later, have cut the trade routes or damaged shipping facilities.

Rita’s coldness to Offred shows that it is not just Handmaids who are unhappy in Gilead. Offred’s remark that Marthas cannot fraternize with Handmaids is the first of many signals that Gilead operates on the principle of divide and conquer.

Chapter 3 Summary

Offred goes on her shopping trip via the back door, past the garden where the Commander's arthritic Wife often works, although she leaves the hard digging to a Guardian. Guardians work as both police and as aides to Commanders. They are too young, too old, or too unfit for military service. The Wife's only other activity seems to be knitting scarves for Angels at the war front. Offred envies both of her pastimes.

She recalls first meeting the Wife when she was brought to the front door five weeks ago. This was the only time she was allowed to use the front door, and the Wife's hostility was immediately evident. The Wife warned Offred not to give her any trouble, dashing her hopes of viewing the Wife as an older sister or a motherly figure. Offred also noticed that the Wife was smoking, which is forbidden to Gilead's women.

Offred felt a sense of recognition, then suddenly realized that the Wife use to be the lead soprano on a Sunday morning TV show, called the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, and later became a scathing critic of the American way of life who foreshadowed the Gilead revolution. Her name was Serena Joy, Offred recalled. Serena Joy's fanaticism suggested to Offred that her new situation might be worse than her previous two.

Chapter 3 Analysis

Although once a very active force in the anti-American movement that led to the Gilead revolution, Serena Joy can now only garden and knit, and appears very unhappy with her narrow life. This echoes the aftermath of most revolutions: those who led them are among their first victims.

Having Handmaids (and probably Marthas and Guardians) use only the back door is like the situation of African Americans under slavery and after: refusing them the front door was a constant reminder of their second-class status.

That Serena Joy’s scarves are sent to Angels “at the front lines” clearly shows there is armed resistance to Gilead in parts of the country, and echoes the coffee shortage of Chapter 2. Gilead is in trouble.

Serena Joy’s hostility toward Offred, like Rita's, shows Gilead's fracture lines: everyone seems hostile toward, and suspicious of, everyone else. The regime's policy of divide and conquer appears to be working.

The Republic of Gilead is named after the biblical land east of the Jordan River, home of the children of Ishmael. Its grasslands made excellent pasture for cattle and sheep, and it was the source of spices, myrrh, and balm, a tree resin with medical use to heal wounds. In Joshua 22:38 it is referred to as “a city of refuge,” but later, in Hosea 6:8, it has become a place of iniquity, “polluted with blood.” So this promised land has become a hell. The Republic of Gilead, then, is aptly named: it has betrayed its promise and become a prison, even for its founders.

Chapter 4 Summary

Heading from the back door to the street, on her way to shop, Offred notices the Guardian Nick washing the Commander’s car, a Whirlwind (like the other two cars available in Gilead, the Chariot and Behemoth, this model takes its name from the Bible). She thinks that Nick must have low status since he hasn’t been issued an Econowife and lives alone in an apartment above the garage. She also notes an unlit cigarette in his mouth and guesses he, too, has something to sell on the black market.

She is startled when he winks at her and worries that he might be an Eye (Gilead's Gestapo-like secret state police) out to get her.

At the corner she waits for Handmaid Ofglen, recalling Aunt Lydia's words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Then Ofglen joins her. Offred is wary of her, for she appears to be one of Gilead's true believers, so Offred speaks to her as little as possible. Ofglen remarks on the military campaign against Baptist rebels in the Blue Hills. Although afraid to talk, Offred is hungry for any news of the outside world, even if it may not be true.

On their way to the shop, they halt at one of the many armed barricades dotting the city streets, where Guardians inspect their passes in the Compuchek. Offred defies the rules slightly by meeting the eyes of one of the guards, and swaying her hips as she passes through the gate, for she enjoys the passive power she has over them. But she also wonders about these two very young Guardians, denied wives or any real contact with women, and can't help feeling pity for them.

Chapter 4 Analysis

Offred's fear of Nick when he winks at her, and of Ofglen, is more evidence of the paranoia that permeates Gilead. How can people organize opposition to the regime if they can trust no one, if anyone may be an informer? And yet Ofglen's talk of the Baptist resistance shows that some people have managed to organize themselves against Gilead and have even armed themselves.

The barricade's Compuchek shows another means by which Gilead controls society. This Bible-based regime is quite ready to use modern technology to control its citizens. That Gilead still manages to make cars and uses technology for repression shows that, even if there are shortages and rebellions, Gilead is by no means on the brink of industrial collapse.

Offred's ambiguous feelings toward the Guardians at the barricade show that, although she hates Gilead, she is also aware that those who enforce the rules are similarly locked into lives that are less than fulfilling.

Aunt Lydia lies when she implies that “They also serve who only stand and wait” is from the Bible. In fact, it was written by seventeenth-century poet John Milton, ironically an ardent defender of individual liberties. This is the first of several instances where Gilead has changed the Bible to suit its purposes. For a regime that claims the Bible as the foundation of its laws, to lie about the Bible and its contents shows that Gilead not only is brutal, but is totally corrupt as well. Gilead is built on lies.

Chapter 5 Summary

Offred and Ofglen's trip takes them through an upper-middle-class neighborhood, and Offred notices there are no children to be seen or heard. This once was a neighborhood of lawyers, doctors, and professors, but Offred notes that Gilead has no more lawyers, and the university is closed. She also notes that there are very few older women to be seen.

She reminds herself that the streets are safe for women, as they never were before. She remembers Aunt Lydia's statement that there are two kinds of freedom—freedom from and freedom to—and that the freedom women have in Gilead from the fear of rape and molestation should not be underrated.

They pass Lilies of the Field, a store whose sign has only a

picture of a lily, with the words painted out. All signs are like this: any writing has been obliterated because women are no longer permitted to read. Then they enter Milk and Honey, where she is surprised to find oranges—the war has made California oranges unobtainable and few shipments come from Florida due to sabotage of the railroads.

Among the various Handmaids in the store is a pregnant one, whom Ofglen identifies as Ofwarren. Offred recognizes her as Janine from the Red Center, who was one of Aunt Lydia's pets.

Although the Handmaids pretend delight at Ofwarren's pregnancy, Offred sees they really are jealous of her and that Janine is gloating.

At All Flesh, Offred buys a stringy chicken, remarking that plastic bags are no longer used for wrapping groceries. This reminds her of the stacks of plastic bags she saved which her husband Luke feared their daughter might pull over her head.

On their way home, they encounter a Japanese trade delegation of men and women. The women’s dresses—short skirts and high heels—overwhelm her. An interpreter asks if the two Handmaids will pose for photographs, but they refuse. Then the translator asks, for one of the Japanese, if the Handmaids are happy. “Yes,” Offred replies, “we are very happy.”

Chapter 5 Analysis

The lack of children is a reminder of Gilead's population crisis. Although the decline of white births was a central reason for the revolution, Gilead hasn't been able to raise the birthrate.

The shortage of older women is more frightening perhaps. Since they are beyond childbearing age, Gilead has sent them to the Colonies to die. While Marthas are older women, Gilead only needs a certain number of household servants, so perhaps the surplus is eliminated.

Aunt Lydia's statement about two kinds of freedom raises an important point. Offred agrees that the streets are now safe for women; they are free from fear of molestation or attack. But they are not free to live their own lives, make their own decisions, or live where and as they choose. So her former freedom to has been replaced by freedom from, and it is clear which sort of freedom Offred would choose if she could. She wants back her freedom to choose a life of her own making.

The disruption of trade due to war and sabotage shows the extent of opposition to the regime. All of Central America is at war with Gilead, and California is in rebel hands.

The presence of the Japanese trade delegates in Gilead suggests that the government is dependent on foreign trade. That the Japanese women can go out in public in their normal clothes must mean that Gilead needs trade more than it needs women to be politically correct by wearing ankle-length gowns. Although its universities, and probably its laboratories are closed, Gilead still needs high-tech devices to keep tabs on its citizens, and probably has to look to Japan for its equipment. Maybe even its Whirlwind cars are actually made in Japan.

Of all the Handmaids seen, Ofwarren is the only one who is pregnant. This suggests that the Handmaid idea isn't working, and the population slide is continuing.

The disappearance of lawyers, possibly by execution, means that the legal system is entirely in the hands of Gilead's hierarchy, with no possibility of legal appeal against its laws. The closing of the university and its conversion into barracks and concentration camp bodes ill for Gilead. Society needs trained, imaginative people to create the means by which it maintains and critiques itself. By closing the universities, Gilead is dooming itself to extinction. But imagination and inventiveness are what Gilead fears most of all, so it has no choice.

Chapter 6 Summary

After they shop, Ofglen tells Offred she would like to pass the old nearby church—she would like to take the long way home, past the Wall. On their right is the river, with boathouses from which students used to launch their racing sculls. They pass the former dormitories and the football stadium. Offred notes that the stadium is now used for Men's Salvagings (she only tells later what these are).

They pause briefly before the church, which is now used as a museum. Beyond is the Wall, once the boundary of the university, but now rigged with barbed wire, floodlights, and sentries.

Several figures are hanging on the Wall, their heads shrouded in white sacks. Blood has seeped through the bag covering one person's head, giving it the look of a grotesque smile. The three wear lab coats and carry signs with pictures of fetuses on them; evidently they were abortionists, and Offred wonders who informed on them. Gilead calls such men “war criminals”, even though their “crimes” were committed when abortion was legal. Offred is surprised that she feels nothing in their presence except fascination with that bloody grin. Ofglen's tremor surprises her; evidently she is moved by the sight of these executed men.

Offred remembers Aunt Lydia saying that they will get used to the new ways; in time, everything will become ordinary to them.

Chapter 6 Analysis

Stringing up the bodies on the Wall of what was once a university seems to be Gilead’s way of warning people not to break its laws, but is also a clear sign of how unpopular the new regime is. Only a vicious and frightened despot would do such a thing.

It also makes clear how completely opposite Gilead is to the biblical haven of Gilead where, in the words of the hymn, “all is peace.” The only peace in Gilead is death.

A close look at the boathouses, the nearby church with its ancient burial ground, and the famous wall surrounding the university suggests that the university is Harvard. Harvard University, founded in 1636, was America’s first, and one of the world’s most famous institutions of higher learning. That Gilead has turned Harvard into a prison is obscene, and shows what Gilead is all about: repression, not enlightenment.

Ofglen’s tremor at the sight of the dead is Offred’s first clue that her shopping companion may not be a true believer.

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Chapters 7–12: Summary and Analysis