Chapter 1- Chapter 6 (Handmaids tale)


Chapter 1 Summary

Our narrator describes sleeping on a gymnasium with other women, and thinks about what would’ve once happened there. They are being monitored by other women called Aunts with cattle prods and armed men outside called Angels. She says that the women fantasise about tempting the guards into making a deal with their bodies. The women inside exchange names silently at night.

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Chapter 1

The narrator’s imagining of the past suggests that now-common things, like school dances

The language is inclusive; “We yearned for the future”, “That was our fantasy,” suggesting that the women have solidarity against an oppressor.

“Army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.” suggests that the USA doesn’t exist anymore, at least not as it did.

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Chapter 1

Explain how Atwood controls the narrative through first person narration. What is revealed? What is withheld?

We are not told who is speaking, though we know it is a woman based on the inclusive language, but the names at the end (“Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June”) are all important characters within the story. We know that she remembers a past that doesn’t exist anymore, that the women are afraid of their captors

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Chapter 1- Purpose of Storytelling

What purpose does storytelling serve for Offred?

  • To record the present "to keep us from being seen"- controlling society, reflects society (how children should be seen not heard)
  • To escape the present- helps her to think about her children and what has happened in the past. Wants to loose herself in the past "the night is mine, my own time" honing in on the important events so that she doesn't forget about what happened.
  • As a form of rebellion- she wants to tell her story and this is rebellion as she wants society to know her story, whereas within society she doesn't want to be crushed and be silent
  • To survive- she has a purpose rather than being aimless in society.
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Offred in Chapter 1


  • Is able to recognize her surroundings (and what was there before) - reference of "what had once been" in the opening paragraph
  • Able to poke fun at her superiors, as she is in control and this is what helps us to see her first persons perspective.
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Chapter 1- Literary Conventions

Narrative Voice: It is a first person narrative from the point of view of Offred, a handmaid in the state of Gilead

Type of Narrative: It is written as a fictive autobiography

SETTING: From the 1980s as we get the reference of "spiky green-streaked hair" in America.  In the opening paragraph, it is set in a gymnasium.

NARRATIVE VOICE: First person has more control. They have their own motivations and biased. Can hold back on things that don't want us to know. We can question the reliability. Only hone in on things that are important to that character


  • Gender Roles
  • Status
  • Hierarchy
  • Rebellion
  • Control/ Power
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Chapter 1- Opening

"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium"

  • Pronoun "we" suggests multiple people
  • Repurposing
  • Suggests change
  • Word Gymnasium is more commonly used in America
  • It is their home and refuge, a sense of disaster (their home has been taken away from them, don't feel safe)
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Chapter 2

Visualising of class through colours is made apparent, making the handmaid's all wear red, a colour that she finds unflattering. The clothes also get rid of their individuality as they are identical and conceal their form. This is then compared to Martha who is able to wear green instead and is visibly uncomfortable by the reds. Foreshadowing that there may be women who are faking a lack of fertility by forcing miscarriages "stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly". This gives us another implication of the world's big issues. We are told about many measures taken by the government to avoid suicide. This is because suicide would give the handmaids too much control and power. "A chair, a table, a lamp" the chapter begins with the three mundane objects, because while mundane they are some of her only possessions

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Chapter 3

In the third chapter of the book Offred describes her first encounter with the Commander’s wife, Serena, the day she first arrived to her ‘new home’. Serena immediately makes her position of power clear to Offred in a very aggressive manner which leaves Offred disappointed by the encounter.
Offred is in a position of total vulnerability making it simple for those without a voice in the workplace to identify with the main character. The chapter confirms the point of view of our main character by accompanying the dialogue with her own thoughts and feelings as well.
Atwood reveals through the first person narration Offred expectations, thoughts and feelings about a new chapter in her life. However this restricts what we know about Serena and her real thoughts about Offred and the system in general.

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Chapter 4 Summary

As she leaves the house to go shopping, Offred notices Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, washing the Commander’s car. Nick lives above the garage. He winks at Offred—an offense against -decorum— but she ignores him, fearing that he may be an Eye, a spy assigned to test her. She waits at the corner for Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom Offred will do her shopping. The Handmaids always travel in pairs when outside.Ofglen arrives, and they exchange greetings, careful not to say anything that isn’t strictly orthodox. Ofglen says that she has heard the war is going well, and that the army recently defeated a group of Baptist rebels. “Praise be,” Offred responds. They reach a checkpoint manned by two young Guardians. The Guardians serve as a routine police force and do menial labor. They are men too young, too old, or just generally unfit for the army. Young Guardians, such as these, can be dangerous because they are frequently more fanatical or nervous than older guards. These young Guardians recently shot a Martha as she fumbled for her pass, because they thought she was a man in disguise carrying a bomb. Offred heard Rita and Cora talking about the shooting. Rita was angry, but Cora seemed to accept the shooting as the price one pays for safety. At the checkpoint, Offred subtly flirts with one of the Guardians by making eye contact, cherishing this small infraction against the rules. She considers how sex-starved the young men must be, since they cannot marry without permission, masturbation is a sin, and pornographic magazines and films are now forbidden. The Guardians can only hope to become Angels, when they will be allowed to take a wife and perhaps eventually get a Handmaid. This marks the first time in the novel we hear the word “Handmaid” used.

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Chapter 5 Summary

In town, Ofglen and Offred wait in line at the shops. We learn the name of this new society: “The Republic of Gilead.” Offred remembers the pre-Gilead days, when women were not protected: they had to keep their doors closed to strangers and ignore catcalls on the street. Now no one whistles at women as they walk; no one touches them or talks to them. She remembers Aunt Lydia explaining that more than one kind of freedom exists, and that “[i]n the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”The women shop at stores known by names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey. Pictures of meat or fruit mark the stores, rather than lettered signs, because “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” A Handmaid in the late stages of pregnancy enters the store and raises a flurry of excitement. Offred recognizes her from the Red Centre. She used to be known as Janine, and she was one of Aunt Lydia’s favourites. Now her name is Ofwarren. Offred senses that Janine went shopping just so she could show off her pregnancy. Offred thinks of her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and the life they led before Gilead existed. She remembers a prosaic detail from their everyday life together: she used to store plastic shopping bags under the sink, which annoyed Luke, who worried that their daughter would get one of the bags caught over her head. She remembers feeling guilty for her carelessness. Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and go out to the sidewalk, where they encounter a group of Japanese tourists and their interpreter. The tourists want to take a photograph, but Offred says no. Many of the interpreters are Eyes, and Handmaids must not appear immodest. Offred and Ofglen marvel at the women’s exposed legs, high heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they are happy, and since Ofglen does not answer, Offred replies that they are very happy

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Chapter 6 Summary

As they return from shopping, Ofglen suggests they take the long way and pass by the church. It is an old building, decorated inside with paintings of what seem to be Puritans from the colonial era. Now the former church is kept as a museum. Offred describes a nearby boathouse, old dormitories, a football stadium, and redbrick sidewalks. Atwood implies that Offred is walking across what used to be the campus of Harvard University. Across the street from the church sits the Wall, where the authorities hang the bodies of executed criminals as examples to the rest of the Republic of Gilead. The authorities cover the men’s heads with bags. One of the bags looks painted with a red smile where the blood has seeped through. All of the six corpses wear signs around their necks picturing fetuses, signaling that they were executed for performing abortions before Gilead came into existence. Although their actions were legal at the time, their crimes are being punished retroactively. Offred feels relieved that none of the bodies could be Luke’s, since he was not a doctor. As she stares at the bodies, Offred thinks of Aunt Lydia telling them that soon their new life would seem ordinary.

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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 4

Narration She’s very cautious of everyone and everything - she doesn’t know who might be an Eye ‘I stand on the corner, pretending I am a tree.’ Red is a noticeable colour, she may think that by standing still enough people won’t notice her and she may hear some gossip She describes what she sees in great detail, possibly because her vision is limited by the wings


‘“Praise be.” I say. I don’t ask her how she knows. “What were they?”

“Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills. They smoked them out.”

“Praise be.”’

    Offred is desperate for news, even if it’s fake, and she completely knows the drill, even in company of another Handmaid, and only keeps within the accepted style of conversation (repeating “praise be.” flatly). She doesn’t ask for specifics, implying that she knows how Ofglen knows, which tells us about how news is given out in this world. The blunt use of “baptists” and Offred’s lack of reaction also tells us about this.

‘Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her business. No call to shoot her.’

It’s not clear, unlike earlier, whether it’s Rita speaking in the second sentence, or Offred, due to the lack of quotation marks. This could be Offred reading into Rita’s statement

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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 4


“Let’s pretend we’re trees.” Offred would rather be nature -- would rather be alive, free, and able to grow than be stuck in this situation. She focuses on the “gently undulating landscape”. Although oppressed, she still manages to find a sense of calmness and peace in nature.


Uniform & Colours

‘He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the elbow,’p27 Nick’s failure to comply with the uniform implies his character to be more relaxed within Gilead. Atwood implies that the rules of society are far more relaxed for men, especially working class men of ‘Low status’ Red- symbol of fertility/ danger/ mimics target / sexuality

Eyes - Winged eyes symbolise eternal watchfulness of God and Totalitarian state ‘God’s a natural resource’

Cigarettes - an act of rebellion Offred craves ‘He has a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the black market.’ p27 ‘Really what I wanted was the cigarette’ p28. Offred craves the ability to rebel against the regime and possess an restricted item like cigarettes that give her to power to trade and relive days when she possessed her own money. 

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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 5

  • Narration- 

Constantly comparing the present to the past . Always walk in pairs for their own safety. Hides the fact that she has a daughter to protect her ‘We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children.’ ‘’She could get one of those plastic bags over her head’

  • Setting- “there is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep.” She feels like nothing and no one is really living their lives and that they are not in control of it. page 33-34, Offred has a good understanding of the society she is now living in and the people around her meaning that she is really observant and potentially uses her surroundings to her advantage, page 36, she understands the pregnant handmaid’s goal very quickly and the real reason she has come to the store. pathetic fallacy; When Offred describes the Japanese tourists she clearly shows that this new society has already influenced her thoughts on her old life.
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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 5


For the majority of the time she does not engage in much dialogue with others- this shows that the situation they’re in has robbed her of the ability to communicate thoughts, feelings and personality. She is outwardly very compliant for example when talking to the interpreter who asks if the tourists can take a picture of her and Ofglen she says ‘No’ as she knows that is what she is expected to say. We know she abides by the rules and values her safety to some extent. She also uses the word ‘murmur’ to describe her speech which shows that she is giving an outward appearance of being quiet and almost tentative in attempt not to say the wrong thing. In answer to the question “are you happy?” she answers with “yes we are very happy” and we know she is at least lying to some extent because to herself she says ‘what else can I say?’ so this shows again how few options she has or feels she has and the isolation she feels. When describing other’s dialogue she conveys their tone. ‘“Show- off” a voice hisses’ in description of Pregnant Janine. This person is nameless to Offred and she presents them as bitter but she also agrees. She describes the interpreter as asking ‘politely enough’ showing she does not hold this against them and she is prone to being understanding of others. Dialogue she describes from the past is also important. She often mentions things Aunt Lydia said or would say showing them impact that she has had on her.She also describes dialogue with Luke which can show what she was like before and give a truer image of her personality. For example she remembers talking to Luke about the plastic bags she would keep because she thought it was a waste to throw them away and Luke would say that it’s dangerous for her daughterShe would say something like ‘she is old enough’ or ‘smart enough’ and then feel a ‘chill of fear’ so she says one thing and feels another but it also shows the impact others have on her and how they make her second guess herself and feel guilty.She is also pragmatic and resourceful wanting to keep the plastic bags as ‘garbage bags’

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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 5

  • Symbolism 


  • connotations with survival in this society, but also connotations of danger through competition with other handmaidens  ‘Now that she’s the carrier of life, she is closer to death, and needs special security. Jealousy could get her, it’s happened before’ p36

Harvard University

  • Harvard has become a detention centre run by the Eyes
  • Harvard symbolises the change in society that Gilead created as the university was once a centre of knowledge but is now a centre of oppression and torture
  • Goes against everything universities stand for
  • Often university lecturers are the first to be detained in a Totalitarian state as universities represent free thinking
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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 6


  • ‘We could go straight back, or we could walk the long way around. We already know which way we will take, because we always take it’ - It is an obvious choice that they will decide to take the long way home, in order to prolong the time that they are outside. They want to spend as little time at their home as possible.

‘We have learned to see the world in gasps’ - because of their wings, their ability to get a few full of the sky, or of anything, is even restricted.

‘I don’t go to the river any more, or over bridges. Or on the subway’ - They are restricted to where they can go, due to the Guardians being on watch at places like the subway. The setting which she is able to be in is reduced to this certain area/bubble. 

  • Narration
    • How the rules in society have changed. People has control to make their own rules. Expectations, especially for women, have changed. Commodification of fertile women Strenuous relationship between the Wives and the Handmaids ‘The women in the room are whispering, almost talking, so great is their excitement.’ They’re allowed to communicate a little louder than usual because a Handmaid got pregnant
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Offreds Characterisation in Chapter 6


‘ “I’d like to pass by the church,” says Ofglen [...]

“All right,” I say, though I know as well as she does what she’s really after.’

Ofglen and Offred, for the whole chapter are silent except for this one interaction, which is implied to be a regular occurrence- where they visit the church, see the bodies and countryside and then leave. The interaction is rather emotionless and it seems to show just how this world has changed them and they have become less caring, furthermore the walk seems to be one of a tradition for the two of us, and one they both do in silence because it is more of a time of reflection, and one of few chances to look at the world, they don’t want to waste it talking and while outside especially they don’t want to get caught conversing when their society so clearly wants to take away their voice. Furthermore, we see a large juxtaposition between her inner monologue which is quite profound and her external dialogue, which is so simple, as she cannot display such a wide amount of knowledge. Because of this we are given a large impression about how isolated she is in her knowledge as she cannot share it with others around her.

The hanging doctors

Sometimes they’re there for days, until there’s a new batch, so as many people as possible will have the chance to see them.’ p 42

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Characterisation of Ofglen


Very silent - doesn't want to talk to Offred (chapter 6)

"I'd like to pass by the church", says Ofglen, as if piously- suggests that she has some ulterior motifs. Putting on a front, not all as she seems.  

Similarities - She's looking for someone too?, Hope is a powerful thing 


  • Ofglen is more communicative
  • Ofglen knows more about people than Offred
  • More knowledgeable about the situation
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