Section 1: Night - Chapter one

Synopsis of chapter one

Seven sections of the novel are headed ‘Night'. At night time the narrator reflects, thinking over her past and her current situation.

Atwood does not give anything in the way of an introduction or explanation of the events she is about to narrate. An anonymous female narrator starts to tell us about a situation in the past, when she was held prisoner with a group of other young women (how far in her past that was we do not know, nor do we know the time when the narrator is ‘now' speaking.) The narrator then looks back to an even earlier time (again it is unspecified). Gradually the situation in which the narrator is ‘now' living is revealed to the reader.

The narrator remembers the time when she and other young women were kept in what had once been a college gymnasium. She recalls the games that were played there in earlier times and the dances that were held. All that has now gone. She recalls how the gymnasium became a prison where she and four other women (their five names are revealed as Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira and June) tried to whisper as they lay on metal beds. They were guarded by women known as Aunts, and by armed guards known as Angels.

Commentary on chapter one

Georgian palimpsestWe - this establishes a first-person narrator but she is unidentified.

Palimpsest - A palimpsest is a place on a parchment where writing has been scraped out and written over. Here, the narrator suggests that the past has been overlaid by the present.

pictures - This suggests to us that the narrator has not had the chance to experience these fashions herself.

That yearning - The speaker realises that her past young romantic fantasies never quite lived up to expectation.

Still said U.S. - This hints to us that the United States of America has ceased to exist.

Aunt Sara … Aunt Elizabeth - The names sound friendly and cosy - but then we read ‘patrolled; they had electric cattle prods.' Our expectations are undermined.

could not be trusted - The use of the passive voice means that we do not know who does the mistrusting. The government of the state of Gilead is never explicitly identified in the novel.

Guns … for … the Angels - As with the Aunts, our expectations of the word ‘Angel' are undermined.

Something could be exchanged - The word ‘exchanged' is frequently used in the novel, and becomes significant, suggesting the importance of human inter-action. (See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships)

We still had our bodies - There seems to be a hint here of prostitution. Given that these young women are to become, effectively, sex-slaves, it is ironic that the speaker feels this is a ‘fantasy'.

We exchanged names ... Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira, June - During the course of the novel Alma, Janine, Dolores and Moira are all mentioned by the narrator, so is the narrator June? It is ironic that these women are later given new names referring to the man to whom they currently belong e.g. Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren.

Investigating chapter one

  • What impressions have you gained from this chapter of the narrator and her circumstances
    • By what means?
  • What do you not know that you would have expected to find out from the first chapter of a novel?
    • What might be the author's purpose in keeping such knowledge from her readers?

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