Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1, the lone segment of Section I, introduces a gymnasium scene in which Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira, June, and other Handmaids-in-training sleep in a barracks arrangement beneath flannel sheets and army blankets and contemplate their yearnings for freedom. Like girls at a restrictive camp, they reach out to their sisters to learn their names and to touch hands. The women, doubly protected by Aunts, armed with electric cattle prods and whistles, and Angels, or guards, outside the building, receive a brief privilege — twice-daily walks in pairs on an adjacent football field. The inmates fantasize about making deals with the guards, employing sex as a bartering medium.
This spare introduction sets up powerful motifs that permeate the novel. Floating through the grim, Byzantine setting are afterimages of the past, when teams played basketball on the court. Gilead's hierarchy, for all its repression of the past, fails to eradicate normal human activities of the pre-war period. Atwood infuses the scene with sights and smells and sexuality of teenagers of the past era by emphasizing sense imagery. Harking further into the past to medieval times, when women were immured in convents, the reference to palimpsest recalls the copyists' method of erasing old manuscripts and refilling them with inscriptions. The method failed to delete the original text, which cropped up in words and letters that recalled fragments of a former message.
A second significant motif is the juxtaposition of innocence and brutality. A cadre of female supervisors bearing the comforting title of "Aunt" patrols like sadistic Amazons. Sleeping inmates lie under fuzzy flannelette and military blankets, a blend of images suggesting the dystopian fusion of gentleness with militarism. The illusion of protection, symbolized by barbed wire atop the chain-link fence, leaves the unsettling question of the inmates' status: are they being nurtured or imprisoned? Their names imply an answer — Alma, which is Latin for nurturing, or kindly; Delores, which comes from the Latin word for grief, and June, reflecting the Roman Juno, goddess of marriage and the family. Likewise, Janine and Moira are romantic versions of John and Mary, two names so enduring that they conjure images of stability and normalcy. Likewise, the aunts, Sara and Elizabeth, bear Old Testament names reflecting motherhood — Sarah, Hebrew for princess, the elderly woman who became the mother of the Hebrew nation; and Elizabeth, the aged parent of John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ.
Geometric absolutes, a third motif introduced in these opening paragraphs, prefigure Aunt Lydia's insistence on an either/or philosophy through which she guides future Handmaids in making prudent choices in matters of behavior, morality, and subservience to the state. Like the stripes and circles that outline the basketball court, the rules that govern Gilead create an inflexible, authoritarian environment in which punishment for infractions is swift and arbitrary. In later scenes, Offred contemplates the circle on the ceiling over her bed, where a chandelier once provided light. After her predecessor's suicide, the family removed the light fixture, leaving only an empty, but meaning-packed circle.
Aunts staff members who blend the prim role of academy schoolmarms with the sadism of prison matrons.
Angels a euphemism for soldiers, or guards.