Describing a bleak society

Author Margaret Atwood uses much of Parts I and II describing how the society of Gilead works, and the protagonist’s role in it.

The novel is written in first-person narration, through the perspective of a yet-to-be-named Handmaid.  Margaret Atwood uses the first few chapters to paint a bleak description of the society. The novel first describes a sleeping area with other women, “in the army cots that have been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk” (4). These women are not able to talk, or not allowed to; instead they have “learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each others mouths. In this way, we exchanged names…” (4). Immediately in the first chapter, Atwood establishes that these women are in poor living conditions. It is also revealed  that these women are kept under guard: “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts. No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels” (4). This reveals that these women were kept in a prison-like environment.

Later, the protagonist overhears two women, Rita and Cora, gossiping about her behind her back. Rita says that “she wouldn’t debase herself like that” (10), and she would rather “go to the Colonies […] with the Unwomen” (10). This conversation shows that other people in this society don’t have a high view of the protagonist’s role as Handmaid, and find it degrading. Upon the protagonist’s meeting of the Commander’s Wife, she finds that the Wife has little respect for her. The Wife says to her: “I want to see as little of you as possible […] This is like a business transaction. If I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand?” (15). This shows that the protagonist is very low on the social hierarchy in this society.

In Chapter 4, the protagonist has a short conversation with another Handmaid named Ofglen, and the way they speak is very telling. First, they exchange strange greetings: ” ‘Blessed be the fruit,’ she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. ‘May the Lord open,’ I answer, the accepted response” (19). They exchange small talk about “a war going well” (19) against “Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills” (20). Now it is revealed that the society they are in is in a war with a religious group, implying a war of ideology. The most telling thing about the conversation is when the protagonist thinks to herself: “I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if its false news, it must mean something” (20). This shows that the society they are in does not have freedom of information, and the information that is available may be false, implying censorship or propaganda. In the next chapters, there are many hints showing that the society has regressed from days past, like how “doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and the university is closed” (23). Overall, these first two parts of the novel show a society that has changed for the worse compared to the past, and women of society have very few rights.

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