The reader is a bit disorientated – where are we, who’s speaking, where’s it all leading? It sets up some intriguing questions.
As the opening takes on a first person’s narrative in the form of a retrospective reflection, the reader is not given a comprehensive understanding of the setting. The first paragraph reveals the difference in society between the present and the past as Offred said “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium”. The following description of the memory of the scent and sound of familiar establishments such as the football field/gymnasium reveals the recency of these memories. This leaves the timeframe of the setting ambiguous but provides enough information to which establish the palimpsest setting of this speculated fiction. The timeframe is further established by the juxtaposition of what the football field used to be and what it is now, the “barbed wire” and strict rules all collectively signifies that the story takes place in a different societal setting that is somehow similar to that of today.
There is a sense of menace and threat
A sense of menace and threat is established by the description of the ‘Red centre’ and the clear institutional hierarchy portrayed in chapter 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale. The author introduces the numerous roles such as The Angels, Aunts, and Guardians which establishes a strong and hierarchy and control. The violent connotations of “chain-link fence” and “barbed wire” collectively reveal the lack of freedom and oppression that the persona goes through. The juxtaposition of the past and the present further aids to emphasise on the menace and threat that the persona faces as the grim, restricted football field is contrasted to the connotation of lively and joyful impression that the readers hold. The description of “guns”, “electric cattle prod” and “army-issued blankets” renders a violent and oppressive atmosphere and reinforces the compliant and fearful characteristics of the persona.
The focus is on relationships and sexual experience
The opening introduces the intertwined connections between the different roles in the society and how the persona along with the other handmaids are oppressed by these forces. Their shared “fantasy” and “whisper” settles their ‘shared’ experience and suggests that the book will explore the relationships amongst them and the relationships between them and other societal roles.
The sexual experience is explored mainly by the objectification of women in the opening. As the persona says “we still had our bodies”, the sheer association of value with their body reveals the prostitutional nature of the Handmaids. Their suppressed desire and freedom translates into an erotic exchange that the Handmaid’s fantasise, revealing the demeaned value of Handmaid’s in their society. Their whispers and deceptive fantasy also suggests that there is an underlying rebellion that lies amongst them that foreshadows the persona’s unconformity as the plot unfolds.