Chapters One and Two with First Impressions of the Novel

Summer Pearce
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Summer Pearce
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Description

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, for the Imagined Worlds section of the English Language and Literature A-Level Exam

Resource summary

Slide 1

    First Impressions
    What? This novel has evidence of being dystopian - e.g.) 'army issue blankets', these women aren't in the army, so the Government wouldn't issue these unless disaster had struck, such as an earthquake or tornado. Instead, these women are 'making do' with what they have e.g.) sleeping in a gymnasium Men are separated from women - The narrator describes the longing to be close to them again: 'If only they would look.'  'That was our fantasy'. The quote 'we still had our bodies' suggests a great deal of loss. When?The novel is set in the future, as this is a modern gym, and mini-skirts are part of its history.Who? All of the characters inside are women. The Aunts are authority figures, who have control over the women in the school. The male guards outside are not allowed to come inside. The narrator is one of the women in the institution, being fringed by its rules.
    Why? The reason the women are in this environment is not clear from reading only the first chapter, however, there are hints towards it.  The 'expectation' was 'never the same as the hands that were on us,' perhaps suggests that because sexual experiences are described in a disappointing and half-hearted way that part of the reason is to protect women from this disappointment. How? Something extreme must have happened to make these women be controlled by so many rules, such as 'not allowed out' and 'so we could not talk'.

Slide 2

    Chapter One as an Opening
    What is the overall effect of this chapter as an opening? The first chapter helps the reader to understand how different this society is to the one they have grown up in. There is an element of shock involved, as emergency measures and army blankets are mentioned, which the reader likely will not have come across themselves.  The chapter sets an atmosphere of sexual longing and nostalgia for past life, e.g.) 'palimpsest' It also helps the reader to experience the stress of the emergency coping mechanisms, as nothing is hidden or considered too explicit. e.g.) The statement of fact, 'we still had bodies' which suggests some sort of sexual bargaining, may not be shared under normal circumstances.
    The first chapter raises the following questions: Why isn't the gym used anymore? What happened to send the country into a state of emergency? What are the guards for? Who are the Angels? Who are the Aunts? What is their role? What's the reason for these women living under these conditions? 

Slide 3

    In Depth Analysis of Chapter One
    Handling of Time This is extremely important in the first chapter. The narrator talks about the passing of time through the description of the women's clothing and appearance; 'felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.' This describes the fashions from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s,  By referring to these fashions as a thing of the past, we know the novel is set in a recent time, perhaps in the near future. The Past and Longing In the third paragraph, it says, 'we yearned for the future.' Atwood has created the impression that the narrator now longs to return to the past by following that sentence with the question, 'How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?'  By the narrator recognising that they were not satisifed with that former life, they are emphasising that they should have been satisfied by their past sexual experiences, as they don't have the opportunity to engage in casual sex anymore.
    The narrator focusses on what the gym had been for the entire first paragraph. She also talks about the people that would have been inside the gym, and points out their clothing. By speaking about this for the longest paragraph in the chapter, this shows us immediately that there is an emphasis on the past. The Identity of the Narrator The narrator is unnamed, however we can infer that the narrator is female. For example, there is an emphasis on what the women in the pictures are wearing and little mention of the men who would have been inside the gym. The emphasis on women and their clothing choices shows us the narrator  may be comparing herself to these women and perhaps feeling jealous of their freedom of expression. She later talks about the 'hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back.' This would be an unusual thing for men to have someone put their hands on the small of their backs, so this description suggests a female narrator talking of her past sexual experiences with men.

Slide 4

    In Depth Analysis of Chapter One cont'd
    She also talks about the guards (or Angels). If they were men inside the gymnasium with female guards, they are unlikely to describe them as 'objects of fear to us.' However, women could easily describe male guards as such.Atmosphere of the Chapter The atmosphere is nostalgic, as there is a constant reference to the past. The description of the gym's former use,  the people that used it and descriptions of past sexual encounters being disappointing all suggest that the narrator would like to go back and relive these moments.  There is also an oppressive and threatening atmosphere, s the women aren't allowed to do a lot of things, like 'we weren't allowed out,' 'we could not talk' and 'if only we could talk to them.'  The presence of the cattle prods and guns the Aunts and Angels carry also adds to the unease of feeling that the women are being controlled by force.
    Evidence of State of Emergency The narrator is sleeping inside a gymnasium with the other women. In emergency situations, like in the occurrence of war and natural disasters, the government might decide to use buildings like the gym as accommodation for large groups of people. Also, the fact that the government have intervened in the first place suggests that something extreme must have happened to have taken away the women's normal homes. What can we learn about Angels? The word 'angel' creates the image of a heavenly figure, that is serving God and thus working towards the ultimate good for people. This would make people believed that their role is for the good of the rest of society, even though it might not be. Guards are 'specially picked from the Angels' so this must mean that the Angels are an elite class of people, who have higher status than the rest of Gilead's citizens.

Slide 5

    This is supported by the fact that they are allowed to use guns, whereas others aren't. The Angels are described as 'objects of fear' which suggests that their role has something to with the oppression of the women inside the building. What can we learn about Aunts? The word 'Aunt' creates an image of a spinster who is past her prime of life. Perhaps the Aunts are older women who have been indoctrinated by the beliefs of the regime and now have been given the responsibility to raise younger women to be the same.  The Aunts have a disciplinary role as exemplified by the 'cattle prods slung on thongs from leather belts.'  This shows how the Aunts have power over the women and this power helps to control them.
    How are women trying to resist the regime? The narrator describes how they would 'stretch out [their] arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each other's hands across space.' Because the Aunts are prevented from seeing this exchange, this reveals how the women could get around the rules and oppression of the regime. Similarly, we know that the beds are spaced out 'so we could not talk', however, towards the end of the chapter, Atwood describes how they 'learnt to whisper almost without sound and 'to lip-read' which goes against the rules the narrator clearly understands. 
    In Depth Analysis of Chapter One cont'd 2

Slide 6

    Chapter Two
    So far in the novel, the following titles and roles have been mentioned: Aunts Angels The Commander The Commander's Wife Marthas Although we don't know the term 'Handmaids' yet, we can determine that their role includes; going shopping - 'I take the tokens from Rita's outstretched hand. They have pictures on them, of the things they can be exchanged for; twelve eggs, a piece of cheese, a brown thing that's supposed to be a steak.' seeing as little as possible - 'The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.' being fertile - 'If I hadn't of got my tubes tied, it could of been me.'
    There is also religious imagery being used in this chapter: 'As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.' - This suggests that a Handmaid's role is similar to that of a nun, and that in this society, women are discouraged from putting a great emphasis on their appearance. This comparison creates an atmosphere of religion and purity, and perhaps suggests that Handmaids, and also the rest of the people living in the house are abstaining from something. 'A Sister, dipped in blood.' - As the 's' is capitalised in 'Sister', it is referring to a nun's title. Again, this links to the idea of religious tradition and purity, however, the blood could symbolise pain, as well as being a literal referral to Offred's clothing. Thus, perhaps Atwood is suggesting that what is happening is pure and holy, but painful for the people themselves.  Chapter Two is also useful for showing some of the rules and routines within Gilead and identifying Atwood's fragmented, 1st person narrative technique. 
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