The Handmaid’s Tale: incipit analysis

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. 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. The guards weren’t allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.

We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed:

Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 1.

Setting and Time: a universe of temporal and spatial signs

Contextualisation: space

Semantic fields are understood universally. The gymnasium is a call to universal memory, to the experience of every reader, it’s a cultural sign.

It is reassuring but there are many syntactic breaks: “once”, “formerly”, “though” that show an insistence on the way recognizable signs are manipulated so that they gradually become revised, unrecognizable, and subverted signs.

Sport places (which used to be places of fun, pleasure and bodily activity) are now turned into dormitories (1: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”) or prison yards (31: “the football field which was enclosed now (…) barbed wire.”)

It is a world of military discipline, akin to prison:

  • with “guards” (29) supervising the “walks, twice daily, two by two” (31) of the inmates.
  • where people are not individualized: the narrator mainly refers to herself as “we”.
  • with army supplies standardizing the residents‟ private spaces: “army cots (…) set up in rows” (21); “army-issue blankets”(23)
  • with a strong sense of hierarchy and the 2 sexes being strictly segregated: the Aunts look after the women; their status is inferior to that of the guards (28-29: “even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels”). The guards & the Angels belong outside the building (29-30: “The guards weren‟t allowed outside the building.” / 33: “The Angels stood outside with their backs on us.”) and the female prisoners are not allowed out (l.30-31).
  • NB: the meta-language reminds us of a religious convent (25: “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth”) + it is interesting to note that angels are known to be asexual / sexless beings.

In this world, in essence, human nature is denied:

  • adults are infantilized (22: “We had flannelette sheets, like children‟s”)
  • human beings are treated like animals (26: “electric cattle prods”)
  • and all that is essentially human – communicating, touching, feeling – is forbidden (Cf. the last 3 §).

A means to another end: it’s both the same and it’s different. There is an impression of disorientation in that the narrator finds herself in a spatial in-between, with a feeling of double exposure.

She is here and there at the same time, in the present and in the past: “afterimage”, “palimpsest”, “style upon style”, “undercurrent”, “afterthought” are all denoting a super-imposition of thoughts and feelings.

The treatment of time: further disorientation

“slept” is a reference to Gilead, to the past. “I thought” refers to a remote past, before Gilead. “I remember” is back to the past.

There is no linking between paragraph 1 and paragraph 2, which creates an impression of temporal disorientation.

Beyond disorientation, the reader is oriented towards certain conclusions

We can come to two conclusions when reading the text.

First, despite the feeling of disorientation, the narrator sets a contrast between pre-Gilead and Gilead.

In pre-Gilead, life is filled with a sense of humanity: “sweet”, “perfume”, “snow of light” are full of nostalgia and metaphors, in sharp contrast with Gilead where alienation, prohibition, military discipline and expectations prevail. There is an impression of distance from herself with the technical vocabulary. Gilead is a world of sufferings.

Second, we are given clues about Gilead to see clear through it. Gilead is a revision of pre-existing signs. It is based on reassuring signs that are perverted and manipulated as a way to deceive people.

The reader is warned not to be taken in. Aunts and Angels are a form of irony, they do not mean well. This naming invites the reader to be critical and not to take things for granted.

The construction of the narrative voice

The narrator as a fragmented persona: between the past and the present

Is the narrator lucid and disoriented for self-protection or is she brain-washed and lucid from time to time?

She sees everything through double-exposure: she sees simultaneously the present and the past (moments of escapism through memories).

The past for Offred is still alive in the back of her mind as it represents a means of enunciating herself, a movement back to her senses (“I could smell”) that shows a re-awakening of her senses and body, and a point of stability in the face of a disorienting present.

The past is a way to survive: she can see beyond the present when she does not wish to be.

It seems essential for her to relate this present to her past, in order not to forget it: her memories have to be kept alive. Thinking about the past in a kind of reconstruction/recreation of history is crucial [historiography]:

  • particularly the history of womanhood: “the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one-earring, spiky green-streaked hair” (7-9).
  • But also moments of fun (10-12) and of course, sexual activity (“the hands that were on us” (16); “lifting flesh” (18)).

Unable to bring mind and body together

Her body is not hers, it is Gilead’s possession. It is taken over by Gilead, an “object to be touched”.

Her mind is hers. Humans are turned into flesh or objects of fear. The use of passive forms show that human bodies are acted upon. The body is a currency belonging to the market.

Desire and fantasy (“yearning”), that is: establishing a mental or physical bond with something unreachable (“expectation, of something without a shape or name (…) something that was always about to happen” (13-15), “insatiability” (20)) is a sensation the narrator would not want to see “gone” like so many things in her present world.

In this light, the Angels / guards happen to be objects of the women‟s desire (33-36: “They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. (…) fantasy.”).

The women‟s yearning can be felt thanks to the use of free indirect speech (“If only they would look. If only we could talk to them (…) we thought”).

The women wish hard for an opportunity of seducing the men. NB: the Latin etymology for “seduce” is se-ducere, which literally means “lead elsewhere”: relating to them would be like escaping this world.

Using one‟s body to relate to people of one‟s own kind is also a necessity. As in every dictatorial society, it is tempting to go against the rules, but here dreaming about seduction or touching hands does not boil down to sheer provocation: it is vital.

Because their body is the only thing that still belongs to them (“We still had our bodies” (36); “In the semi-darkness we could stretch out our arms (…) and touch each other’s hands across space.” (37-39)).

The narrator’s ability to find ways of resisting the system of control

Dropping of clues

There is manipulation behind Gilead and the reader must read between the lines. The narrator is telling us how to read the novel.

The survival of her story (her past/memories) and history

Offred is enunciating herself: it is a form of resistance in a dystopian society. She needs to keep alive a personal and universal past.

The creation of a network of communication

There is a network of communication that is created between the narrator and the characters (37: “We learned to whisper almost without sound.”; 39: “We learned to lip-read”).

Uttering names / Naming aloud is a particularly strong means of resistance because it gives back to each woman her own identity and individuality: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” (42).

We can imagine that these women have been re-christened like the “Aunts” and that these names are their real ones, the last name, “June”, being very probably the narrator‟s name / the teller‟s name.

There is also another network of communication established between the narrator and the reader through codes and clues that the reader will have to decipher.

This naming is not only essential to the characters. For the reader it is a reminder of the basic nature of this text: a tale –with an oral quality –in which polysemy is the ultimate form of existence. The five names are given in free direct speech, as if we could hear each woman uttering her own name.

And onomastics here is essential to reach a further degree of comprehension: “Alma” is the Latin for “soul”; “Janine” comes from the Hebrew; “Dolores” is the Spanish for “pains”; “Moira” is the Greek for “destiny”; “June” is derived from the name of the month and can be related to spring and to the planets of the Solar System.

Each name seems to have been chosen on purpose: each relates to a reality of its own, outside the diegetic world.

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