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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 1 : Night | Summary


The Handmaid's Tale has numbered chapters. Each chapter or group of chapters additionally falls under a section name such as "Night."


The opening chapter is in a section headed "Night"; six other sections have this name. Night gives the narrator an opportunity to reflect on her life.

The novel begins as an unnamed narrator, whom readers later will know as Offred, recalls living with several other women in an old high school gymnasium in the state of Gilead. She has just been forcibly separated by the government from her husband and daughter. She describes how the women sleep on army cots; she thinks about the contrast between the past and the future as two other women—Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth—keep guard with cattle prods. Not allowed to talk aloud with one another, the women communicate silently by reading one another's lips. Armed male guards called Angels are stationed outside the building, which is surrounded by a fort-like football field and barbed wire. Offred describes her longing that the Guards might look at or talk to her during her twice-daily walks with the other women, because then she might leverage her body in some kind of exchange.


The Handmaid's Tale opens with the immediate establishment of important themes in the novel: identity, liberty, and captivity. The fact that Offred begins the tale with no introduction, not even a name, suggests the theme of a compromised identity. The women have been stripped of their voices, the ability to tell their stories and claim their identities. The only communication takes place in silence through lipreading. The women are bound without liberty to the prison-like setting through weapons and force. In all ways, socially and physically, these women are captives.

The opening chapter also introduces the unique narrative style of the novel. The timeline is disjointed, forcing readers to piece together the story from details as they are revealed. This approach causes readers to struggle to hang onto the narrative of the story, just as Offred struggles to hang onto her identity through her complicated memories of the past.

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Questions for Chapter 1

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