Getting to grips with The handmaid's TaleWatch
a) When and where is chapter 1 set?
b) Where is Offred in chapter 2
So I did what I have not done for a while. I scanned the whole novel and printed it out in A4 on a single sided page and then scrupulously went through the novel line by line. As a consequence I now see the novel in a new light and that is why I asked my two questions. So here is my interpretation of where these two chapters are set and what is the relationship between them.
Chapter 1 is not set in a prison, it is set in the Rachel Leah Centre. But this is not the centre as described in the sequel “Testaments.” This is the centre which was created immediately after Gilead was established. The founders prime motive - as described on page 316 was the need to create “birth services.” After the “President’s Day Massacre” - which is like the beginning of “Designated Survivor” the conditions were ripe for the creation of a new state: Gilead. Chapter 1 describes the initial attempts at “birth services” and the taking over of an abandoned school to house the girls rounded up. There must have been hundred’s of girls rounded up which explains the Aunts patrolling the gym. It also indicates just how many girls were rounded up in the early days of the centre. Professor Pieixoto page 316 points out that Offred was among these first girls to be rounded up. Hence why she is there. Through this chapter Margaret Atwood is emphasising just how nervous the officials must have been trying to control hundreds of captured girls against their will.
So what is chapter 1? It is a description of the first few days after Gilead has been established and the creation of Rachel Leah Centre to house and deal with these girls.
I now believe that between chapter 1 and chapter 2 is a very significant time break. Aunt Lydia worked at the centre and it is clear that she had a significant impact on Offred. Throughout the novel are comments such as “said Aunt Lydia.” It is implied Aunt Lydia was Offred’s main instructor but it also implies a relationship created between the two. Some of Aunt Lydia’s saying were clearly were for Offred’s ears only. the enormous collection of “said Aunt Lydia” is one indication of just how long Offred must have been at the Rachel Leah Centre before being assigned to her first house.
When I first read the novel I missed that there is a significant time break between chapters 1 & 2. I now know that the house that is the focus of chapter 2 and the majority of the novel is Offred’s 3rd home.
Therefore I now realise between these two chapters is a massive time break. But Margaret Atwood’s writing is so good we do not notice there is a time break at there .
It is impossible to define how long Offred stayed at the Rachel Leah Centre - for that is what chapter 1 describes: the early days of the Rachel Leah Centre. Later, like the other houses, the Rachel Leah Centre was later developed into a more habitable residence. But what chapter 1 describes are those early days of the Rachel Leah Centre and it was only able to be created because the United States Constitution had been suspended after the total annihilation of the entire United States government. Page 316 There is a real irony about chapter 1. Offred reflecting on what the initial Rachel Leah Centre was like comments that in a previous age when games were being played in the gym many girls would be watching those girls at play. The irony is that the idea of being watched by girls still happens - only this time it is not for enjoyment but to ensure security.
Chapter 2 describes Offred’s third home. When the novel opens up Offred has only been at this home for five weeks. Page 23. Though we do not know anything about Offred’s first home we are informed about her second. Asking Offred about her previous home Serena Joy refers to its commander as follows: “So old what’s-his-face didn’t work out, she said.” Page 24. Serena Joy is no friend of Offred’s however it is clear even to her that because, “old what’s-his-face” is the commander at Offred’s previous home Serena Joy is not surprised that Offred has left there and arrived at Commander Fred’s house.
So what is chapter 2 and where is it set? Chapter 2 introduces the setting for the rest of the novel. It is one of the breeding homes scattered across Gilead. However it is not Offred first home, it is her third one and she reached it quite a considerable time after her initiations at Rachel Leah Centre.