The novel begins with the first-person narrator, Offred, describing the old gymnasium where she has been sleeping, and the sense of longing and loss in the atmosphere. The room feels layered with long-gone emotions of high school dances and romance. She and other women sleep on army-issue cots while Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth keep watch, carrying cattle prods.
The book’s first image emphasizes the way that memory and old emotions sprout up through the strict new world order. But Offred won’t answer all our questions right away, describing the scene without explaining.
Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth aren’t allowed to have guns, the narrator explains. The guards outside, specialty members of a group called the Angels, have guns, but they aren’t allowed to enter, just as the women aren’t allowed to exit except for two walks per day.
Right away, Offred shows the importance of hierarchy and gender roles in this society. As bad as the Aunts are, there’s something worse waiting outside.
Offred, like the other women, wishes that she could speak to the guards, longing for some “deal” with them that she could make with her body.
Offred’s sole power is located in her body, which she knows the men will still respond to.
Though Offred and the other women aren’t allowed to speak to each other, they manage to draw each other’s attention and quietly whisper at night, when the Aunts aren’t looking. They tell each other their names, including Janine and Moira.
The women assert their memories and their personhood by rebelling, in an act as simple as telling each other their names.