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The first section of the novel brings the reader into the world of Gilead with little background or explanation. The reader experiences the same sense of dislocation, the same conjunct of the familiar and the utterly foreign, that one can imagine Offred must have felt upon being thrown into this new world. The reader is immersed in the strange images and objects of this world: red dresses, gloves, and shoes, broken up only by white-winged headdresses; tokens for shopping; passes proving one's identity; hanging bodies from "Salvagings". The reader must also adjust to a new jargon that includes odd words such as "Guardians", "Birthmobiles", "Marthas", and "Econowives". Explanations are brief, and must be expanded based on conjecture and assumption. For the reader, as for Offred, the new rules and relationships do not take long to comprehend: though this world is foreign, its building blocks are disconcertingly familiar.
The narrative of the novel is based on this close alignment of the familiar and the foreign. Offred compares the high school gymnasium to a palimpsest, carrying layer upon layer of decades of the feelings and experiences of teenagers, but the comparison holds for Gilead, as well. Everywhere Offred looks, she sees the past layered upon the present. As she walks down the street she remembers looking at the same houses with Luke, imagining that they would someday buy one together. When she looks at a store, she remembers what used to stand in its place. Lilies of the Field, where they now buy their dresses, used to be a movie theater - something that is no longer allowed under the new regime. Though Offred's disjointed memories contrast the present and the past, they also bring them closer together. This world is not thousands of years in the future - towns have not been wiped of the map and replaced with modernistic, futuristic structures. Everything is different, but everything is also instantly recognizable; this is no distant, alien society with no relation to our own.