The narrator, as yet unnamed, describes sleeping in an old high school gymnasium that still smells of the men and women who used to inhabit it. She thinks of the games that used to be played there, and the high school dances that were held within its walls. She remembers what it was like to be a girl in a school like this one, and associates it with sexual encounters that were never quite like one had imagined they would be. Now, she sleeps alongside other women in the gym, in army cots with spaces between them. At night, Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Sara patrol with cattle prods they will use if anyone misbehaves. They do not have guns, because only the guards outside have guns. Those guards are objects of fear, but they also seem like the only possible means of escape. Though it is forbidden, the women learn to communicate, whispering anything they can think of to say late at night, without moving their heads.
Time passes, and the narrator is in a different room. She goes over its contents in her head: a chair, a table, a lamp, a place where a chandelier used to hang, a window that opens part-way, a ragged rug on the floor. She wonders if every room like this is exactly the same. Aunt Lydia said to "think of it as being in the army." There is a bed, which is only for sleeping. The narrator tries not to think too much. She wants to last. She must appreciate what she has. She is alive. A bell rings, and she puts on her red gloves that complete her nun-like gown of blood red. Everything she wears is red, except for the white wings around her face, which block as much of it, and as much of her vision, as possible. She leaves the room, goes downstairs, and goes to the kitchen. Rita, their "Martha", is in the kitchen making bread; her dress is green. She gives the narrator three tokens, with pictures of the things they are to be exchanged for.
The narrator thinks about how much she wishes Rita or Cora, the other Martha, would speak to her. She has heard them talking about her; Cora is more sympathetic, but she heard Rita say that "she wouldn't debase herself like that." She wishes she could stay and talk to Rita and Cora, even though she used to hate that kind of chit-chat. She even wishes to hear the gossip she knows gets passed from house to house, gossip of dead babies and suicides, mostly. But such a thing is not allowed, and they will not risk it. She takes the tokens and goes outside, walking through the Commander's Wife's garden. Many of the Commander's Wives have gardens - gardening gives them something to do. When the Commander's Wife is not gardening, she is often knitting something, supposedly for the troops, but the pattern seems wrong. The narrator envies this woman her knitting, and wonders why this woman seems to envy her in return.
She remembers meeting the Wife for the first time five weeks ago, when she arrived from her last posting. Her other Guardian brought her to the door, and she was surprised when the Wife, rather than the Martha, opened it. The Guardian put down her bag and left. The Wife told her to come inside and then walked away, leaving her to carry her bag. She followed the Wife, as indicated, into the sitting room. She did not sit, and waited as the Wife lit a cigarette. She realized that there must be a black market of some kind, for cigarettes are technically not allowed. The Wife commented that her last placement did not work out, and the narrator told her that this was her third placement. The Wife told her to sit down, just this once.
The narrator thought that there was something familiar about the Wife's face, with its blond hair, plucked eyebrows, and small nose. The Wife told her she wanted to see as little of her as possible. Once again the narrator was disappointed, for she had foolishly hoped that this time the Wife might be kind, might have some sympathy for her situation. The Wife reminded the narrator that her husband was hers, "Till death do us part." The narrator agreed, realizing that she sounded like a pre-programmed doll. The narrator thought about how the Wife was allowed to hit her, though only with her hands, because there was Scriptural precedent for doing so. She remembered where she has seen her before: when she was a little girl, she sometimes watched the "Growing Souls Gospel Hour." One of the singers was a woman called Serena Joy, who could "smile and cry at the same time." This woman, the narrator realized, was Serena Joy.
Now, the narrator walks through the garden and through the gate. She passes one of the Guardians, Nick, who is washing the car. She knows he is of low status because he hasn't been issued a woman. He winks at her, and she wonders why, since it is very dangerous to flirt with her. He might, she fears, be an Eye. At the corner, she waits. She used to be bad at waiting, but Aunt Lydia taught her how. She sees a woman approaching who is dressed like her and carrying a basket. When they meet, they peer at each other until they are certain they are correct in their identification. They greet each other with the proper phrases - "Blessed by the fruit," "May the Lord open" - and walk towards the shops. Handmaids must always move about in twos, supposedly for protection, but really so that they can always be spied upon.
This woman has only been the narrator's partner for two weeks. She does not know what happened to her last one - that is not a question they like to ask. Her name is Ofglen, and so far the narrator cannot tell if she is a "real believer" or not. They speak about the few subjects that are not taboo, commenting on the weather and successes in the war. Ofglen always seems to know things that she does not, and the narrator wonders where she gets her information. They reach the first barrier, and the narrator knows that above them are searchlights and men with machine guns. They show their passes to two men in the green uniforms of the Guardians of the Faith. These two Guardians, the narrator notes, are very young. The narrator remembers hearing that last week two Guardians here accidentally shot a Martha who was fumbling for her pass. They were afraid that she had a bomb.
When one of the Guardians returns the narrator's pass, he tries to look at her face, and she lets him. It is these small acts of defiance that help her make it through each day. For a moment, the narrator imagines coming to him at night, peeling off her clothes. She knows that they must imagine such things, as well, for they never see anything but the Commanders, their blue-gowned Wives, their white-gowned daughters, the occasional Birthmobile, or a black-painted van with a winged eye on the side. Those drive through without stopping, for the Guardians do not have the authority to look inside. She knows that the men are probably too afraid to imagine such things. They must focus on being promoted and eventually, perhaps, being allowed to marry and have a Handmaid of their own. As she walks through the gate and past the men, the narrator sways her skirts a little. She is momentarily ashamed of this use of her power, but then realizes that she is proud of this tiny victory, all the same.
Now outside the Commander's compound, the narrator and Ofglen continue to walk. They pass beautiful old houses where doctors, lawyers, and professors used to live. She remembers when she and Luke walked these same streets, fantasizing about buying one of these houses. As they continue walking, the streets become a bit more crowded: they see Marthas, other Handmaids, and Econowives. The Commanders' wives are always transported from place to place in cars. She remembers the way it used to be, how women thought about things like not running alone at night and never opening the door to a man, even one who said he was a policeman, without first checking. She remembers when she had her own money, her own job. Then, as Aunt Lydia said, she had "freedom to"; now, she has "freedom from."
They pass the store where they order their dresses. It is called "Lilies of the Field", but the sign has no words on it - only the image of a Golden Lily. The government, it seems, decided that even the lettering found on shop signs was too tempting. She remembers that there used to be a movie theater where the shop now stands. They go to another store, Milk and Honey. They wait in line, and she notices that the store has oranges, which are hard to find ever since they lost Central America to the Libertheos. The customers standing at the counter hand over their tokens in exchange for their goods. No one really talks, but the people in the store snatch glances at each other, hoping to see someone they know. The narrator always looks for Moira, though she cannot imagine actually seeing her.
Two women come in, one heavily pregnant. The feeling in the air turns envious and angry. This woman does not need to be out and about; she is merely flaunting her good fortune. The narrator realizes that the woman is Janine from the re-education center, now renamed "Ofwarren". Next, the narrator and Ofglen go into All Flesh to buy meat. As she takes the chicken wrapped in paper, she thinks about how everything used to come in a plastic bag. She didn't like to throw them out, so she kept them all under the kitchen sink even though Luke worried the baby would choke on them. As they leave the store they see a group of Japanese tourists, perhaps a trade delegation. The narrator cannot help staring at them. The women's skirts only reach their knees, and they are wearing high heels and make-up. She remembers that she used to enjoy such freedoms. An interpreter comes up to the narrator and Ofglen and asks if they can take their picture. She looks down and shakes her head, "no". She listens to the interpreter talking to the group, and knows that he's telling them that the women in this country feel violated if their picture is taken. The interpreter asks them if they are happy, and the narrator says they are "very happy." There is nothing else they can say.
On their way home, Ofglen suggests they pass by the church and the narrator - whose name we now know is Offred - agrees. Offred thinks about the scenery that she knows lies beyond her vision, and the fact that the past seems entirely beautiful now, even though she knows that cannot be true. They pass the football stadium, where the men's Salvagings are held, and finally reach the church, as well as the thing they are really here to see: the wall. The wall has been there for hundreds of years, but now hooks have been sunk into it, and today there are six bodies hanging from the hooks - the remnants of a men's Salvaging. Their heads are covered with white cloths, but you can see the outlines of the faces underneath. Their white coats and the drawings of fetuses adorning them signify that the men were abortionists. Offred stares at them, trying to feel nothing, and knowing that she does feel nothing, because Luke was not a doctor and thus cannot be one of the hanging men. She sees the red and thinks of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden, holding on to the fact that there is no relation between the two things, no relation between the colors. She remembers Aunt Lydia telling them that this, too, would one day become ordinary.
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.
Offred's tendency to confuse and combine images expresses itself in multiple ways. When Offred looks at the bodies hanging on the wall, she sees the red blood seeping through one white hood, and is reminded of the red tulips growing in Serena Joy's garden. She must struggle to remember that "the red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not the tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other." This strange confusion, Offred's attempts to hold onto definitions and visions of the world, introduces the struggle that will dominate the novel. Offred's purpose is simply to survive. Not only must she follow the rules of this new society, give in to its demands, and accept her current function; she must also struggle to retain her clarity of vision. Her words and her choices have been stripped from her, and Offred's only hope for survival is to retain them in her mind, to cling to the language and the memories that link her to the past, even though it is that clinging which creates so much confusion. At this point in the novel, there is no question of escape. There is only the possibility, the hope, of surviving long enough for the world around her to change once more.
The reader's entry into this strange environment is so abrupt, yet so complete, that at first one hesitates to question the underpinnings of this world. The violence and control, the hierarchy of power, is so firmly established that one forgets to ask the questions "how?" and "why?" Offred is clearly completely helpless: she is trapped in a net of spies, soldiers, and informants. Though her Handmaid partner, Ofglen, may be as unhappy and desperate for understanding as she is, it seems likely that they will never discover their possible complicity. The punishments for transgressing are too severe, and the likelihood of being caught far too high, to risk any serious infraction. Just as the severity of this landscape begins to seem utterly implausible, a shift in perspective allows the reader to understand how logical the survival and strength of such a cultural system really is.
When Offred and Ofglen are confronted by the group of Japanese tourists and their translator, Atwood introduces the theme of moral and cultural relativism. A culture can only be judged within the paradigm of its own moral system. As the Japanese tourists stare at the Handmaids, Offred looks at their clothes: they seem foreign to her, an absurdity underscored by her recollection that such attire used to be referred to as "Westernized". Atwood seems to be critiquing the idea of relativism and arguing for the existence of some universal ethical system. The problem with relativism, she suggests, is that it offers outsiders no better method for judging the morality of a system than asking its participants whether they are happy - the technique utilized by these tourists. The problem, of course, is that Offred and Ofglen have no choice but to answer "yes" - they are too afraid of the repercussions of being truthful. Trapped by the rules and norms of their new "culture", they can think of no other possible response.