The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future. The United States is now the Republic of Gilead, run by fundamentalist Protestant Christians. The lives of women are strictly controlled. In the first chapter, the main character, Offred, describes her new life under the regime. In the first chapter she recalls how the group of women in which she was placed slept in a former gymnasium at what was called the Rachel and Leah Center, also known as the Red Center. Two women in authority over them, who were known as Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth, patrolled the dormitory; they carried electric cattle prods to make sure the women were obedient. There were armed male guards, known as Angels, outside the building. The women were not allowed to talk to each other; they communicated in furtive whispers, and learned to lip-read each other's words.
In chapter 2, Offred describes the sparsely furnished room that has been allocated to her in the large, late-Victorian house she was sent to live in after she had been trained for her new role in the Rachel and Leah Center. Offred now lives in the household of the man known as the Commander, and his wife. Offred has been there for five weeks.
She puts on her long red uniform, complete with red gloves and wimple, which is the uniform all the women of her station, who are known as Handmaids, wear. She goes downstairs to the kitchen, where Rita the cook stands at the table making bread. Rita wears green, which is the color worn by all the women who do domestic work. They are known as Marthas.
Rita gives Offred some tokens with which to go shopping. Money in the old sense no longer exists.
Offred goes out the back of the house, through the garden, which is tended by the Commander's Wife. The Commander's Wife does not speak to Offred unless she cannot avoid it. Offred recalls the time they first met, when she was assigned to her current position. The Commander's Wife wore blue, as all commanders' wives do. It was a brief, chilly encounter, and Offred recognized the Wife as a former gospel singer named Serena Joy.
On her way out through the front gate, Offred sees one of the Guardians washing the Commander's car. The man's name is Nick. He lives in a room over the garage, but is considered low-status by the regime. He has not been assigned a woman. He winks at Offred, which she ignores. She knows he has taken a risk doing this, and she wonders why. She wonders whether he may be an Eye (an informer or a member of the secret police).
Offred goes to the corner of the road and waits to meet her companion, Ofglen, who is also dressed in red. The women in red are known as Handmaids, and they are permitted to go out only in pairs. Offred and Ofglen exchange remarks in a stilted, formal fashion. The women are not permitted to form friendships. They stop at an official barrier, where two young Guardians of the Faith inspect their passes. Then they move on.
Atwood plunges the reader into the world of the Republic of Gilead with no descriptive background. The society that Offred lives in has to be pieced together by the reader bit by bit as Offred goes about her new, restricted life, in which everyone has an assigned place in a certain category-Handmaid, Martha, Commander, etc. The narration is in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy to her experience. What happened in the past that led up to this situation is gradually explained in flashbacks that occur regularly throughout the book. The word "palimpsest" is useful to remember. It is used in the opening paragraph, as Offred describes the former gymnasium: "Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light." A palimpsest is a parchment or similar that has been written on several times. The previous texts have not been fully erased and are therefore still visible. Gilead can therefore be thought of as a palimpsest-under the structures it has imposed can still be seen the shapes and colors of the former society, which Offred recalls in flashbacks.
Because Offred's life is so circumscribed-there is nothing she is allowed to do except follow the stifling routine allocated to her-her narration revolves around her thoughts and feelings, her reactions to her situation, and detailed descriptions of the small world she inhabits (such as her detailed description in chapter 2 of the room she occupies).