In 'The Handmaid's Tale' how does Atwood use the first chapter of the novel to establish setting, themes, character?

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In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ how does Atwood use the first chapter of the novel to establish setting, themes, character?

Through language and symbolism, Atwood has utilised the first chapter to sufficiently establish the major themes of the play and set the reader into the dislocated scenario Offred is in now.

The phrase “what had once been the gymnasium” seems to suggest and symbolise quite a lot about the society of Gilead in respect that what it “had once been”. Although this is not clear due to the mysterious confusion, shrouding the reader in the first chapter, in hindsight, this disfigurement of the gymnasium – a place of fun for the “the games”, “dances”, “music”, or more accurately, social freedom – into something that cannot even be named, but only put in relation to what it “had once been” suggests that the society of Gilead to be just as indescribably horrendous. Moreover, Atwood’s revealing that the U.S. being no longer in existence through her description army-issue blankets which were “old ones that still said U.S” further conveys Gilead’s oppressive nature; Atwood seems to suggest that the society of Gilead is a deviation from U.S.A which was a representation of democracy and justice for all. Gilead’s rejection of democracy and social freedom is exemplified through the structure of the army cots which are “set up in rows, with spaces between” so that the women cannot talk – clearly conveying the organised oppressive society present at the time.

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Atwood emphasises this theme of oppression by describing the gymnasium as it had “once been” in a list like style; clearly illustrating the image of freedom which the girls in “mini-skirts”, “pants”, then “one earring, spiky green-streaked hair” represent, and which the narrator can now only know “from pictures”. Atwood further emphasises these lost times, by appealing to the senses of the human body, which vivifies the lost images and also sets the foundation for us when we realise that even the fundamental senses of the body are denied from the maidens.

With oppression, leads to the suppression of women ...

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