The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

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The Handmaid’s Tale is a 1983 dystopian novel by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. It won the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was nominated for the 1986 Nebular Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It was adapted into a film in 1990, an opera in 2000, and a television series in 2017. Some significant themes include the social and political control of women’s bodies, language as a tool of power, religious corruption, gender politics and feminist ideologies.

The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship which was formed inside the borders of a near-future New England, in the United States. First there was a staged attack which killed the President and most of Congress. The group responsible for establishing the Republic, a Reconstructionist movement called the Sons of Jacob, kill the president and most of congress, before launching a revolution and suspending the Constitution. They restrict women’s rights almost completely. This includes freezing women’s bank accounts so that they are economically dependent on men.

The Republic of Gilead consolidates its power by reorganizing society as a whole, using a militarized, hierarchal model of social classes. They enforce Old Testament-inspired values, which largely involves the denial of human rights, particularly for women, who are forbidden to read, have abortions, or use money.

The main character is a Handmaid named Offred (or “of-Fred”). Handmaids are women who act as living wombs for the ruling classes; bearing children for Wives who can no longer have children of their own. This is due in part to declining fertility rates worldwide, as a result of pollution and STIs. We meet Offred during her third assignment as a Handmaid; after a few years handmaids are relocated. Flashbacks to a time before the revolution gradually explain how the Republic came about, and describe Offred’s life before she became a Handmaid. In particular, she recalls her time with her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and their attempt to escape to Canada. Offred also describes the many new roles and social structures that make up life in Gilead, including the different classes of women, and the course of their daily lives in this new theocracy.

The Commander who is head of Offred’s household is an official of Gilead. He is only meant to have contact with Offred during “the ceremony”, in which they have sexual intercourse in the presence of the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, in order to conceive a child. However, shortly after her arrival, he attempts to establish a real relationship with her. He offers her contraband items, including books, makeup,and clothes. He meets her in his study where he lets her read. Serena Joy resents Offred; however she is eager to have a child so she arranges for Offred to secretly have sex with the Commander’s driver, Nick in the hopes that she will become pregnant. This arrangement puts Offred’s life at risk and, in exchange, Serena Joy tells Offred news about her daughter, who was captured when the family tried to escape to Canada.

Offred and Nick begin a kind of relationship, which she feels guilty about enjoying because she doesn’t know whether her husband is alive or dead.. She shares a lot of information with Nick, about her past and her husband. Another Handmaid, Ofglen, tells Offred about the Mayday resistance, a secret underground group that is planning to overthrow Gilead. However, Ofglen then disappears, and Serena Joy discovers Offred’s secret rendezvous with the Commander. Offred panics, and begins to seriously consider suicide.

The end of the story shows Offred being taken away by the secret police. They are called the Eyes, or the Eyes of God, and they put her in the back of a large, black van. Her arrest is orchestrated by Nick, who tells her that he is part of the Mayday resistance, and she must trust him. She isn’t sure if he is telling the truth, or pretending. She gets into the van, not knowing what the future may hold for her.

The novel ends with a metafictional epilogue. It explains that the events of the novel occurred in what is now known as “The Gilead Period”. This chapter is a partial transcript of what is being called “the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies”, which was written in 2195. The keynote speaker is someone named Professor Pieixoto, who, along with his colleague Professor Knotly Wade, discovered Offred’s story recorded on cassette tapes, transcribed them, and called them “the Handmaid’s tale”. This final chapter highlights and critiques the world of academia, as Pieixoto discusses and considers the different characters in the Tale. He and his team search for proof, but cannot confirm the tapes’ authenticity. After the collapse of the Republic of Gilead, it is implied that a more equal society was formed. It is not exactly what the United States of America had previously been, but the new society emerged with full rights for everyone, regardless of religion, sex, or race.