57 pages 1 hour read

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has received numerous accolades and prizes and remains widely critically celebrated. Set in what used to be the United States but is now a repressive theocracy called the Republic of Gilead, it is narrated by the protagonist, Offred, who recounts her daily experiences intercut with memories of her life before the revolution and during her training to become a “Handmaid.”

Content Warning: The source material and this guide contain instances and discussions of misogyny, abuse, rape, assault, and suicide.

Handmaids are fertile women who have been imprisoned and indoctrinated by the regime and, in response to drastically-low fertility rates, are forced to bear children for the higher-ranking members of Gilead’s society. Offred is assigned to the Commander and his Wife, Serena Joy, along with two domestic staff known as Marthas and Nick, the Commander’s driver. Like them, she lives in the Commander’s house and has to follow the strict rules and regulations, remaining quiet and servile and always wearing her red Handmaid’s uniform, with a winged bonnet obscuring her face. The name, “Offred,” like those of all Handmaids, comes from the Commander’s first name, indicating that she belongs to or is “of Fred.”

Once a month, when she is most likely to conceive, Offred has to undergo the Ceremony. Taking its precedent from a Bible story in which Jacob’s wife tells him to impregnate her maid as she herself cannot conceive a child, the Ceremony involves Offred lying in Serena Joy’s lap and holding her hands while the Commander has perfunctory, passionless intercourse with her. Any child Offred conceives will be considered to belong to the Commander and Serena Joy.

As Offred goes about her restrictive, limited life, she frequently thinks about the time before Gilead overthrew the American government. She had been married to Luke, a man with whom she had previously had an affair. They had a daughter together. When Gilead took over, the regime curtailed women’s autonomy, making it illegal for them to work and transferring their money to a male relative.

Offred and Luke attempted to flee to Canada with their daughter but were caught. Offred was taken to the Red Centre to be trained as a Handmaid by the Aunts, officious women armed with cattle prods. The Aunts insist that Handmaids are respected and protected in Gilead, in a way they had not been in the sinful and dangerous society before the revolution. Offred does not know what happened to Luke or their daughter. While Offred is at the Centre, her old friend Moira is also brought in for training. Radical and rebellious, Moira manages to escape, although Offred does not know what happens to her after that.

Two events break Offred’s routine. A fellow Handmaid, Ofglen, reveals that she is a member of a secret underground organization working to undermine Gilead. Offred is relieved and excited that she is not alone. The other interruption comes when the Commander, against all protocol, tells her to come to his study. There, they play Scrabble, and he allows her to read a magazine, both of which are illegal, as women in Gilead are banned from reading and writing. At the end of the evening, he asks her to kiss him, and she complies. Offred soon starts secretly coming to the Commander’s study regularly. He lets her read his illicit collection of books, and she grows comfortable in his presence, despite the oppressive foundations of their relationship. At his request, she kisses him goodnight at the end of each evening.

Because Offred has still not become pregnant, Serena Joy suggests that the Commander may be infertile, a scandalous thing to say, as in Gilead, only women are considered capable of infertility. She proposes that Offred have sex with Nick in order to conceive a child. That evening, the Commander surprises Offred by giving her makeup and a garish outfit and taking her out to Jezebel’s, a secret brothel where the Commanders spend time, and have sex, with prostitutes, revealing the hypocritical foundations of their puritanical understanding of sexuality.

Offred discovers Moira living at Jezebel’s, surviving as a prostitute. She is shocked that the friend she has always seen as indomitable has also given in to Gilead’s demands. The Commander takes Offred to a private room and initiates sex, deluding himself that this is something that Offred actually wants. Offred struggles to fake any engagement with the act. Later that night, Serena sends her out to Nick’s room above the garage, where Offred has far more passionate sex with Nick. She begins regularly sneaking out to sleep with Nick and quickly becomes consumed by this relationship. Although Ofglen asks her to spy on the Commander for the resistance, Offred ignores her, not willing to lose her new relationship with Nick.

When the Handmaids take part in the brutal execution of a man accused of rape, Ofglen fights her way to the front and kicks the man in the head before the others can tear him apart. When Offred confronts her about this, Ofglen explains that the man was not a rapist but part of the resistance and she knocked him unconscious to spare him from the pain of being mobbed to death. Perhaps because of this, Ofglen is suddenly replaced by a new woman who is also called Ofglen, because she is assigned to a Commander named Glen. While on a walk, this Ofglen tells Offred that the previous woman hanged herself when she saw a black van coming to take her away.

When Offred returns home, Serena confronts her about the trip to Jezebel’s, and Offred knows that she is in serious danger. A black van pulls up outside, and Nick enters her room. He claims that the van is actually part of the resistance movement and has come to save her. She is led out, past the frightened Commander and furious Serena Joy. Offred does not know whether the van will take her to freedom or to prison and death, but she has little choice but to go with them.

The novel ends with “Historical Notes” purporting to be a lecture from a symposium of Gileadean Studies from the year 2195, revealing that Gilead does not last and, eventually, becomes a source of historical study. The professor giving the lecture explains that the story was found on cassette tapes that the narrator likely recorded after she escaped.