The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. It is set in a near-future New England, in a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state, known as Republic of Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government.The central character and narrator is a woman named Offred, one of the group known as “handmaids”, who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the “commanders” – the ruling class of men.The novel explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society and the various means by which they resist and attempt to gain individuality and independence. The novel’s title echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories (such as “The Merchant’s Tale” and “The Parson’s Tale”)
After a staged attack that killed the President of the United States and most of Congress, a radical political group called the “Sons of Jacob” uses theonomic ideology to launch a revolution. The United States Constitution is suspended, newspapers are censored, and what was formerly the United States of America is changed into a military dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power, overtaking all other religious groups, including traditional Christian denominations. In addition, the regime reorganizes society using a peculiar interpretation of some Old Testament ideas, and a new militarized, hierarchical model of social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. Above all, the biggest change is the severe limitation of people’s rights, especially those of women, who are not allowed to read, write, own property, or handle money. Most significantly, women are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions.
The story is told in first-person narration by a woman named Offred. In this era of environmental pollution and radiation, she is one of the few remaining fertile women. Therefore, she is forcibly assigned to produce children for the “Commanders,” the ruling class of men, and is known as a “Handmaid” based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Apart from Handmaids, other women are also classed socially and follow a strict dress code, ranked highest to lowest: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids) in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives (the wives of lower-ranking men who handle everything in the domestic sphere) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarried girls in white; and widows in black.
Offred details her life starting with her third assignment as a Handmaid to a Commander. Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashbacks of her life before and during the beginning of the revolution, including her failed attempt to escape to Canada with her husband and child, her indoctrination into life as a Handmaid by the Aunts, and the escape of her friend Moira from the indoctrination facility. At her new home, she is treated poorly by the Commander’s wife, a former Christian media personality named Serena Joy who supported women’s domesticity and subordinate role well before Gilead was established. To Offred’s surprise, the Commander requests to see her outside of the “Ceremony,” a reproductive ritual obligatory for handmaids and intended to result in conception in the presence of his wife. The two begin an illegal relationship where they play Scrabble and Offred is allowed to ask favours of him, whether in terms of information or material items. Finally, he gives her lingerie and takes her to a covert, government-run brothel called Jezebel’s. Offred unexpectedly encounters Moira there, with her will broken, and she learns that those who are found breaking the law are sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste or are allowed to work at Jezebel’s as punishment.
In the days between her visits to the Commander, Offred also learns from her shopping partner, a woman called Ofglen, of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Not knowing of Offred’s criminal acts with her husband, Serena begins to suspect that the Commander is infertile, and arranges for Offred to begin a covert sexual relationship with Nick, the Commander’s personal servant. After their initial sexual encounter, Offred and Nick begin to meet on their own initiative as well, with Offred discovering that she enjoys these intimate moments despite memories of her husband, and shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. However, shortly after, Ofglen disappears (reported as a suicide), and Serena finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, which causes Offred to contemplate suicide.
Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterward, men arrive at the house wearing the uniform of the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as “the Eyes”, to take her away. As she is led to a waiting van, Nick tells her to trust him and go with the men. It is unclear whether the men are actually Eyes or members of the Mayday resistance. Offred is still unsure if Nick is a member of Mayday or an Eye posing as one, and does not know if leaving will result in her escape or her capture. Ultimately, she enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue, described as a partial transcript of an international historical association conference taking place in the year 2195. The keynote speaker explains that Offred’s account of the events of the novel was recorded onto cassette tapes later found and transcribed by historians studying what is then called “the Gilead Period”.