Summary of the Novel
A revolution has replaced the government of the United States with the Bible-based Republic of Gilead, a theocracy. The novel is narrated by a woman of 30 or so who has been separated from her husband and young daughter, then sent to a brainwashing center. She is trained to be a Handmaid, obliged to serve any member of the hierarchy as birth-mother of his children.
She is now on her third assignment, having failed to become pregnant in her previous two, so her time is running out. If she does not have a child soon, she will become an Unwoman, exiled to clean up toxic waste in one of the Colonies until she dies in two or three years. Unwomen, like Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and other groups considered undesirable by the Gilead regime are not allowed in Gilead.
As Offred, the narrator is a “walking womb” whose only duty is to help maintain the declining white population. She spends most of her time alone in her bare room remembering her previous life, and desperately seeking some means of escape from her new one, including suicide.
Although everyone in Gilead is a potential informer, Offred does establish a bond with another Handmaid, Ofglen, and with her master’s chauffeur, Nick, with whom she has a secret affair. He arranges her escape via the Underground Femaleroad, which
supposedly can help her get to freedom in Canada. In the last chapter two men come for her and take her from her master’s house.
However, neither Offred nor the reader is sure if she is actually being rescued. Instead, she may be under arrest as an enemy of the state, and doomed to death.
This mystery is not cleared up in the “Historical Notes” that end the novel. These are concerned with a group of scholars in 2195 whose main interest is the study of Gilead as a historical phenomenon, not in the person Offred.
Estimated Reading Time
The Handmaid’s Tale is divided into 46 short chapters plus a postscript. It is also divided into 15 numbered and named sections (e.g., “Shopping” and “Waiting Room”). Except for the postscript chapter, the novel is told in everyday speech, although the narrator does use a number of new terms invented by the new regime (e.g., “Unwoman” and “Prayvaganza”). The narrator also frequently uses irony and sarcasm, so sometimes she clearly means the opposite of what she says.
Parts I, II - 1 hour
Parts III, IV - 1 hour
Parts V, VI, VII - 1 1/2 hours
Parts VIII, IX - 1 1/2 hours
Parts X, XI - 1 1/2 hours
Part XII - 2 hours
Parts XIII, XIV, XV, - 2 1/2 hours
The total reading time is approximately 11 hours.
The Life and Work of Margaret Atwood
The 1960s opened the most dynamic period in Canadian writing, much as the 1920s did for American literature. One factor behind this upsurge was a sense that during World War II, 1939–1941, Canada had come of age and played a major role in defeating the Axis powers. Also, the Canada Council of the Arts, started at the end of the 1950s, provided grants that allowed young writers (many of whom grew up during the war) the time to research and write their books. Meanwhile, the explosion of post-war immigration, primarily from Europe, gave Canadian authors a much increased body of sophisticated readers.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, in 1939, Margaret Atwood was part of this new wave of writers. She published her first book, The Circle Game, a collection of her poetry, in 1966, which won that year’s Governor General’s Award for poetry (these awards, affectionately called the GeeGees, are like the American Pulitzer Prize). The next year, Atwood was named writer-in-residence at Montréal’s Sir George Williams University, the first of a series of such posts that allowed her to work almost full-time at her craft.
Because her father was an entomologist studying the insect life of Canada’s forests, Atwood spent her childhood in a variety of places in northern Ontario and Québec before studying for her B.A. at the University of Toronto and her M.A. at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. For the next few years, with her series of writer-in-residence posts, Atwood continued to live a semi-nomadic life. She seems to have thrived on it as a writer, publishing roughly a book a year since that time, although she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, and their daughter Jess have lived north of Toronto since the 1980s.
Atwood published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, and has become far more widely read as a novelist than as a poet. She continued to publish poetry, however, as well as two studies of Canadian writing, a book of history, and a number of children’s books. In addition, she was one of the founders of the Writers Union of Canada, a lobby group, and served a term as its president.
Her childhood experience of northern Canada’s long, harsh winters and enormous spaces, and her own rootlessness during those years, are themes that appear in virtually all of her novels and in much of her other writing . These themes are evident in her literary study, Survival (1972) and her poetry book The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). (Moodie, whose 1852 book Roughing It in the Bush is a Canadian classic of pioneer life in what was then a British colony, dwelt on the isolation and loneliness of settler life.) Atwood’s female protagonists, who frequently narrate their novels, live lonely and sometimes fearful lives in hostile environments, struggling to discover their identities and to assert themselves, with mixed results. They usually have to make some compromise with the world around them, rather than winning a clear victory, but they survive.
Most of Atwood’s novels are set in the contemporary world. However, in Alias Grace (1996) her title character is a very young woman accused of aiding in the murder of her employer in mid-Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Alias Grace is based on an actual murder in 1843 and the subsequent trial. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) Atwood projects a futuristic world of reaction and repression—and of virtual enslavement for women.
Nineteen hundred sixty-three was a revolutionary year for women around the world. The birth control pill became generally available, making it possible for women to lead active sex lives without a strong chance of pregnancy. That year, too, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, telling women, especially American women, that their lives were far more narrow and stifling than they should be. So the era of modern feminism began.
Of course, there had been many strongly independent women long before then. [They fought for decades for suffrage, a right most women in the U.S. and Canada weren’t granted until the end of World War I (in Utah and Manitoba they won it much earlier)].
Friedan and the birth control pill revitalized the movement enormously, activating it in schools and universities, legislatures, businesses, and churches, with major success.
However, no revolutionary movement succeeds unopposed. The new feminism attracted many enemies, creating a reaction that was vocalized by women as well as men. Sometimes this reaction was couched in religious terms, in the idea that God had ordained men to be masters in the home and in religion—in fact, in every aspect of life. Some saw feminism as a threat to conventional morality and traditional family structure, and they were frightened and angry. Some men saw it as a threat to their own jobs.
Parallel in time to the rise of this new feminism was the development of television evangelism, usually of a very simplistic and conservative kind, with millions of believers sending in many millions of dollars to support “the good work.” Probably the most popular of these was The PTL Club (Praise the Lord) hosted by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, until their involvement in financial and sexual scandals resulted in Jim’s disgrace, trial, and imprisonment.
This American phenomenon of televised fundamentalist evangelism was matched by fundamentalist movements (some of which became increasingly militant and often violent) in several of the world’s major religions including Hinduism, Islam, and various Christian denominations.
The most vivid example is the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, which brought to power the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his crusade against Western “pollution” that included freeing women from their traditional role as wife, mother, and housekeeper. Many saw the new Islamic Republic of Iran as a reversion to the Middle Ages in its quest for a rigid, scripture-based society. Others saw it as a way of curbing the moral decay of a society that indulged itself with alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity.
In the United States, religious fundamentalism became increasingly politicized, first in the “Moral Majority” and then in the “Christian Coalition,” whose representatives strove to take control of local school boards, in particular. They also ran for public office, from small-town mayor to the U.S. Congress and Senate, with Reverend Pat Robertson vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1988. Millions saw this as the only way America could regain its sense of direction and its soul.
However, millions of others saw it as an assault on the U.S. Constitution itself, especially the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and the tenet that there must be no established (i.e., dominant, state-supported) religion in the United States. This war of ideas continues today.
All these things went into Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, her “what if” book. What if the religious right went beyond elections and staged a revolution, a coup d’état, and established an American government that replaced the Constitution with the Bible as its source of morality and law? What if it were as rigid and intolerant as Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran? How could it take place? What would life be like under it, especially for women?
The Twentieth Century has had more than its share of brutal repression: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, etc. These dictatorships have used similar methods to control their people and destroy opposition. Atwood imagines her Republic of Gilead using many of these same methods, and even adding a few new ones of its own.
Atwood also looks at the increasing degradation of the world’s environment: the pollution of its water, land, and air, which is having increasingly disastrous effects on human and animal life. Deserts are growing at a fearsome rate; rain forests are being demolished; greenhouse gases are causing global warming that results in melting glaciers, rising sea levels, climate changes, and the endangerment of species. Illegal or poorly managed toxic waste dumps are polluting groundwater, poisoning farm families’ wells, and ruining land. Nuclear waste, with a killing life of hundreds or even thousands of years, is being produced each and every day, creating an increasingly threatening disposal problem. While Atwood’s previous novels dealt with women searching for their identity, this book’s protagonist has been stripped of hers. Her bank account has been frozen by the new state, and she loses her job since the new state forbids women to have a career. Her husband and her young daughter have been taken from her. She is even dispossessed of her own name; instead, she had become merely Offred (of Fred, Fred’s possession), named for the man to whom the government has temporarily assigned her, and she will be renamed for the next man to whom she is assigned. This is Gilead’s reaction to feminism and to the problems that plagued U.S. society in the years prior to the revolution.
Master List of Characters
Offred—narrator, former library-worker, separated by the authorities from her husband, Luke, and their five-year-old daughter; now Handmaid to the Commander.
Luke—Offred’s husband, perhaps executed; Offred often thinks of him, remembering their past happiness as an escape.
Their daughter—unnamed; taken away from her parents and adopted by an establishment family.
Offred’s mother—ardent feminist and single mother, rumored to have been exiled to Gilead’s Colonies to die.
Moira—Offred’s friend since college, a lesbian and ardent feminist, who escapes the Re-education Center (Red Center), but ends up as a state prostitute at Jezebel’s.
Commander—formerly in marketing research, he helped create the Republic of Gilead and is one of its rulers, but is intrigued by Offred.
Commander’s wife (alias Serena Joy)—once a soloist of a TV evangelism show, then a strident critic of American society; now arthritic and miserable, she is jealous of Offred.
Nick—Guardian and the Commander’s chauffeur, he has a secret affair with Offred.
Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Sara—guards at the Red Center.
Aunt Lydia—in charge of Handmaid-trainee indoctrination at the Red Center.
Ofglen Number One—Offred’s grocery-shopping partner, who is involved in the underground Mayday organization and who tells Offred of its existence.
Ofglen Number Two—replacement for the first Ofglen; she keeps her distance from Offred.
Ofwarren—once named Janine, and a pet of the Aunts, she is the only Handmaid shown becoming a mother.
Ofcharles—a Handmaid who is hanged at a Salvaging ceremony for unknown crimes.
Professor Maryann Crescent Moon—the chair of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies.
Professor James Darcy Pieixoto—the main speaker at the symposium.
Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
In the late years of the twentieth century, Protestant Fundamentalists, with the tacit approval of the military, have assassinated the president and the Congress, suspended the Constitution, and established the Republic of Gilead. Under the new regime, women have no rights: They cannot hold jobs, they are not permitted to have money or property, and they have no public role. Since the birthrate has fallen, men in high positions, if their own wives are barren or are past childbearing, are assigned “Handmaids” from a pool of trained women who have already borne children. The only function of a Handmaid is to conceive and bear her master’s child, based upon Rachel’s command to Jacob in the Bible: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go...
(The entire section is 715 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Dire explorations of future societies, dystopias, have usually been written by and about men. What future hell awaits women? Margaret Atwood asked, after surveying major news stories of the early 1980’s: industrial pollution, surrogate parenthood, AIDS, conservative backlash, televangelism, and oppressive regimes in Argentina and Iran. The Handmaid’s Tale is her imaginative answer. In this bleak narrative, the government of the United States has been overthrown by the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy based on total conformity and reactionary Christianity. With human fertility reduced, by toxic pollution, to crisis point, the fecund womb is now Gilead’s most valuable resource. Consequently, it has been nationalized. A...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Handmaid’s Tale begins near Boston in the mid-1980’s. A faction of right-wing Christians establishes a dictatorship after killing members of the United States government. The result is Gilead, an ultraconservative country that denies women power. Women are unable to hold jobs, use credit cards, or seek education. Also, massive pollution exists due to nuclear and biological warfare. Radioactive territory, known as the Colonies, becomes the home of Jews and of other minorities, because the new government wants only to propagate members of their own sect. Essentially, Atwood has created a dystopia which stands in direct opposition to an ideal world or utopia. Atwood drew upon research about present-day trends in...
(The entire section is 778 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Set in the near future, a time just prior to the year 2000, The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction but also an indictment of the present, since Atwood’s future is the reader’s present. It is an atypical Atwood novel, her only novel not rooted in Canada and the only one to be so blatantly propagandistic. In it, she fulfills the promise of her narrator protagonist in Lady Oracle (1976): “I won’t write any more Costume Gothics. . . . But maybe I’ll try some science fiction.” Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction” because of the blending of future and present and maintains that all the events in the novel have a “corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact.”...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sometime in the past, Protestant fundamentalists assassinate the U.S. president and the Congress and set up a theocratic regime called the Republic of Gilead. In this totalitarian state, women are under the domination of men. They cannot hold jobs, own property, or have bank accounts in their own names. Nor are they allowed to read or write. Forced into the role of Handmaid, Offred is stripped of her own name and called by her master’s name, Fred, preceded by “of.”
Pollution and nuclear accidents make sterility a problem in Gilead (though officially only women could be sterile). Fertile women who are political dissidents or who are in marriages considered outside the law of the church, such as second marriages...
(The entire section is 910 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 - Summary
Offred: a newly assigned Handmaid, and the narrator
Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Sara: guards at the Re-Education Center, armed with electric cattle prods
It is night at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heartland of the Republic of Gilead. The Center, housed in a former high school, is where young white women are prepared for their role as replenishers of the population, Handmaids. On her army cot in the dormitory, once the school gym, Offred muses about what the room must have been like before Gilead.
She thinks about the basketball games played here, and how it must have looked decorated for school dances: the excitement, the...
(The entire section is 3210 words.)
Chapters 7-12: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7 - Summary
Moira: Offred's feminist friend from college
Offred's mother: single mother and ardent feminist
Offred's unnamed daughter
Offred lies on her bed, feeling this time is her own; there are no signal bells, nothing to stop her reveries. She can let her thoughts drift back to the happier past.
She recalls working on a term paper, and Moira suggesting they go for a beer, which they do, with Offred’s money.
Then she remembers a demonstration her mother took her to as a child. A crowd of mostly women was throwing magazines on a bonfire. A woman urged Offred to throw a magazine on the fire and she did. She glimpsed at some of the...
(The entire section is 2682 words.)
Chapters 13-18: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 13 - Summary
Remembering when she could walk through art galleries, Offred recalls certain nineteenth-century paintings of Oriental harems, calling them pictures of “suspended animation, about waiting,” precisely what her life is now.
This reminds her of reading about “pig balls,” toys made for pigs to play with, to overcome their boredom as they are fattened for the slaughter. She also remembers learning in a college psychology course about rats that would give themselves electric shocks to have something to do. Clearly, she can relate to both of these.
She wonders if the Handmaid-trainees at the Red Center were drugged to make them so lethargic. How else could they have endured...
(The entire section is 2324 words.)
Chapters 19-24: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 19 - Summary
Offred dreams that she awakens in her former home and opens the bedroom door to find her daughter running toward her, open-armed. She wonders if this, and dreams like it, are just dreams, or if perhaps it’s her present life that is the dream, a nightmare from which she’ll soon awaken. But she fights the temptation to believe her present life is the unreal one, for her sanity tells her otherwise, and her sanity is the one thing she still possesses.
Awake, she sees the FAITH cushion and speculates that there must have been companions embroidered with HOPE and CHARITY, but what has become of them? Perhaps Serena Joy, ever neat and thrifty, has put them in Rita’s and...
(The entire section is 2507 words.)
Chapters 25-30: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 25 - Summary
Offred is awakened by a scream and a crash. Finding Offred asleep on the floor, half in the closet, Cora had thought her dead, a suicide, and in her shock has dropped the breakfast tray. If she brings a second breakfast, she will have to explain what happened, so Offred says she wasn’t really hungry and will make do with the toast, still edible. Cora says she will pretend she dropped the tray and broke the dishes on the way out of Offred’s room; Offred is pleased that Cora will lie for her.
Soon Offred visits the Commander two or three nights a week, whenever she is signalled by Nick. On the second visit, they again play Scrabble, then he offers her a treat: a glimpse at an old copy...
(The entire section is 2331 words.)
Chapters 31-40: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 31 - Summary
It is July fifth, and Offred now has a lighter-weight version of the Handmaid gown. On another shopping trip she and Ofglen find two new corpses hung on the Wall, one a Catholic wearing a placard with an upside-down cross, the other marked with the letter J. Since Jewish corpses bear a yellow star, Offred wonders what this J stands for: Jehovah’s Witness, perhaps, or Jesuit. All religions except Gilead’s official one are banned.
They pass what once was Memorial Hall, where undergraduates ate in the early days of the university. Moira had told her that women were forbidden to enter; if they did, they were pelted with buns. She doesn’t like Moira’s holding a grudge over something...
(The entire section is 4021 words.)
Chapters 41-46 and Historical Notes: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 41 - Summary
Offred apologizes for her story’s fragmentary nature, its pain, and lack of resolution. She says how hard it is having to relive these events and suffer her devastating boredom, but she is determined to hide nothing. She is even determined to honestly relate the part of her story in which she claims she does not behave well.
She says she chooses to return to Nick’s room on many evenings. Although their affair is very dangerous, she still views his apartment as a haven of safety “where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside.” She tells him her real name and confides in him about everything except Luke and the previous Offred. Nick tells her little about himself....
(The entire section is 3688 words.)