Because Margaret Atwood’s purpose is to provide as much detail as possible about her imagined new country, the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are not provided with strongly individualized personalities. Offred reports on her experience in detail, but she has been an ordinary person before the changes brought about by the religious revolution. The daughter of an activist in the women’s movement, she has gone to college, worked at a clerical job, and fallen in love with Luke, a married man; after his divorce, they marry and have a daughter. After their attempt to flee, Luke disappears, the daughter is taken from her, and Offred is sent to a school run by “Aunts,” who train the surrogate-mothers-to-be in their new responsibilities.
The Commander is at first a menacingly shadowy figure, but he becomes more human as he invites Offred to participate in forbidden intimacies. He tries to win Offred’s affection, since he gets none from Serena Joy, and he does so by offering Offred forbidden enjoyments: skin lotion, access to books and magazines which were supposed to have been destroyed, and information she is ordinarily denied. As she perceives, he wants to make her his mistress, an outdated conception in this society. In the end, he dresses her up in a skimpy costume and takes her to a former hotel in Boston, now a brothel for the powerful and for foreign visitors, where he shows her off and tries to make love to her. He mistakenly believes that he is too powerful to be subject to the puritanical rules of the society, and he indulges in his desire to make more personal his relationship with Offred; as an epilogue shows, he is sure to be purged soon after Offred’s departure from his household.
Serena Joy is a bitter woman. Before the revolution, she had occupied an important position as a singer and lecturer, urging women to be subservient and to stay at home; now that her message has become law, she has lost her status, and with no children to occupy her, she spends her time tending her garden and consorting with other officials’ wives. She is cruel to Offred, and even when she seems to act kindly in preparing to arrange the tryst between Offred and Nick, it is clear that she refuses to see Offred as a person.
The other characters are less developed. Ofglen is no more than a whispered voice giving Offred information and some hope, before she gives herself away and commits suicide so that she will not betray others when tortured. Moira is a defiant friend from college days who escapes from the Handmaids’ training center and winds up in the brothel. Janine is a Handmaid who tries to escape by denying the reality of the present; she becomes Ofwarren, bears a child which is in some way unsatisfactory and which is “shredded,” and completely loses touch with the world. Rita and Cora are “Marthas,” servants in the Commander’s house, older women beyond childbearing age who might wish to sympathize with Offred but cannot risk being shipped to the “Colonies.” All these characters function to demonstrate the grievous restrictions imposed on women in Gilead.