Plot structure in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is basically chronological with many flashbacks interspersed throughout.
One distinct feature of the plot is that the story begins in media res, or “in the middle of things.” Offred tells her first-person experience as a handmaid in the newly established Republic of Gilead, a Christian totalitarian regime that has replaced the United States government in a coup d’etat. The reader only gets details of what happened leading up to the overthrow of the government as Offred weaves her story. She also includes flashbacks of her life before and during the revolution.
The larger narrative at work, however, traces Offred’s illicit relationship with Fred Waterford, or the Commander, which he creates by letting Offred play Scrabble and read in his study. In addition to the main plot, Offred begins an affair with Nick, the Commander’s driver, and becomes involved with the Mayday resistance.
The combination of chronological organization with numerous flashbacks creates a tapestry of sorts. The various pieces of Offred’s life are intricately woven together to form both a comprehensive and intentionally limited view of her life.
In addition, Atwood’s inclusion of an epilogue that explains Offred’s story in a future academic study reframed the narrative as historical record. This new dimension of meaning makes Offred’s tale more realistic and powerful because it is posed as fact.
Atwood uses numerous plot devices and structures to create a portrait of a woman living in a world without basic human rights.