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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale Summary

The Handmaid's Tale is a novel by Margaret Atwood, which depicts a dystopian world where a theocracy has taken the place of the United States government, and women have lost all of their rights.

  • Offred is a Handmaid, responsible for producing children for her commander.
  • The commander, who is only supposed to engage with Offred during a controlled ceremony, starts spending time with her and giving her contraband substances. 
  • Meanwhile, the commander's wife arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick, her chauffeur, to increase the likelihood of a pregnancy.
  • Nick supposedly arranges for Offred's escape to Canada. However, Offred's fate is left ambiguous. 

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Last Updated March 4, 2024.

Introduction

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1986, is a profound dystopian narrative that explores themes of power, gender, and control within the oppressive regime of the Republic of Gilead. Through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid forced into sexual servitude in a desperate attempt to increase the population, Atwood presents a chilling vision of a future where personal freedoms are obliterated, and societal roles are rigidly enforced. The novel alternates between Offred's present experiences and her reflections on her past life and the events leading up to the societal shift, offering a stark examination of the dangers of extremism and the loss of individual identity.

Plot Summary

Offred's story unfolds in the Republic of Gilead, where she serves as a Handmaid to the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. In this totalitarian state, where environmental disasters have rendered many infertile, Handmaids are among the few women who can still bear children, making them valuable commodities to be assigned to elite men for procreation. Offred recounts her daily life, marked by strict routines and surveillance, as well as her memories of a past where she had a family, a job, and autonomy.

The narrative delves into Offred's interactions with other characters, including the Marthas (household servants), her fellow Handmaid Ofglen, and the Commander himself. Offred's visits to the market, her secret rendezvous with the Commander, and her reflections on her previous attempts to escape Gilead provide insight into the pervasive fear and control that characterize the regime.

Offred's past, revealed in flashbacks, contrasts sharply with her present. She reminisces about her life before Gilead with her husband, Luke, and their daughter, as well as her friend Moira's bold escape from Handmaid training. These memories highlight the sudden and brutal transformation of American society into the dystopian reality of Gilead, underscoring the loss of personal freedoms and the repressive nature of the regime.

As the story progresses, Offred's relationship with the Commander deepens, leading to unauthorized outings that reveal the hypocrisy and corruption within Gilead's leadership. Simultaneously, Offred's clandestine relationship with Nick, the Commander's chauffeur, offers her brief moments of intimacy and connection, contrasting with the mechanical and impersonal Ceremonies with the Commander.

The novel reaches a climax as Offred becomes involved with the Mayday resistance movement through Ofglen. Despite the risks, this involvement offers her a glimmer of hope for rebellion against the oppressive system. However, Serena Joy's discovery of Offred's secret meetings with the Commander leads to a betrayal that puts Offred's life in jeopardy.

The conclusion of Offred's tale is ambiguous. She is taken away by individuals claiming to be part of the Mayday resistance, leaving her fate uncertain. The novel closes with a futuristic epilogue that presents a scholarly conference analyzing Offred's story, which has been preserved on cassette tapes. This academic perspective offers a detached analysis of Gilead's society and underscores the enduring impact of Offred's narrative as a document of resistance and testimony to the human spirit's resilience.

Through The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood crafts a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism and the importance of fighting for individual rights and freedoms. Offred's story serves as a powerful reminder of the need to resist oppression and uphold human dignity in the face of tyranny.

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