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 As she perceives, he wants to make her his mistress, an outdated conception in this society.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.
Offred, a Handmaid to Fred, one of the Commanders in the Republic of Gilead. Deprived even of her name, she is known only in reference to her master, as “of Fred.” Having already proven her fertility by giving birth to a daughter before the revolution, this thirty-three-year-old woman functions as a surrogate womb for Serena Joy, the infertile wife of the Commander. Other than her role as substitute womb, Offred has no standing in the community; she is a faceless entity, forced to wear a nunlike habit of red (for fertility), the headpiece of which prevents her from looking anywhere except straight ahead. Offred, like all women in Gilead except the wives of the Commanders, is allowed no recreation other than shopping for the household; thus, she spends many hours alone in her room staring at the walls. No women in Gilead are permitted to learn to read, nor are the Handmaids allowed to form friendships with anyone of either gender. Prior to the revolution, she had been a wife and mother, as well as working to support herself. Eventually, she forms quasi relationships with Nick and the Commander. Her one goal is to escape from Gilead and go north to Canada in search of her husband and child.
The Commander, Fred, one of the leaders of the Republic of Gilead, the husband of Serena Joy, the “owner” of Offred, and the employer of Nick. A conservative man caught up in the strictures of his country’s social, political, and moral system, he leads an empty life. Eventually, he turns to Offred for companionship, even though Handmaids should mean nothing to those in power. He plays Scrabble with her and gives her reading material, despite the injunction against women being literate. Eventually, he takes Offred to a club/brothel, where he has her dress like a prostitute. Even though he does not acknowledge it, Gilead’s ultraconservative structure has failed him on the most basic, interpersonal levels.
Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife and a onetime television evangelist. Like the other Commanders’ wives, she cannot bear a healthy child because of the toxic wastes, pollution, and fallout that have contaminated the globe. Serena Joy leads an idle life as a symbol of the Commander’s social rank: His power and status allow him to maintain an essentially useless person in relative luxury. Serena Joy is neither the Commander’s friend nor his companion; marriage in the Republic of Gilead is a sham. Nor is she really a sexual being; rather, she only symbolically copulates with the Commander. It is the Handmaid, Offred, who receives his sperm and who would bear his child should she conceive. She encourages Offred to have sex with Nick and thus conceive a child.
Ofglen, another Handmaid, a companion of Offred and a member of the underground. She helps Offred to escape.
Moira, a college friend of Offred, a feminist separatist, and now a rebel in Gilead. Refusing to be co-opted by the system, she escaped from the Red Center, where women are trained to be Handmaids. She nearly made it to Canada before being caught and offered a choice: deportation to the Colonies or life as a prostitute. She now works in the brothel where the Commander takes Offred.
Offred’s mother, an early feminist who favored the right to abortion. Offred’s mother reared her as a single parent and taught her daughter to value herself as a woman. Offred’s mother is now a prisoner in one of the Colonies, where women who will not bend to the system in Gilead are sent.
Aunt Lydia, one of the women in charge of training the Handmaids at the Red Center. She is a cross between a mother superior and a prison warden; it is her responsibility to teach women how to behave. She and the other Aunts essentially brainwash Handmaids into accepting their role as captive possessions by telling them that, if they willingly sacrifice their wombs, future generations of women will be free.
Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur and, later, Offred’s paid lover. He is an uncultured member of the working class whom, unbeknown to her husband, Serena Joy pays to have sex with Offred so she will conceive a child that Serena Joy and the Commander can claim as their own.
Luke, Offred’s husband before the revolution that brought the Republic of Gilead into existence. Offred believes that he and her daughter managed to escape to Canada, where they are alive and well. Despite Offred’s eventual escape from Gilead, her reunion with them is never confirmed in the novel.