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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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The main characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are Offred, the Commander, Serena Joy, and Moira.

  • Offred is the novel’s narrator. After Gilead was established, she was separated from her husband and daughter and forced into service as a Handmaid for the Commander and his wife.
  • The Commander is a high-ranking member of the Sons of Jacob. He begins meeting with Offred in secret and giving her forbidden gifts.
  • Serena Joy is the Commander’s wife. Prior to the revolution, she was a singer and outspoken antifeminist.
  • Moira was Offred’s best friend. Once a Handmaid, she now works as an escort at Jezebel’s, a nightclub.

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As in her previous novels, Atwood has chosen a first-person female narrator for the story of the plight of a state "handmaid" reduced to a strictly biological destiny. The reader knows the narrator only as "Offred” in keeping with the Gileadean practice of renaming handmaids as the property of whichever commander they serve at the time (hence "Offred" literally means "of Fred"). Like other Atwood protagonists, Offred begins her narration in a state of psychic numbness, determined to keep from thinking about the nightmarish circumstances of her life. Having become a handmaid following a failed attempt to escape across the Canadian border with her husband and child (the former presumably now dead and the latter placed in an adoptive home with politically correct parents), Offred rejects the premises of the new order but attempts to comply with her captors' agenda. In her passivity, she serves as another of Atwood's studies in the psychology of victimization, and her slow renunciation of that stance creates the novel's central drama. In the course of the narrative she shows a growing willingness to risk rebellion on both emotional and political levels, despite the threat to her oft-voiced goal of survival. Offred cannot repudiate her emotional history, nor can she escape the tacit complicity of her generation in failing to challenge the patriarchal backlash against women's growing autonomy in the late twentieth century. But Offred also reveals herself to be an intelligent and reflective woman possessed of an ironic wit. She wryly traces the odd alignments of left and right-wing politics that made possible the oppressively intolerant Gilead. Ironically, the fundamentalist revolution has co-opted the feminist ideal of a female-centered "women's culture" to serve patriarchy's ends.

Offred is well aware that less compliant women offer alternatives to her own acquiescence. For example, her radical feminist mother (under whose rhetorical intensity she had often chafed "back there") is now condemned to a colony for "unwomen." Her college roommate Moira so aggressively resisted her assignment as a handmaid that, following torture, she has been posted to a high-class brothel, her sexual servitude mitigated by the freedom to live out her lesbian identity in "off hours." Finally, Offred personally witnesses the self-sacrifice of Ofglen, a handmaid whose participation in the Mayday Underground demonstrates the fatal lengths to which some women still go to resist Gilead's oppression.

Among the other factors that undermine Offred's fearful passivity is her Commander's restiveness within the desexualized culture he ostensibly upholds. Trading on his privilege, he recklessly seeks out Offred for "illicit" rendezvous where he provides her with "forbidden" relics of the past such as women's magazines and scrabble games, both of which violate Gilead's laws against female literacy. Susceptible to the predictable Achilles' heel of sexual appetite, the Commander gives Offred a renewed sense of female power, however problematical its terms. He even brings her to a brothel where the full measure of Gilead's hypocritical efforts to destroy unsanctioned (that is, non-reproductive) sexuality are exposed.

The marked bitterness of the most privileged females in Gilead, the Commanders' wives, further dramatizes the kingdom's shaky foundations. Serena Joy, Fred's wife, nationally prominent before the revolution as a Christian fundamentalist advocate of traditional gender roles, has succeeded so well in furthering her cause that she now finds herself relegated to the sidelines; her outrage at her own impotence rips through the idealized facade of her supposedly perfect life. Disabled by arthritis, her crippled condition bespeaks her emotional alienation. Unable to bear her own children, she is subjected to the humiliating necessity of employing a handmaid, whose copulating episodes with her husband she must grimly assist. Like Fred, she proves willing to subvert the prescribed order by arranging a secret affair between Offred and the Commander's chauffeur Nick, justifying this "treason" as a more practical route to pregnancy than reliance on the probably sterile Fred and thus a necessary move to ensure Offred's survival. But her discovery of the Commander's liaisons with his handmaid unleashes her full vindictiveness toward Offred, although she is not the agent who apparently betrays Offred to the authorities. The narrative climaxes with the arrival of a police van which takes the handmaid away as a gender traitor. In fact, through her lover's participation in the Underground, the possibly pregnant Offred is in fact rescued from the sure death that otherwise awaits her at the hands of Serena.

Nick's role in the novel is an ambiguous one. Although a male, he lacks the status of more powerful men like the Commander, indicating that other stratifications besides that of gender sustain Gilead's hierarchy. Forbidden to desire the women around whom he works, he too is victimized by the restrictive sexual gospel of the kingdom. Nonetheless, as a measure of their shared rebel impulses, he and Offred enter into a love affair that is simultaneously comforting, exhilarating, and dangerous. Some feminist critics regard Offred's infatuation with Nick as regressive, throwing her back into heterosexual thrall at the very time she should be moving toward greater autonomy and more overtly politicized behavior; others see it as a crucial step in her evolving recovery of self as well as a reaffirmation of the potential for healing male/female bonds beyond the power abuses of patriarchy. The outcome of the relationship approximates a fairy tale denied its happy ending. Nick rescues Offred and acts for her when she proves incapable of acting to save herself. He makes it possible for her to go into hiding; there, perhaps pregnant with Nick's child, she finds time enough to compose the audio tapes that provide historians with the raw material that becomes this "tale" of Gilead. Offred's own destiny beyond the history recorded on those tapes remains a mystery, however.


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Offred is the narrator and protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale. She grew up in a world before Gilead and remembers her mother as an outspoken feminist, the freedom she experienced during college with her best friend, Moira, and her life with her husband, Luke, and their daughter. After the Republic of Gilead was established, she was separated from Luke and their daughter.

As one of the few women able to bear children, Offred is coerced by the totalitarian regime of Gilead to become a Handmaid. She lives in the home of a high-ranking man, the Commander, and his wife, Serena Joy. Every month, she must allow the Commander to attempt to impregnate her. She does what is expected of her but secretly resents it, careful to never reveal her true feelings out of a strong sense of self-preservation. (Read an extended character analysis on Offred.)

The Commander

The Commander is one of the wealthy, high-ranking men who led the Sons of Jacob revolt and was instrumental in establishing the new conservative regime in Gilead. He is married to Serena Joy, a high-ranking woman, but since she is unable to have children, he takes a Handmaid, Offred, and copulates with her in an attempt to further the human race. 

At first, he takes little to no pleasure in this responsibility. After some time, however, he decides he wants to try to get to know Offred in order to make the Ceremony more pleasurable for himself. He summons Offred to him privately and asks her to play Scrabble with him and to kiss him. He begins secretly meeting with her regularly despite knowing this puts Offred in danger. 

He brings Offred forbidden presents, like a magazine and books. He takes pleasure in showing her parts of the world she thought were outlawed, but still survive for the rich and influential like himself to take advantage of. 

Though Offred attempts to explain the particulars of her situation and the restrictions she’s under, he doesn’t completely understand. Despite his involvement in the regime that restricted women’s rights, he wants Offred to live comfortably, mostly so she doesn’t take her own life like his previous Handmaid did. 

When he becomes more comfortable with Offred, he presents her with flashy, revealing clothes and takes her to a nightclub called Jezebel’s where there are drinks and prostitutes. He tells Offred that men have needs that can’t be met by only one woman and such establishments are necessary. He then takes Offred to a hotel room and has sex with her, the first time they do so alone. 

When police come to take Offred away, he challenges them at first, but then backs off and allows the police to drive her away.

Serena Joy

Before she was the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy was a singer, then a TV personality preaching the need for women to stay home; Offred remembers seeing her on TV. Before she became the Commander’s wife, several people attempted to assassinate her.

She cares for her husband, but acts possessively toward him and makes sure Offred knows her place around him. Serena may rank higher than Offred as a Commander’s wife, but Offred’s ability to bear children triggers Serena’s insecurity and jealousy towards this younger, fertile Handmaid. 

When Offred first comes to their home, Serena is curt and doesn’t trust her. Slowly, she warms up a little to Offred, mostly because she wants Offred to have a child for her. She confides in Offred that her husband might not be able to conceive and arranges an illegal rendezvous between Offred and Nick, so Offred can become pregnant by him. 

Her attitude toward Offred changes when she learns about Offred’s secret visits and outings with her husband. She feels betrayed by Offred. When the van comes to take Offred away, Serena Joy is furious at her treachery and sees it as an insult to her husband.


As the driver for the Commander and his wife, Nick is not supposed to have much contact with Offred, though he watches her and attempts conversation when she walks by. One night, he seeks her out to tell her that the Commander wishes to meet with her privately. 

After Serena Joy arranges for Nick and Offred to have sex in an attempt for Nick to impregnate Offred, the two begin having an affair. Nick’s feelings toward Offred are unclear, as Offred’s narrative about him varies. At one point, she says he has no feelings for her and wants their encounter to be strictly businesslike; at other times, she describes him as attentively listening to her as she tells him about herself and her life before. Whenever she sneaks out to be with him, he never turns her down. 

When police come to take Offred away, he convinces her to go with them, telling her that they’re part of the Mayday rebel group and that she needs to trust him. She wonders if he is an Eye, but goes with him anyway. His true motives are unknown.


Luke was Offred’s husband before she became a Handmaid. They had met when Offred was in college and Luke was still married to someone else. They had an affair, and two years later he divorces his wife to be with Offred. They got married and had a daughter together. 

Luke likes to tease Offred’s mother about her radical feminism, but she is in on the joke. When the new regime starts changing the laws so women can’t work or have their own money, Luke promises to always support Offred, though he doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. He thinks everything will return to normal.

When the family tries to escape to Canada, he is separated from the others. Offred doesn’t know if he survived or not. Sometimes she imagines he is dead, lying in a ditch somewhere; other times, she pictures him imprisoned and tortured. Sometimes she allows herself to hope that he has escaped and will rescue her someday.


Moira is Offred’s closest friend. They attended college together and often discussed feminism. Moira’s ideas about women’s rights are more radical than Offred’s. Moira is a lesbian and tells Offred that sex between men and women is never equal, because there is always a imbalance of power. Moira doesn’t approve of Luke at first, but later warms up to him.

When Moira and Offred are taken to the Rachel and Leah Center, they find ways to have secret conversations. They both hate the Center and the conservative morality imposed by the Aunts. Moira’s first attempt at escape doesn’t work, and she is punished by Aunt Lydia. 

Her next attempt is successful, though not for long. She ends up working as a prostitute at Jezebel’s, where she is reunited with Offred briefly. She doesn’t enjoy sleeping with men, but she justifies her position by claiming that she can still sleep with women and has more freedom than if she were a Handmaid or in the Colonies. Offred is disturbed to see that Moira has lost her rebellious nature and resigned herself to her new life, one that is known to not last longer than a few years. After that meeting, Offred never sees Moira again.

Minor Characters

Offred’s Mother

Though never named in the book, Offred’s mother plays a frequent role in Offred’s memories of her life before she became a Handmaid. Her mother had Offred when she was older, at age thirty-seven, and was an activist against the rising power of the Sons of Jacob. Later, Offred finds out from Moira that her mother was sent to work in the Colonies.

Offred’s Daughter

Offred’s daughter is never named in the book, but Offred frequently remembers her throughout the story. Offred had tried to escape with her daughter when the Sons of Jacob took power, but was forcibly separated from her. For part of the story, Offred doesn’t know if her daughter is still alive, but Serena Joy eventually shows Offred a photo of her in exchange for Offred to sleep with Nick and get pregnant. Offred regrets not being able to raise her.

Aunt Lydia

Aunt Lydia is tasked with training Handmaids and making sure they obey the law. She has more freedom than most other women in Gilead, because she is allowed to read and to punish disobedient Handmaids. She is cruel, maiming women like Moira who try to rebel, and pious, preaching to her trainees that women’s primary purpose is to bear children. She leads the Salvaging toward the end of the book.


Ofglen begins as Offred’s traveling companion, but later becomes her friend and confidante. She reveals to Offred that she is part of an underground resistance, and she and Offred share their mutual disgust for the Gilead regime. Later, her replacement Handmaid tells Offred that Ofglen hanged herself rather than be captured and punished for her treachery.


Janine is a Handmaid trained at the Rachel and Leah Center along with Offred and Moira. She was punished by Aunt Lydia for disobedience, but then becomes a favorite of the Aunt. She gives birth to a baby girl that later dies. Ofglen reveals that Janine was pregnant previously, but the baby was stillborn. Janine is unable to cope with the grief of losing two children and begins losing touch with reality. 


Rita is a Martha, an infertile woman who works for a living as a cook for the Commander. She thinks Offred is impure for “allowing” the Commander to copulate with her and avoids Offred when she can. She is usually curt with her.


Cora is a Martha and the maid in the Commander’s house. She and Rita frequently gossip together. She pities Offred and acts friendly toward her sometimes. Cora is extremely hopeful when Offred thinks she’s pregnant, because she has long been wanting a child in the household.

The Previous Handmaid

Before Offred, the Handmaid that lived in the Commander’s house hanged herself. Offred often wonders about her and finds rebellious mantras etched into the floor in Offred’s bedroom.

Professor Pieixoto

Professor Pieixoto is director of the Twentieth- and Twenty-first-Century Archives at Cambridge University in the year 2195. In the last chapter of the novel, he gives a lecture about Gilead and a document he refers to as “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He describes how it was discovered and questions the validity of parts of the narrative, saying they cannot be corroborated.

The Doctor

The Doctor gives Offred a checkup to make sure she is still fertile. He empathizes with her predicament as a Handmaid, telling her that the Commander is probably unable to father children. He offers to impregnate her himself, even though such an act is against the law. She refuses him.

Aunt Helena

Aunt Helena is one of the Aunts supervising the training of new Handmaids at the Rachel and Leah Center. When Janine speaks during Testifying about how she was gang-raped and had an abortion, Aunt Helena intimidates her into saying it was Janine’s fault for leading the men on.

Aunt Elizabeth

Aunt Elizabeth teaches Gyn Ed at the Rachel and Leah Center. She tells Offred and her companions that women are no longer allowed to give birth in hospitals with modern medical aids like anesthetics or pain medications, because it’s “better” for the baby and it means the mother has to suffer, like the Bible dictates. Aunt Elizabeth oversees the delivery of Janine’s baby when she is a Handmaid. When Moira escaped the training facility, she threatens Aunt Elizabeth and exchanges clothes with her in order to escape undetected.

Aunt Sara

Aunt Sara is one of the Aunts at the Rachel and Leah Center. She carries a cattle prod in order to punish disobedient Handmaids-in-training.

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