lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Extended Character Analysis

Offred is the narrator and protagonist of Margaret Atwood'sThe 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. 

Like a person at war, Offred just tries to survive day by day. This becomes harder for her for several reasons. One such reason is that she becomes wrapped up in the Commander’s secret world; which is a punishable offense if Offred is caught. Another reason that affect her survival is related to her emotions. Offred is emotionally compromised when she learns that her daughter is still alive, but inaccessible to her. Furthermore, when Offred is reunited with Moira, she sees the woman she idolized as a rebel has conformed to the system. Last, when Offred attends a Salvaging, she is appalled to see the brutality manifest in the other women around her. 

At the end of the novel, when Offred is taken by the police for supposedly being a traitor, she is uncertain if the police are real or if they are rebels in disguise. Resigned to her fate, she goes with them anyway, partly because she is weary of living in constant obedience and fear and partly because she has a cautious flicker of hope that, perhaps, she will be free.

Offred’s Beliefs About Gilead

Offred disdains the Gilead regime but hides her disapproval in fear of being deemed a traitor. Her priority is survival: She humors the Commander and Serena Joy, pretends to be more thoughtless than she actually is, and hides her true feelings, all to better her chances of staying alive.

Despite this, she secretly fantasizes about rebelling, about suicide, or about killing the Commander and Serena Joy. She recognizes the cruelty in forcing women to give up their own lives, independence, and families, but she doesn’t self-identify as a victim. She knows she made a choice, limited though it was, to become a Handmaid rather than go to the Colonies as an Unwoman. While she doesn’t have feelings for the Commander and doesn’t view their coupling as making love, she also doesn’t view it as rape or as simple copulation.

These feelings change once she starts sleeping with Nick. She cares about him and finds herself wanting to remain where she is so she can be with him. She feels ashamed of these thoughts but also takes pride in her actions. Her rebellion is personal; while it serves the purpose of rebelling politically in the sense that she’s disobeying the law, she’s also only doing so for her own pleasure, not for the betterment of the world or to help other people. 

Offred’s Family

Before becoming a Handmaid, Offred had a daughter with her husband, Luke. She misses them and remembers them frequently. Sometimes her memories are tinged with sadness, because she doesn’t know whether Luke survived their attempted escape, and she doesn’t know if her daughter, who was taken from her arms, is still alive. Other times, she recalls these memories and her past life bitterly, a defense mechanism to cope with the grief she feels and to stay focused on the present so she can survive her new life. 

Offred and the Previous Handmaid

Shortly after being assigned to the Commander’s house, Offred discovers an inscription in the floor in the closet: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She is fascinated by this phrase and wonders what it means. She spends hours thinking about the previous Handmaid, wondering what happened to her, and wondering why she wrote that phrase. When Offred learns from the Commander that the previous Handmaid took her own life, she wonders if she should do the same. She feels a connection to the woman even though they’ve never met. She is afraid to die and to succumb to hopelessness like the previous Handmaid, but she also wonders if the woman had the right idea in taking her own life before the government could. She wonders if death would be better than going on with an existence that only brings pain and lacks in human connection.

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