lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Key Plot Points

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While we encourage your class to read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety, we understand that time is a constraint. These key plot points will help guide you to the most salient parts of the novel.

Offred Arrives at Her New Posting (Chapters 1–3): Offred, a Handmaid tasked with helping to replenish the population of the Republic of Gilead, has arrived at her third posting at the house of a Commander named Fred. The United States government has been overthrown by a group of ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christians who call themselves the Sons of Jacob. Women have been stripped of their rights and exist solely for reproduction as Handmaids or for domestic work as Marthas. If Offred cannot become pregnant by her new Commander, she will be declared an Unwoman and be sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste with people of color, dissenters, and other Unwomen. Offred believes that her current posting will be difficult because the Commander’s Wife is Serena Joy, a former lead soprano from a Sunday-morning religious television program. Serena Joy used to be a harsh critic of the American way of life.

Offred Goes Shopping with Ofglen (Chapters 4–5): Offred goes shopping with Ofglen, another Handmaid, because Handmaids are forbidden from going anywhere alone. As she leaves the house, Offred notices that Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, breaks the rules by winking at her. Offred and Ofglen, who seems to be a supporter of the Republic, walk into shops that include “All Flesh” and “Milk and Honey.” The shop signs only have pictures on them because women are not allowed to read. Ofwarren, a woman that Offred recognizes as Janine, enters one of the shops. Ofwarren is in the late stages of her pregnancy, and all of the Handmaids appear to be thrilled. However, Offred suspects that everyone is resentful. After finishing their shopping, Offred and Ofglen walk to the sidewalk and encounter a group of Japanese tourists. They notice the women’s short skirts, heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they can take a picture with Offred and Ofglen, but Offred declines because they must not appear immodest. One of the women asks if they are happy. Ofglen does not respond, but Offred responds that they are very happy.

Offred and Ofglen Visit the Wall (Chapter 6): Ofglen and Offred take the long way home, past an old church that was converted into a museum. Beyond the church is the Wall, which was once the boundary to the university. Now, it is rigged with barbed wire, floodlights, and sentries. It is also used to display the bodies of executed criminals. Several corpses hang from the Wall, each with a white sack over his head and a sign with the picture of a fetus. Offred observes that these men were abortionists. Gilead treats abortionists as war criminals even though abortion was legal before the Republic took over. Offred is surprised that she feels nothing for the men, other than a fascination with the blood that soaked through one of the bags in the shape of a grotesque smile. She remembers Aunt Lydia, one of the women charged with the education of new Handmaids at the Red Center, saying that everything about Gilead will soon become normal.

Men Begin Breaking the Rules (Chapters 7–10): Offred’s life as a Handmaid is dull and unfulfilling, though she relishes the time to herself in her bedroom at night. She thinks about her old life and imagines that she is telling her story to someone. She remembers when her daughter was taken from her, on the basis...

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that Offred was unfit to be the girl’s mother. She longs for her former freedom and takes pleasure in small infractions during her day-to-day life in Gilead. The men around her are subtly resisting the rules, too. After Offred returns from another shopping trip with Ofglen, Nick defiantly asks her about their walk. Offred does not respond, for they are not allowed to speak. Later, Offred discovers the Commander standing outside of her bedroom door, even though he is expressly forbidden from doing so. Offred is confused, wondering what his rule-breaking could mean.

Offred’s Doctor Offers to Impregnate Her (Chapter 11): Offred is accompanied by a Guardian to the doctor for her monthly appointment, during which she is examined for signs of pregnancy or disease. During her examination, the doctor declares that the Commander is infertile—a claim that is illegal because only women can take the blame for infertility—and offers to help Offred become pregnant. Offred is horrified because they would both be executed if they were caught. She is also terrified that the doctor might punish her for refusing his offer by declaring her to be infertile, thus dooming her to death in the Colonies. However, Offred is also terrified by the prospect of having a choice because women are not allowed to choose anymore. She casually declines, but the doctor encourages her to consider his offer and to let him help her next month.

The Ceremony (Chapters 12–16): Offred bathes, feeling uncomfortable with her nakedness because she is not used to seeing her own body. Offred used to think of her body as an instrument of pleasure, but now its sole purpose is reproduction. After bathing and eating, Offred must participate in the Ceremony. She meets the rest of the household in the living room, though the Commander is always late. When he arrives, he reads Bible passages that emphasize the importance of childbearing. Serena Joy silently sobs, and Offred remembers how recited recordings of the story of Rachel and Leah were frequently played to the Handmaids at the Red Center. She also remembers how Moira, her best friend, tried to fake an illness in order to escape the Red Center. She offered sex to one of the Angels, or male guards, in return for his help with escaping, but he reported her and she was tortured by the Aunts. The Ceremony continues in Serena’s bedroom. Serena lies on her back on the bed, and Offred lays between her legs with her head on Serena’s abdomen. The Commander has sex with Offred in an impersonal, rushed way, and then leaves the room. Serena tells Offred to leave even though Handmaids are supposed to lay down for ten minutes to increase the chances of conception.

Offred and Nick Kiss (Chapter 17): Offred returns to her bedroom after the Ceremony, but she cannot sleep. She removes a pat of butter that she hid in her shoe after dinner and applies it to her face, for Handmaids are not permitted to use lotion. She walks downstairs to the living room and decides that she will steal one of the dying daffodils. However, she quickly realizes that she is not alone. Nick is standing there in the dark—which is also forbidden—and they kiss. He tells her that the Commander wishes to see her in his office the next evening, though he does not explain why. 

Ofwarren Gives Birth (Chapters 18–22): Offred thinks of Luke and imagines him dead, in prison, or safely in Canada. She is trying to imagine every scenario so that she will never be caught off guard by the truth. She dreams about her daughter and awakens feeling deeply sad. During breakfast, a siren sounds; it is the Birthmobile, arriving to take Offred to Commander Warren’s house. Ofwarren, or Janine, is giving birth, and all of the Handmaids must be present. Offred wonders if Ofwarren’s baby will be deformed or be an Unbaby. Environmental toxins are common, and birth defects occur in 25% of babies. The Handmaids help Janine give birth by chanting. Meanwhile, Commander Warren’s wife lays in the sitting room and pretends that she is the one in labor. The baby appears to be healthy, and there is much rejoicing. After the birth, the Commander’s wife climbs into the master bed and takes the baby from Janine, who will remain with the family for a few months to nurse the baby before being assigned to another Commander. She will never be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies now. Offred asks another Handmaid about Moira, and the Handmaid says that she will look for her. Offred remembers how Moira escaped from the Red Center by causing a toilet to overflow, jabbing a lever from the toilet into Aunt Elizabeth’s ribs in order to force her to exchange clothes, and sneaking out of the Red Center with her pass. No one has seen or heard from Moira since her escape. 

Offred Begins Meeting the Commander in Secret (Chapters 23–26): Offred meets the Commander in his office and is surprised to find books on the shelves. They play two games of Scrabble, and before she leaves, the Commander asks for a kiss. She imagines killing him with a metal part from a toilet, but half-heartedly kisses him anyway. The Commander is disappointed, wishing that she would kiss him more enthusiastically. After returning to her room, Offred decides that she will thoroughly commit to her role as Handmaid and exploit the Commander’s rule-breaking. She remembers how Aunt Lydia insisted that men are so obsessed with sex that women can use sex against them. The Commander and Offred continue their secret meetings, during which they play Scrabble. Offred is even given old issues of Vogue to read. However, Offred feels uncomfortable having sex with the Commander during the Ceremony, both because it is so impersonal and because she fears that Serena might notice their changing relationship. Offred hates Serena and feels jealous of her, knowing she will only ever be the Commander’s mistress. 

Ofglen Reveals That She Is a Subversive (Chapters 27–28): After another shopping trip, Ofglen and Offred walk by store called Soul Scrolls, where little prayers are printed out on pieces of paper before being immediately recycled. Ofglen treasonously asks Offred whether or not she believes that God listens to prayers printed by the machines. Offred decides to trust Ofglen by being honest: she does not believe this. Offred and Ofglen realize that they can trust each other, and Ofglen reveals that she is a subversive.

Suddenly, a black van with a painted sign of the Eyes stops. Offred fears that their conversation was recorded, but a man with a briefcase is seized and driven away. Later, Offred remembers Moira’s disapproval of her affair with Luke, who was married when he and Offred began seeing each other. She muses that if she were Moira, she would be able to take apart the fan in her room and use the parts as weapons in order to escape. Moira knew that something awful was happening after the president was shot and the members of Congress were massacred. Gradually, the media was censored, roadblocks were established, and everyone was required to carry around an Identipass. Soon, women were no longer allowed to own money or use their Compucards. She was fired from her job at the library, too, because women were no longer permitted to work. She effectively belonged to Luke, and after the balance of power shifted in their relationship, she began to feel uncomfortable being intimate with him. She wondered whether or not he liked that she belonged to him. Now, Offred looks out of her bedroom window and sees that Nick’s hat is askew, which signals that the Commander wishes to see her tonight. She wonders what Nick gets out of enabling these meetings.

Offred Learns That the Commander Feels Guilty (Chapters 29–30): As Offred and the Commander become more comfortable with each other, Offred tries to glean information from him. She learns the Latin phrase carved into the closet floor in her bedroom means, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Offred suspects that the Handmaid who carved it learned the phrase from the Commander. She asks about what happened to that Handmaid. The Commander replies that Serena discovered their secret meetings, so the Handmaid hanged herself. Offred realizes that the Commander feels guilty and calls her into his office because he wants to give her some relief from her horrible life. She intends to exploit his guilt and asks for more information about “what’s going on” when he asks her what she wants. After she returns to her room, Offred sees Nick outside and feels the chemistry with him as they exchange a glance. She remembers trying to escape to Canada with Luke. Someone must have reported them, either a neighbor or the man who forged their passports. She lies alone, praying and contemplating suicide.

Serena Joy Suggests That the Commander Is Sterile (Chapters 31–32): Summer continues on, and still Offred is not pregnant. She and Ofglen see two new bodies on the Wall—a Catholic and another man labeled with a “J,” which they do not understand—and Ofglen tells Offred about the subversives. They use the word “Mayday” as a secret code, but Ofglen advises against using it often in order to avoid suspicion. As she returns home, Offred is summoned by Serena. Serena confides in Offred that the Commander must be sterile. Though suggesting male sterility is illegal, Offred hesitatingly admits that it is possible. Serena suggests that Offred have sex with Nick in order to try and get pregnant and offers to show her a picture of her daughter if she agrees. Offred, suddenly furious with Serena, says that she will try having a baby with Nick. Serena gives her a cigarette as a reward, instructing Offred to get a match from Rita, the Martha. When she is alone, Offred considers eating the cigarette and using the match to set fire to her room. She thinks about the last evening she spent with the Commander, who has begun to drink in her presence. Ofglen told her that the Commander is one of the regime’s top men, but Offred finds this difficult to believe. The Commander explains that Gilead was created in part because women were too easily available, so men were turned off and subsequently caused the birthrate to plummet. He says that “‘[w]e thought we could do better,’” but he seems to realize that they have failed. After Offred is in bed, she stares at the ceiling where the chandelier used to be—the chandelier from which the previous Offred hanged herself.

Offred and Ofglen Attend a “Prayvaganza” (Chapters 33–35): Offred and Ofglen are summoned to a women’s Prayvaganza in the university courtyard. A section of the courtyard is sectioned off for Handmaids, and chairs are organized for the Wives. Offred and Ofglen find a place in the back so that they can talk. Offred spots Ofwarren, whose baby turned out to be deformed, or a “‘shredder,’” after all. This baby is her second deformed baby. She will likely be sent to the Colonies. Offred remembers when, at the Red Center, Moira saw Janine hallucinating about being a “‘waitperson’” and speaking to an invisible customer. Moira slapped her to shock her back into reality so that she would not be executed for going insane. Offred observes that Janine appears to be close to insanity again. A Commander opens the proceedings of the Prayvaganza, a marriage ceremony arranged by the authorities for twenty newly-returned Angels and twenty veiled young women in white. Offred’s Commander insists that arranged marriages are better because no one is left out and women do not have to work or raise children alone. As Offred and Ofglen leave the Prayvaganza, Ofglen reveals that the subversives know about Offred’s meetings with the Commander and tells her to find out anything she can about Gilead from him. That night, Serena shows Offred a picture of her daughter, who looks alive and well. Offred realizes that her daughter probably barely remembers her, and while she feels relieved that her daughter is safe, Offred feels tremendous grief.

The Commander Takes Offred to Jezebel’s; She Briefly Reunites with Moira (Chapters 36–39): During another clandestine meeting, the Commander surprises Offred with a pink and mauve showgirl outfit with a sequined bodice and feathers. Such outfits were destroyed after Gilead was established, but the Commander instructs her to change clothes and “‘paint [her] face too.’” He turns away as she strips and slips into the skimpy outfit with poorly-fitted–high-heeled shoes. She puts on the cheap lipstick and mascara that he offers her but is so unused to applying makeup that she must redo it. They drive away and arrive at what was formerly a hotel. The central atrium is familiar to Offred and its fountain, glass-walled elevators, and vine-hung balconies remind her that she and Luke met here once. Many high-ranking Commanders are present, enjoying the company of scantily-clad women—prostitutes, who were once lawyers and sociologists and other professionals. The Commander leaves to fetch her a drink, and Offred is shocked to see Moira standing by the fountain, dressed in a Playboy bunny costume. Moira notices Offred, too, and gives her the Red Center signal to meet in the washroom. Moira tells Offred what happened to her after she escaped. She sought refuge among Quaker homes, one of which was part of the Underground Femaleroad that conveyed fugitive women out of the country. She made it as far as Maine but was arrested with the couple smuggling her to Canada. Moira was given the choice of going to the Colonies or becoming a prostitute at Jezebel’s, the name of the converted hotel. Moira advises Offred to become a prostitute, too, because she is given face cream and three or four years to live. Offred is disappointed in Moira’s resignation. She never sees her again, though she would like to think that Moira escaped or blew up Jezebel’s. She knows, however, that this is not true. 

Offred Meets Nick (Chapter 40): After returning from Jezebel’s, Offred waits, fully dressed, in her bed. At midnight, Serena Joy arrives and leads Offred to Nick’s apartment, over the garage. Offred then offers two narratives of her visit with Nick. In the first, they immediately make passionate love. In the second, they have an awkward exchange before retiring to Nick’s bed. Offred enjoys sleeping with Nick but feels guilty because Luke may be alive somewhere. Nevertheless, she returns to Nick’s apartment repeatedly, because she views it as a haven of safety.. She tells him she believes she is pregnant, but it may be wishful thinking. During their shopping trips, Ofglen encourages Offred to break into the Commander’s study to rifle through his papers. Offred says that she is afraid to do so, but in reality she has grown indifferent to the Commander because of her affair with Nick. Ofglen wants Offred to join the resistance, promising her that the subversives can help her escape if her life is in danger. Offred does not desire escape anymore, however; she just wants to be with Nick.

Offred Attends a Women’s “Salvaging” and a “Particicution” (Chapters 41–44): Offred and Ofglen join other Handmaids for a women’s Salvaging at the university. The three women who are to be salvaged sit on the wooden stage that has been erected in front of the former library. Aunt Lydia from the Red Center enters with two black-hooded Salvagers. A Salvaging involves the victim standing on a stool with a white bag placed over her head and a noose around her neck. The stool is kicked away, the victim struggles, and then finally goes limp. Offred has been to one other Salvaging, but this one is different. Aunt Lydia reads out the names of the women to be salvaged but does not describe their crimes to avoid encouraging copycat crimes. The Salvaging over, the Particicution begins. Two Guardians appear with a third Guardian, his face battered and swollen. Aunt Lydia says that he has been convicted of rape and, per Deuteronomy, is sentenced to being beaten to death. Offred feels the blood lust rising within her. The Handmaids attack, and Ofglen kicks the man hard in the head three times. Offred is shocked, but Ofglen curtly explains that the man was not a rapist; he was a member of Mayday, and she kicked him to put him out of his misery. After lunch, Offred leaves to meet Ofglen for their usual shopping trip. However, there is a new woman in her place. They pass by the Wall on their way back from shopping, and Offred attempts to test whether or not the new Ofglen is a member of the resistance by mentioning the word “Mayday.” The new Ofglen coldly advises Offred to forget such things, and Offred deduces that the new Ofglen is not a subversive but is aware of the meaning of Mayday. Before leaving Offred, the new Ofglen whispers to Offred that Ofglen saw an Eyes’ van coming for her and hanged herself because “[i]t was better.”

Serena Joy Discovers the Commander and Offred’s Secret Meetings (Chapter 45): Offred is horrified and deeply discouraged by the news of Ofglen’s suicide, though she is relieved that Ofglen’s death means that she cannot be tortured into giving up Offred’s name to the Eyes. Offred feels powerless and decides to do anything to stay alive. She heads for the back door of the house, but is confronted by Serena Joy holding the sequin showgirl costume that Offred wore to Jezebel’s. She declares that Offred is “[j]ust like the other one” and calls her a slut. Offred remains calm and returns to her bedroom. Nick, who witnessed the entire encounter, says nothing.

Offred Is Taken Away by the Eyes (Chapter 46): Offred waits in her room for the Eyes to arrest her. She feels “serene, at peace,” and repeats the phrase scratched on the closet floor: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” She considers setting the house on fire with the match she kept. She also considers hanging herself by tearing up her bedsheets and fashioning them into a rope, or going to Nick one last time. However, she hears the sound of a van approaching and knows that it is too late to do anything. She has missed all of her chances at rebellion or escape. Suddenly, her door opens and Nick is there, telling her that Mayday has arrived. Two men stand in the hall behind him. Nick implores her to trust him, and she decides that she will—though she has no other choice. She follows Nick and the two men downstairs as Serena Joy and the Commander hover in the front hall. The Commander looks distressed, and Offred cannot help but pity him. The two men show the Commander their authorization for Offred’s arrest, and then they drive away with her in the van.

Offred’s Story Survives in 2195 (Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale): The epilogue is a transcript of the Twelfth Symposium in Gileadian Studies, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in the year 2195. Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, who chairs the symposium, introduces the main speaker, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. He prefaces his talk, “Problems of Authentication in Reference to the Handmaid’s Tale,” with a rude crack about Crescent Moon. Gilead is long gone, and Offred’s story was told on thirty tape cassettes found in an old U.S. Army-issue footlocker in Bangor, Maine. The first couple of tracks on each cassette is music, but then Offred’s voice cuts in and she continues her narrative. None of the cassettes are numbered, so her narrative was pieced together with uncertainty. Professor Pieixoto explains that Offred’s trail ends in Maine and that there is no other record of her fate. Instead of treating Offred as an individual who was severely oppressed by Gilead’s regime, he presents her within the context of historical change and focuses more on identifying the Commander as either Frederick R. Waterford, who designed the Handmaid costume, or B. Frederick Judd, who masterminded the massacre of Congress and the idea of the Particicution. He offers no details about exactly how Gilead crumbled and advises historians against being too judgmental about Gilead’s regime, because the people in power were only trying to do their best to cope with falling birthrates and environmental deterioration. The audience of historians enthusiastically applauds his speech as he asks, “Are there any questions?”




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