The Handmaid's Tale Key Plot Points
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale book cover
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Key Plot Points

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 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...

(The entire section is 4,077 words.)