Summary of the Novel
A revolution has replaced the government of the United States with the Bible-based Republic of Gilead, a theocracy. The novel is narrated by a woman of 30 or so who has been separated from her husband and young daughter, then sent to a brainwashing center. She is trained to be a Handmaid, obliged to serve any member of the hierarchy as birth-mother of his children.
She is now on her third assignment, having failed to become pregnant in her previous two, so her time is running out. If she does not have a child soon, she will become an Unwoman, exiled to clean up toxic waste in one of the Colonies until she dies in two or three years. Unwomen, like Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and other groups considered undesirable by the Gilead regime are not allowed in Gilead.
As Offred, the narrator is a “walking womb” whose only duty is to help maintain the declining white population. She spends most of her time alone in her bare room remembering her previous life, and desperately seeking some means of escape from her new one, including suicide.
Although everyone in Gilead is a potential informer, Offred does establish a bond with another Handmaid, Ofglen, and with her master’s chauffeur, Nick, with whom she has a secret affair. He arranges her escape via the Underground Femaleroad, which
supposedly can help her get to freedom in Canada. In the last chapter two men come for her and take her from her master’s house.
However, neither Offred nor the reader is sure if she is actually being rescued. Instead, she may be under arrest as an enemy of the state, and doomed to death.
This mystery is not cleared up in the “Historical Notes” that end the novel. These are concerned with a group of scholars in 2195 whose main interest is the study of Gilead as a historical phenomenon, not in the person Offred.
Estimated Reading Time
The Handmaid’s Tale is divided into 46 short chapters plus a postscript. It is also divided into 15 numbered and named sections (e.g., “Shopping” and “Waiting Room”). Except for the postscript chapter, the novel is told in everyday speech, although the narrator does use a number of new terms invented by the new regime (e.g., “Unwoman” and “Prayvaganza”). The narrator also frequently uses irony and sarcasm, so sometimes she clearly means the opposite of what she says.
Parts I, II - 1 hour
Parts III, IV - 1 hour
Parts V, VI, VII - 1 1/2 hours
Parts VIII, IX - 1 1/2 hours
Parts X, XI - 1 1/2 hours
Part XII - 2 hours
Parts XIII, XIV, XV, - 2 1/2 hours
The total reading time is approximately 11 hours.
The Life and Work of Margaret Atwood
The 1960s opened the most dynamic period in Canadian writing, much as the 1920s did for American literature. One factor behind this upsurge was a sense that during World War II, 1939–1941, Canada had come of age and played a major role in defeating the Axis powers. Also, the Canada Council of the Arts, started at the end of the 1950s, provided grants that allowed young writers (many of whom grew up during the war) the time to research and write their books. Meanwhile, the explosion of post-war immigration, primarily from Europe, gave Canadian authors a much increased body of sophisticated readers.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, in 1939, Margaret Atwood was part of this new wave of writers. She published her first book, The Circle Game, a collection of her poetry, in 1966, which won that year’s Governor General’s Award for poetry (these awards, affectionately called the GeeGees, are like the American Pulitzer Prize). The next year, Atwood was named writer-in-residence at Montréal’s Sir George Williams University, the first of a series of such posts that allowed her to work almost full-time at her craft.
Because her father was an entomologist studying the insect life of Canada’s forests, Atwood spent her childhood in a variety of places in northern Ontario and Québec before studying for her B.A. at the University of Toronto and her M.A. at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. For the next few years, with her series of writer-in-residence posts, Atwood continued to live a semi-nomadic life. She seems to have thrived on it as a writer, publishing roughly a book a year since that time, although she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, and their daughter Jess have lived north of Toronto since the 1980s.
Atwood published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, and has become far more widely read as a novelist than as a poet. She continued to publish poetry, however, as well as two studies of Canadian writing, a book of history, and a number of children’s books. In addition, she was one of the founders of the Writers Union of Canada, a lobby group, and served a term as its president.
Her childhood experience of northern Canada’s long, harsh winters and enormous spaces, and her own rootlessness during those years, are themes that appear in virtually all of her novels and in much of her other writing . These themes are evident in her literary study, Survival (1972) and her poetry book The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). (Moodie, whose 1852 book Roughing It in the Bush is a Canadian classic of pioneer life in what was then a British colony, dwelt on the isolation and loneliness of settler life.) Atwood’s female protagonists, who frequently narrate their novels, live lonely and sometimes fearful lives in hostile environments, struggling to discover their identities and to assert themselves, with mixed results. They usually have to make some compromise with the world around them, rather than winning a clear victory, but they survive.
Most of Atwood’s novels are set in the contemporary world. However, in Alias Grace (1996) her title character is a very young woman accused of aiding in the murder of her employer in mid-Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Alias Grace is based on an actual murder in 1843 and the subsequent trial. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) Atwood projects a futuristic world of reaction and repression—and of virtual enslavement for women.
In the late years of the twentieth century, Protestant Fundamentalists, with the tacit approval of the military, have assassinated the president and the Congress, suspended the Constitution, and established the Republic of Gilead. Under the new regime, women have no rights: They cannot hold jobs, they are not permitted to have money or property, and they have no public role. Since the birthrate has fallen, men in high positions, if their own wives are barren or are past childbearing, are assigned “Handmaids” from a pool of trained women who have already borne children. The only function of a Handmaid is to conceive and bear her master’s child, based upon Rachel’s command to Jacob in the Bible: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Fertile women who refuse to become Handmaids are killed, sent to illegal but officially tolerated brothels, or sent to the “Colonies,” to work on toxic-waste disposal. Handmaids are deprived of their names and are known only “of” their masters’ names: Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, and so on.
Offred’s story covers a spring and summer during which she fails to conceive a child by the Commander. Her only duties during this period are to shop daily for groceries in state-controlled stores and to present her body at regular intervals for nonerotic sexual intercourse with her master; in these episodes the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, is present, holding Offred between her knees. In the Republic of Gilead, sex is officially sanctioned only for the purpose of reproduction. Handmaids are required to wear long, red dresses, veils, and wimples; they can communicate with one another or with other people only about the necessities of life.
Because there is so little to occupy her time, Offred has plenty of opportunity to think about her past life, especially about the daughter who was taken from her and given to an official’s family to be reared, and about Luke, who was probably killed when they unsuccessfully tried to escape to Canada. On her shopping trips, she and Ofglen must go together; a Handmaid cannot pass the frequent checkpoints alone. They make a regular practice of passing “The Wall,” where the bodies of those hanged for crimes against public morality or the state are suspended from hooks as warnings and examples; Offred looks for Luke on “The Wall,” but she has not found him. Because of the boredom and degradation of their lives, Handmaids are tempted to attempt suicide and are therefore denied access to sharp objects or any other possible means of ending their own lives; if they misbehave, however, they may be hanged by the state.
Serena Joy hates Offred for usurping part of her wifely role, although she remains ignorant, for a time, of the illegal private meetings between Offred and the Commander, during which they play Scrabble or other games, and during which the Commander allows Offred to read forbidden magazines from earlier times such as Vogue, Mademoiselle, or Ms. Anxious that there be a child, Serena Joy arranges a single clandestine and illegal meeting between Offred and Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, hoping that this will result in the conception of a baby. Offred continues to go to Nick’s room, in secret; although she believes that she is betraying Luke, she cannot resist her reawakened sexuality. In the end, Nick helps her try to escape.
Escape has become a necessity. With Ofglen, Offred has attended a required public ritual, a “Salvaging,” at which two Handmaids and a Commander’s wife have been hanged for unspecified crimes. This ritual has been followed by another, a “Particicution,” in which the gathered Handmaids are encouraged to tear limb from limb a man they are told is guilty of rape. Ofglen is observed kicking him in the head to render him unconscious before the other women get to him; she whispers to Offred that he was a member of the underground. Ofglen hangs herself before she can be arrested, but as her companion, Offred is sure to be suspected and questioned. Nick arranges for what he tells her is a false arrest by men who will help her escape. The narrative ends as they take her away.