The Handmaid's Tale Summary

The Handmaid's Tale is a novel by Margaret Atwood, which depicts a dystopian world where a theocracy has taken the place of the United States government, and women have lost all of their rights.

  • Offred is a Handmaid, responsible for producing children for her commander.
  • The commander, who is only supposed to engage with Offred during a controlled ceremony, starts spending time with her and giving her contraband substances. 
  • Meanwhile, the commander's wife arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick, her chauffeur, to increase the likelihood of a pregnancy.
  • Nick supposedly arranges for Offred's escape to Canada. However, Offred's fate is left ambiguous. 

Summary

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Last Updated on June 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2007

Introduction

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. It is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian, futuristic version of the United States of America after the takeover of a totalitarian regime called the Sons of Jacob. Due to heavy pollution and radiation, fertility issues are common, and most women are unable to conceive. When they do, the infants often die or are malformed. As one of the few fertile women in Gilead, Offred is forced to copulate with a man of high standing in an attempt to propagate the human race. 

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The book contains two different types of narrative sections: 

  • Chapters focused in the present, where Offred details the events and daily lives of herself, the people she serves, and her acquaintances; and 
  • “Night” chapters where Offred, left alone to her own thoughts and memories, recalls her capture and conditioning as she was trained to be a Handmaid at the Rachel and Leah Center and happier memories of her life before, when she was free.

Plot Summary

When Offred begins her narrative, she is living as the Handmaid to an influential man, known as the Commander, and his barren wife, Serena Joy. As Offred plans for a trip to buy food, she gathers food tokens from Rita, the household cook, and Cora, the maid, both of whom are Marthas, a working-class group of women who cannot have children. The food tokens have pictures of what food items they can be exchanged for, because women are no longer allowed to read.

On her walk, Offred recalls the day five weeks earlier when she first met Serena Joy, who took an instant disliking to her. Serena made it clear that Offred has no claim to her husband and that his attempts to impregnate Offred are strictly a business transaction.

During her trip to buy food, Offred is accompanied by another Handmaid, Ofglen. In town, they come across tourists who do not have to follow the same strict rules and who try to take a photo of the Handmaids, which isn’t allowed. Offred and Ofglen pass the Wall, which is where criminals are hung for all to see.

Offred remembers her life before Gilead, growing up with an activist mother who spoke out against the conservatives. She reminisces about happier, freer times in college with her best friend, Moira. Offred doesn’t know if Moira is still alive.

Back at the Commander’s house, Offred examines all the features of the room she is staying in. Etched into the wood floor in a dark corner, she finds the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” She doesn’t know what it means.

Every month, Offred must be examined by a doctor to ensure she is still fertile. During one of her monthly appointments, the doctor offers to attempt to impregnate her himself, claiming most Commanders are too old or sterile to do so. This is an act punishable by death, and Offred refuses.

When she has time alone, Offred recalls a day years before she became a Handmaid when a woman tried to steal her daughter at the grocery store. She remembers when, in Handmaid training at the Rachel and Leah Center, she and Moira and other women were taught by Aunt Helena to believe that rape was their fault, women led men on, and men were like animals incapable of controlling their own sexual desires. She also remembers the day she tried to escape with her daughter, but was separated from her.

When the day of the monthly Ceremony arrives, Offred, Serena Joy, Cora, Rita, and Nick, the driver, gather to watch TV together. The news broadcasts propaganda about how well the war is going for the Sons of Jacob, how rebels of all other faiths are being tracked down by the Eyes, or undercover spies that police the people. 

When the Commander arrives, the Ceremony begins. He reads from the Bible a passage about Rachel and Jacob: Rachel couldn’t conceive, so she gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob to impregnate. Offred remembers when she, her husband, Luke, and her daughter tried to escape the regime, but were unsuccessful. She recalls when Moira tried to escape the training facility and was punished. 

As the Commander copulates with Offred, she lays on Serena Joy, which is a standard part of the Ceremony. When it’s over, Offred sneaks downstairs when she’s not supposed to and is confronted by Nick, who tells her that the Commander wants to see her tomorrow in private. Offred is shaken by this experience and hopes that Luke is still alive, part of the resistance, and will find a way to rescue her.

The next day, a Birthmobile arrives to take Offred and the other Handmaids to the house of a Commander whose Handmaid, Ofwarren (known before by Offred as Janine), is going into labor. A group of Commanders’ Wives attend as well. Janine gives birth to a girl.

Back at the Commander’s home, Offred remembers how Moira successfully escaped. She tricked Aunt Elizabeth and threatened her, then swapped clothes with her and tied her up. She used the Aunt’s passes to get across the barriers and disappeared.

Offred visits the Commander, as he ordered. He asks her to play Scrabble with him, which she does despite not being allowed to look at letters. He orders her to kiss him. When she returns to her room, she lays on the floor looking at the mysterious message etched there. In the morning, Cora sees her there, asleep, and thinks Offred has killed herself.

Offred’s visits to the Commander become regular, but she doesn’t understand why they matter to him. On a walk with Ofglen, the two women witness a man being captured by Eyes. Ofglen reveals that she is part of an underground resistance of women who are planning to rebel. Offred thinks back to when the Sons of Jacob began gaining control, when she and her female coworkers were all let go from their jobs and had their money taken from them, because it was the new law.

At her next rendezvous with the Commander, Offred asks him to translate the Latin phrase inscribed on her floor. He tells her it means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” He speaks of the Handmaid who lived with him before Offred; she killed herself. 

On their next walk, Ofglen reveals a secret password, “Mayday,” that rebel Handmaids use to identify each other. Later, Serena Joy bids Offred to help her with her gardening. She tells Offred that the Commander might not be able to have children and suggests Offred copulate with another man. Serena will arrange it so Offred and Nick can sleep together and says she won’t tell the Commander.

Ofglen and Offred attend a Prayvaganza event where young girls are married off. Ofglen tells Offred that Janine’s baby died. She also reveals that she knows Offred has been seeing the Commander secretly and presses her to report back anything of interest she hears from him.

In order to bribe Offred to do what she wants, Serena Joy briefly lets her see a picture of Offred’s daughter. Offred didn’t know her daughter was still alive and longs to be part of her life. 

During her next visit with the Commander, he gives her makeup and a revealing dress to wear. He takes her a club called Jezebel’s, where high-ranking men can have sex with prostitutes. Offred is surprised because she didn’t think such places existed anymore. 

There, she sees Moira, and the two reconnect. Moira tells Offred that after escaping, she stayed hidden for months by moving from safe house to safe house in an attempt to cross the border into Canada. She was captured, however, and given a choice to either work as a prostitute or be moved to the Colonies, where sterile Unwomen and Gender Traitors (people who are gay or not attracted to the opposite sex) live. This is also where Offred’s mother ended up. 

Moira, who is gay, says she is sometimes allowed to be intimate with other women—in order to sexually arouse her male clients. She feels she is better off than if she’d gone to the Colonies. After they part, Offred never sees her again.

The Commander takes Offred to a room and has sex with her, which she doesn’t enjoy. The next day, Serena Joy arranges for her to have sex secretly with Nick. This makes Offred feel as if she’s cheated on Luke, despite not knowing if he’s still alive.

Offred and Nick begin having a consensual affair. Offred finds herself happy for the first time in a while, and actually wants to stay and be with Nick. Her friendship with Ofglen weakens. 

One day, Offred and Ofglen attend a Salvaging, where women who have disobeyed and committed crimes are publicly hanged. One of the women is a Handmaid. Aunt Lydia oversees the procedure. Then, Guardians bring out a man, and Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids he is a rapist. The Handmaids are allowed to attack him, viciously. Ofglen knocks him out so he won’t feel it. She explains to Offred that he’s not a rapist, but instead is a man of the resistance. Janine also partakes in the violence. The grief of losing her child has worn her down and made her lose touch with reality.

The next time Offred meets Ofglen for their walk, it isn’t Ofglen, her friend, but a new woman who has taken Ofglen’s place. Offred tries to see if she’s in the resistance, too, but learns she isn’t. The new Ofglen says that the old Ofglen hanged herself.

Serena Joy turns on Offred after she finds out about her secret meetings with the Commander. Offred starts to suspect she is pregnant, but with Nick’s child. 

Later, Offred sees a black van approaching the house and knows it’s there for her; it’s the way traitors are usually taken away. Nick is with two men who have come to take her away, and Offred wonders if he is an Eye. He tells her that it’s safe to go with them, because they are part of Mayday. She doesn’t know if she should trust him. The Commander and Serena Joy are helpless to stop the men, and Serena Joy is furious. The men say Offred is being taken for betraying state secrets. Offred, not knowing whether they are truly taking her away or are rescuing her, goes with them.

The last chapter is set further in the future and is a partial transcript from the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held in 2195. Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, an expert on Gilead, speaks about a document that has come to be called “The Handmaid’s Tale,” after the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

He says the tale was discovered in what used to be Maine in a metal footlocker, buried in the ground. The tale was recorded on cassette tapes. Professor Pieixoto and his colleagues attempted to learn more about who Offred was and if her tale was credible, but they had trouble verifying information about her. However, Pieixoto did come across the name of a Commander, Frederick R. Waterford, who could have been the Commander Offred spoke of, though his wife was named Thelma. Waterford was one of the men responsible for the new regime, but was killed during a purge of traitors. Pieixoto speculates that he was killed for harboring Nick, who was likely a member of the underground Mayday operation, adjunct to the Underground Femaleroad, an organization that worked to get women to safety. Ultimately, Pieixoto concludes that, valuable as the tale is, it doesn’t reveal anything much about its author, and the fate of Offred remains unknown.

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