The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
This is the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the dystopian society called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States of America. Although the story begins after Gilead has been formed, flashbacks allows readers to learn about how it was formed and what Offred’s life was before. The founders of Gilead used the military to assassinate the president and members of Congress, insisting that they were only taking power temporarily to help restore order to a world where immorality was all too common. Instead, they set up a totalitarian government that placed men in power and stripped women of all rights.
Before Gilead, Offred was married and had a daughter. Although they tried to flee into Canada after the coup, all three were caught, and Offred was separated from both husband and daughter. She never sees them again. She is sent to a Re-education center, where women are taught the Gildead ideology that women should be subservient to men and that women will be “better protected” in this society than before.
After this, Offred is forced to become a Handmaid, a woman assigned to a married couple who have had trouble conceiving. Her job is to bear children for this family. The job was created by Gilead in order to combat low reproduction rates. Offred serves a Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. When she is ovulating, Offred must have impersonal sex with the Commander while Serena sits behind her and holds her hands. Offred has no freedom. She can only leave the house to shop and she is always being watched by the Eyes, the secret police force.
Offred’s life at the Commander’s consists of shopping trips, past the Wall where the bodies of rebels hang, and visits the doctor to be checked for infertility problems. She must listen when the Commander reads from the Bible every day. At the Commander’s request, she visits him nightly in his study and they play Scrabble and look at old magazines. The Commander seems to be attracted physically and intellectually to Offred and actually asks her to kiss him at the end of the meetings. He also takes her to a club called Jezebel’s, where prostitutes are available for the Gilead men. Offred meets her a friend from her former life, Moira, who escaped being a Handmaid. Moira insists that being a prostitute is preferable, because it feels like she has some control in her life. While there, the Commander takes Offred to an old hotel room to have sex.
Offred is invited by Ofglen, another Handmaid, to become part of an underground organization called “Mayday”, which is working to overthrow the government of Gilead. Offred considers, but is too nervous for her safety to join. At home, Serena suggests that Offred have sex with the Commander’s chaffeur, Nick, in order to get pregnant, since her encounters with the Commander are not having results. Offred and Nick begin having sex on a regular basis, and take comfort in one another.
Serena finds out about the trip to Jezebel’s and promises punishment for Offred. Nick steps in and tells Offred that people from Mayday are there to rescue her, though the reader can’t be certain if it is really Mayday or if it is the secret police. Either way, Offred gets in the van, and is not heard from again.
The epilogue of the novel is set in 2195. Gilead has fallen. The epilogue is a lecture given by a professor who tells Offred’s story, which he says has turned up on cassette tapes found in Bangor, Maine. Readers understand that Offred did survive for at least sometime after getting into the van, though it is still unclear where she went.