The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theonomic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.
Beginning with a staged attack that kills the President and most of Congress, a fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They quickly remove women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by sex. The new regime, the Republic of Gilead, moves quickly to consolidate its power, including overtaking all pre-existing religious groups, including Christianity, and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical model of Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. In this society, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are strictly curtailed. For example, women are forbidden to read, and anyone caught in homosexual acts would be hanged for “gender treachery”.
The story is told in the first person by a woman called Offred. The character is one of a class of women with healthy reproductive systems, in an era of declining birth rates owing to increasing infertility. These women are forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class and are known as “handmaids”, based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Offred describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred Waterford (referred to as “The Commander”). Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashback discussions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, their failed attempt to escape to Canada, and finally her indoctrination into life as a handmaid by government-trained women called “Aunts”.
Offred describes the structure of Gilead’s society, including the different classes of women and their lives within the new theonomy. The women are physically segregated by colour of clothing—blue, red, green, striped and white—to signify social class and assigned position, ranked highest to lowest. The Commanders’ wives are dressed in blue, handmaids in red, Marthas (cooks and maids) in green. Striped clothing is for all other women (called “Econowives”) who essentially do everything in the domestic sphere. Young, unmarried girls are dressed in white.
The Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead. Although his contact with Offred is supposed to be limited to “the ceremony”, a ritual of sexual intercourse intended to result in conception and at which his wife is present, he begins an illegal relationship with Offred. Secret meetings occur in his study, which the Commander’s Wife is not permitted to enter. The room is filled with books and is considered a private place for the man of the house. During these meetings, he tries to earn her trust by talking and playing board games such as Scrabble with her. He also lets and watches her read, another offense, as women are not permitted to read and write. The Commander offers her contraband products, such as old (1970s) fashion magazines and cosmetics. Finally, he gives her lingerie and takes her to a government-run brothel called Jezebel’s. This brothel is meant to add variety to men’s sex lives which, as claimed by the Commander, is necessary. At Jezebel’s, Offred encounters her friend, Moira, who had escaped from the handmaid training center, and learns how she came to be there. Moira explains that defiant women who could not adjust to the new society might be offered work at Jezebel’s rather than be forced to work in the Colonies, cleaning up radioactive waste. The women in the brothels are allowed alcohol and drugs, a freedom Offred notes. Though they are allowed to choose their patrons, they are discouraged from refusing a man’s advances.
The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, is a minor antagonist. Offred remembers her as a Christian media personality who supported women’s domesticity and subordinate role well before Gilead was established. Serena is clearly bored and unhappy—that she was taken at her word, Offred assumes—and hates sharing her husband with a handmaid. Ironically, though, Serena also has secret interactions with Offred, arranging for her to sleep with Nick, the Commander’s driver, in an effort to get Offred pregnant. In return, Serena Joy gives her news of her daughter and a recent photo. Offred has not seen her child since she and her family were captured trying to escape Gilead.
After Offred’s initial meeting with Nick, they begin to meet more frequently. Offred discovers she enjoys sex with him, despite her indoctrination and her memories of her husband. She shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. Through her shopping partner, a woman called Ofglen, Offred learns of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Shortly after Ofglen’s disappearance (later revealed as a suicide), the Commander’s wife finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander. Offred contemplates suicide.
As the novel concludes, Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterwards, she is taken away by the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as “the Eyes”. Before she is put in the large black van, Nick tells her that the men are part of the Mayday resistance and to trust him. Offred does not know if he is a member of Mayday or an Eye posing as one, and is unsure if leaving will result in her escape or her capture. She enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue that explains that the events of the novel occurred shortly after the beginning of what is called “the Gilead Period”. The epilogue is “a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” written in 2195 and hosted by Professor Maryann Crescent Moon. According to the symposium’s “keynote speaker” Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, he and his colleague Professor Knotly Wade discovered Offred’s story recorded onto cassette tapes. They transcribed the tapes, calling them collectively “the handmaid’s tale”. Through the tone and actions of the professionals in this final section of the book, the world of academia is highlighted and critiqued, and Pieixoto discusses his team’s search for the characters named in the Tale, and the impossibility of proving the tapes’ authenticity.
However, the existence of tapes does imply that Offred escaped and survived for at least a time and thus that the Eyes that collected her were, in fact, part of Mayday. The epilogue also suggests that, following the collapse of the theonomic Republic of Gilead, a more equal society, though not the United States that had previously existed, re-emerged, with a restoration of full rights for women and freedom of religion.
“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex . . . Just as the world of Orwell’s 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood’s handmaid!” —The Washington Post Book World
“The Handmaid’s Tale deserves the highest praise.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions . . . An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking . . . Read it while it’s still allowed.” —Houston Chronicle
From the Inside Flap
In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, “The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
Top customer reviews
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale around the time it was published in 1986. I was just 22, a sheltered young thing. I recall wondering what everyone was raving about, since only the top story layer of the book connected for me. Now, with decades of life experience behind me, I see that this is a deeply moving, complex book. I’m so glad I decide to read again just at this moment in time.
You would think that something written thirty years ago would seem dated. But that wasn’t the case for me. If anything, I think there are so many things imagined in the book which have become more possible today instead of less. In a sense, this is a cautionary tale that a large art of the population ignored or misunderstood.
More than ever, we should be reading this and sharing it with the young women in our lives. And discussing it with them, so they see more of the depth than my 22-year-old self did.
Margaret Atwood imagined a world where a totalitarian power went into action against foreign zealots and their own people’s “wanton” behavior. This power was meant to make the world better, but it also created a world of highly distinct “haves” and “have nots.”
She says, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” It might be just me (although I suspect not) but this sure sounds like what we often hear today on the news and in conversations.
Reading this at the end of 2016 after a brutal election cycle, the following quote from Atwood seems both wise and horrible. Have we not been hearing about people who feel invisible?
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
Atwood’s Republic of Gilead gives people one-dimensional functions. Correction – she gives women one-dimensional functions. They are Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, Aunts, or Unwomen (and a few more which would be spoilers). Unwomen are rebels, likely to be banished to the toxic waste dumps of the colonies. Everyone else plays a part in the singular female focus – procreation. As I read, I wondered what category I’d fall into should I have the bad luck to land in Gilead. The women there have no layers of life or experience. They are expected only to fulfill their narrow role.
Why is procreation such a focus? Because of falling birth rates among white people. This book doesn’t discuss race except one small spot near the end. It’s as if there is only one race in Gilead. And the only people in that race with any power are men.
The main character, Offred (literally of Fred named after the Commander she serves) is the perfect blend of weak and strong. She tells us of her past and says, “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” But her life is not beautiful. And Atwood straddles the line of past and present, sending back and forth in a way that keeps you wanting more. Just as Offred wants more. Just as we all want more for ourselves and the generations of women coming after us.
If you read this book long ago, pick it up again. If you haven’t yet read it, move it up to the top of your TBR. Buy it for friends. Buy for your sons and daughters. Use it to teach and to learn what kind of world we could be if we stop valuing the diversity of all people.