Some of these roles, such as that of Handmaid or Martha are undeniably oppressive and cruel while others such as Wife and Aunt are more complex. The characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are undeniably dark and troubled, their pasts are powerful and their futures are uncertain.
Offred is the central character at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale. She is the protagonist and it’s from her perspective that the entire story is told. This allows the reader to have full access to her most important and poignant memories. Offred provides the reader with flashbacks and brief asides that help outline how she came to be in the situation she’s in.
Offred is a Handmaid, a class of person in The Handmaid’s Tale who is forced to bear children for the elite, specifically the commanders and their wives. Her name is a combination of the word “of” and the name of her commander, Fred. Through memories, the reader learns that Offred was married to a man named Luke and had a daughter.
The Commander is, under the laws of Gilead, in possession of Offred, his Handmaid. He is an elite in Gilead society, ranking towards the top of their military hierarchy. The Commander ranges between being extremely unlikeable and almost sympathetic. He rapes Offered once a month in what is known as the Ceremony. The Commander treats Offred as a child, teasing her with the possibility of more freedom.
The Wife/Serena Joy
Serena is Fred’s wife. She spends her days living as a traditional, upper-class wife. She gardens takes care of the home (minimally, as she has servants to work for her as well), and she suffers from arthritis. She hates Offred but due to her barrenness and the value of children in Gilead’s society, she has to tolerate her presence. Serena is deeply unhappy despite her status.
Nick is a Guardian or a low-level official in Gilead society who has been assigned to the Commander’s home. He watches over the household and works as a grander and chauffeur. Nick and Offred have sex under Serena’s instruction, in order to try to produce a child for the Commander’s household. It’s not made entirely clear but by the end of the novel, the reader is aware that he might have a higher ranking than it seemed. He might be a member of the Eyes. What is also unclear is what Nick did to help, or harm, Offred at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.
One of Offred’s closest friends, Moira is a feminist and lesbian who is unconquerably defiant in the face of Gilead’s rules. She refuses to accept her fate as a Handmaid and instead ends up working as a prostitute in a club for Commanders.
Lydia is one of another class of people in Gilead, the Aunts. They are responsible for indoctrinating the Handmaids and ensuring their compliance with the Ceremony. She works at the “Red Center” where Offred was reeducated. Her only appearances in the novel are in Offred’s flashbacks but it’s clear that she is a commanding presence in that facility.
A Handmaid who is assigned as Offred’s shopping partner and is a member of the Mayday resistance group. She eventually hangs herself after she is found out.
Offred met Janine while she was at the Red Center. She conceives an “unbaby” or a child that is born deformed which may or may not have been a product of her doctor. Unlike Offred and Ofglen, she is a conformist and is prepared to go along with what the Commander and his Wife tell her.
Rita is a Martha or a domestic servant. She works in the Commander’s household and appears to support the Handmaid’s more than some others. She is infertile, as are all the Marthas.
Cora is also a Martha and also works in the Commander’s household. She is more submissive than Rita is and is content to remain in her position.
Pieixoto only appears at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale as a guest speaker at a symposium. He is responsible for transcribing Offred’s narrative.