The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood‘s dystopian masterpiece. In it, readers are provided with a harrowingly realistic first-person account of a society ruled by religion, gender violence, and oppression.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary

‘Spoiler-Free’ The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale readers will find themselves thrust into the world of Gilead, a totalitarian religious state that values childbirth and gender hierarchy over everything else. Under the guise of religion, Gilead control its citizens, from Handmaid to Martha and Wife in a very particular way. The main character, Offred, tells her story through a series of flashbacks and remembrances that detail her marriage, her child, and her capture. 

Young fertile women, such as Offred, have been rounded up and reeducated in the belief system of Gilead. They have to submit to a month “Ceremony” in which they have to sleep with the Commander they are assigned to. Their single purpose in life is to have children for elite, infertile couples. As The Handmaid’s Tale progresses, Offred learns more and more about the society she’s now a part of and the darkness has no bounds. She struggles to balance her desire to escape her new prison with her own safety and that of her daughter who she desperately wants to see. 

The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

Spoiler alert: important details of The Handmaid’s Tale are revealed below.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that has sprung up in what used to be the United States of America. The protagonist of the story, Offred, is a young woman of child-bearing age who unlike most American women, is still fertile. Due to a series of chemical spills, childbirth rates are incredibly low. this, coupled with violence against women, led to the rise of Gilead and the restrictive gender roles it creates. Offered is a Handmaid, a woman assigned to have children for an elite infertile couple, in this case, Fred and Serena Joy. Serena is often referred to as “the Wife” and Fred as the “Commander” due to his relatively high ranking in the Gilead military structure. 

Offred is not the protagonist’s true name. It is a combination of the word “of” and her assigned Commander’s name, in this case, Fred. As a Handmaid she is forced to have sex with her Commander, in order to get pregnant, once a month in what is known as the Ceremony. Her freedom is completely restricted. She can’t go anywhere without permission, she’s not allowed to read, close her door, or show any individual personality.

Offred tells the story of her life leading up to the role she is now forced to fill. She recalls an affair she had with a married man, Luke, his divorce from his first wife, and the child the two had together. She speaks about her activist mother and her best friend, Moira. Offred also describes her attempts to escape the military coup that led to the formation of Gilead, her capture and separation from her husband and child. She was taken, along with Moira and many other fertile women, to the Rachel and Lead Re-education Center, simply known as the “Red Center” by the women who lived there. There, Aunt Lydia taught Offred learned about Gilead’s beliefs, the new terrible life she was about to be forced into, and how the government viewed women in comparison to men. 

Offred describes the steps of the ceremony and the run-in she had with her doctor who offered to have sex with her in order to get her pregnant. She’d then have been able to pass the child off as her Commander’s. She refuses, knowing the risks of such a proposition. In another break from her newfound routine, the Commander asks Offred to join him in his study one night. There, they play scrabble and he allows her to read old Vogue magazines, two things which are strictly prohibited. The Commander treats Offred like a child but still asks her to kiss him at the end of the evening. 

As The Handmaid’s Tale progresses, Offred learns of the existence of Mayday, an organization working to overthrow Gilead. At the same time, she’s drawing closer to the Commander by necessity and learning more about the military structure of the government. Despite repeated Ceremonies, Offred is still not pregnant (suggesting that the Commander is infertile). Therefore, against all rules, Serena tells Offred that she should sleep with Nick, their chauffeur, and gardener. Serena promises to give Offred a picture of her daughter in return for doing so. That same night, the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels, a club for Commanders who want to sleep with prostitutes. There, she finds her friend Moira who tried to escape from Gilead while they were in the Red Center together. This is the last time she ever sees her friend. Offred and the Commander sleep together while there, an experience that Offred has to pretend to enjoy. 

As soon as Offred returns with the Commander from the club, she sleeps with Nick. The two develop a genuine connection and begin to meet without anyone’s knowledge. Around this time, Ofglen, a member of Mayday who she has befriended, commits suicide in order to escape torture at the hands of Gilead’s secret police. 

At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Nick tells Offred that Mayday, or perhaps the Eyes, are there to pick her up and rescue her. The story concludes with the reader, or Offred, knowing whether she’s being taken to safety or being captured by the people she’s terrified of. 

After Offred’s story, there is a metafictional epilogue told from the perceptive of Professor Pieixoto in the year 2195. He describes Offred’s account of the events and reveals through a sexist joke that gender issues still persist. 

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Emma Baldwin
About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.

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