The Handmaid’s Tale

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. It is a dystopian novel and a work of speculative fiction. The story is set in an alternate time. The United States of America has fallen under a military dictatorship. The country is called the Republic of Gilead. The change begins with a staged terrorist attack that kills the President and Congress. Then the Constitution is set aside under the pretext of restoring order. The next order of business is to take away the all the rights of women. They are subjugated drastically. Women are forbidden to read, have money, and speak freely. The Christian religion in an Old Testament viewpoint is compulsory.

The story is narrated by a Handmaid. She is kept by the Commander and his wife to be a surrogate mother for the child they desire. But, soon the Commander orders his Handmaid to fulfill a role that would be deadly to her if caught. He gives her contraband products, takes her to a brothel, and allows her to read. His wife is so desperate for a child that she makes her have sex with the chauffeur, Nick. She and Nick become lovers, and he helps her escape.

The story cuts off abruptly and then moves to the epilogue. This is set in 2195 as Historical Notes. A professor is holding a seminar in an Arctic University. He is holding a discussion on a historical audio diary that was found in Bangor, Maine and transcribed into a manuscript.

Book Summary

The story opens with Offred, the narrator, describing the gymnasium the women sleep in on army cots. The matron’s patrol with electric cattle prods to control the women so they can only whisper in the dark. The women get exercise twice a day by walking around what used to be a football field. It is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Outside the fence are armed guards referred to as Angels. All the men keep their backs to the women. Some of the women wish the guards would turn around to they could tempt them to help them escape. The women exchanged their names at night.

That was the past, now Offred lives in a house. She has her own room. There are curtains on the window, a pillow, and braided rug. The room is spartan without pictures, a mirror or any kind of glass. The shatterproof window doesn’t open wide enough to crawl through, there is nothing to use to make a rope, anyway. The door doesn’t lock.

Offred is a handmaid. She dresses completely in red with white wings framing her face. The household servants are called Martha’s and wear green. The Wives were blue. None of the servants are to converse with the Handmaids, so Offred is very lonely. She wishes she could talk to them about the jealousy the Wives feel, and how many times the Handmaids are hurt, sometimes killed.

The Handmaid leaves for the grocery store. She will use a currency that is marked with what they will buy. Twelve eggs, Cheese, etc. As Offred is leaving she looks for the Commander’s Wife. She tends her garden and knits scarves for the Angels on the front lines, like all the wives do. Offred remembers when she first arrived. The Wife smoked cigarettes while she told her to remember her place and stay out of her sight. Always remember the Commander is her husband. Offred recognizes the Wife. She was a famous singer on a gospel show when Offred was a little girl. Her name was Serena Joy.

Offred walks past Nick, the chauffeur. When he winks at her, she worries if he is an ‘Eye’. These are spies that are assigned to houses to find infractions. At the corner, Offred waits for Ofglen, another Handmaid. Handmaid’s always traveled in pairs. Their conversation is stilted, avoiding topics that are forbidden. Ofglen tells her about the war that is going well. The army defeated a group of Baptist rebels. Offred gives the expected response, “Praise be”.

The Handmaid’s come to a checkpoint manned by a Guard. The Guards are men who act as the policemen. They are not in the army because they are either too young, too old, or not fit for some other reason. The older Guards are easier to deal with than the excitable younger ones. Young Guardians hope to become Angels someday so they can have families and a Handmaid of their own. At this point, the word Handmaid is used and the name of the new society is given, “The Republic of Gilead”. Offred thinks about the days before Gilead, women were not as “protected”. They were frightened to open their doors. The matron who trained her told her that freedom came in more than one type. There is freedom to and freedom from.

In the town, the shops all have names such as All Flesh for the butchers and Milk and Honey. Creativity is too much of a temptation. Offred sees another Handmaid. She is Ofwarren now, but she used to be named Janine. Offred figures the woman is there to show off. Offred remembers her husband Luke and their daughter. Before Gilead, her life was different. She stored plastic bags from the grocery under the sink, and Luke was worried their daughter would be hurt if she pulled one out.

As the Handmaids leave, they confront some Japanese tourist who wants to take pictures of them. Offred says no. The tourists ask if they are happy, and Offred says yes. The Handmaids are amazed at the dresses of the tourists. Their legs are uncovered, they wear high heels and their nails are painted.

Atwood describes the scenery in such a way as to make the reader think they are on the Harvard campus. The Handmaids walk past a church that is used as a museum and the Wall across from it. Dead bodies hang from the Wall with bags over their heads. The signs hanging from the corpses say they were doctors who used to perform abortions before Gilead was formed. The punishments are for past transgressions. Offred is glad to know that Luke was never a doctor so he can’t be one of the men.

After Offred goes to bed, she is free to dream about her life before Gilead. She doesn’t have many memories left after the drugs they gave her. But she can remember her college roommate, she remembers walking in the park with her mother and seeing the book burnings. She has vague memories of waking up screaming and begging to see her daughter. She remembers the picture they showed her of her daughter in a white dress with another woman. Offred is not considered fit to raise her child, so she was given to someone better. Offred wishes these memories were of a story instead of real life. She would write it down, but writing is forbidden.

Another time when the Handmaids are walking past the wall they see three more bodies. A priest and two Guardians with signs that read, “Gender Treachery”. The Guardians were hung for being homosexual. The Handmaids see a funeral procession. The women are Econowives or wives of the poorer men. One of the women carries a small black jar that holds an embryo from a miscarriage. It was called an Unbaby because it was born so early. The Econowives give the Handmaids dirty looks and one even spits on them. They hate the Handmaids.

At the corner of the house Ofglen says goodbye with “Under His Eye”. Nick asks her about her walk, but Offred knows they aren’t allowed to talk, so she ignores him. She remembers that Serena Joy used to use her fame to insist that women stay at home. Offred wonders if Serena is angry because what she wanted came true and she is now confined to her home. When Offred goes to her room she notices the Commander standing outside her room, where he is not supposed to be.

That night, Offred remembers her past, again. She sees herself waiting in a motel room for Luke. He was sneaking away from his first wife. She also remembers her first night in the room. She found a message scratched into the floor of the closet, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Do not let the bastards grind you down.) It was left by a previous Handmaid. When she asked about her, Rita countered with, “Which one?” None of them worked out.

As the day’s progress, Offred will sing songs in her head, since music is not allowed. Sometimes Serena will hum and listen to recordings of herself when she was a famous gospel singer. As the days grow warmer, Offred is looking forward to changing to her lighter dress. She remembers the Matrons telling her how dangerous the world used to be for women. But, the few memories Offred still has aren’t that dangerous. She sits by her window a lot, leaning against a pillow with the word, FAITH embroidered on it. That is the only word she is allowed to read.

Every month Offred is taken to the doctor by a Guardian. She is checked for pregnancy and disease. Usually, the doctor doesn’t talk to her and can’t see her face because of a sheet. But, this time, he talks to her and then offers to help her. He thinks the Commander, like most men his age, is sterile. He offers to have sex with her and impregnate her. She is shocked because it’s not supposed to be men, but women who are either barren or fruitful. Offred thanks him but turns him down gently. She knows the doctor could give a false report and she would be an Unwoman.

On Offred’s bath day, Cora a Martha must wait outside the bathroom for her. She becomes impatient, and while Offred drys off she notices the tattoo that Gilead put on all the Handmaids. Afterwards, she has dinner in her room. The food is bland, Handmaids cannot have coffee, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, etc. Although she is not allowed to save any food, Offred wraps a pat of butter in a napkin and puts it in her shoe.

Offred breaks up her boredom with memories. She remembered the group discussions the matrons led. They were to talk about the horrible things that happened in their past lives. One of the women told the story of being gang-raped. When the matron asked the girls who were at fault. The Handmaids chanted in unison that it was her fault. When she began to cry the girls called her a crybaby.

After dinner, the whole household attends the Ceremony. The Commander is always late. Serena sits while Offred kneels on the floor. Rita, Cora, and Nick stand behind her. Nick touches her foot with his. When she moves her foot, he moves his as well. They all watch the news while they wait for the Commander. Most of the television shows are religious. Shows from Canada are blocked. Spies were caught trying to smuggle ‘national resources’ across the border. Five Quakers were arrested. Thousands of the ‘Children of Ham’ are resettled in the Dakotas. Offred remembers when she and Luke tried to sneak across the border with their daughter.

When the Commander arrives, he reads from the Bible. He reads the story of Rachel who was barren, so she gave her handmaid to Abraham to give her children. This makes the Wife cry softly. The matrons would drill this story into the girls. Then they heard the Bible read by a recorded male voice so the Matrons wouldn’t commit the sin of reading. Offred thinks of the time her friend tried to escape by bribing an Angel with sex. He reported her and she was beaten on her feet with steel cables. For a second offense, her hands would have been beaten. The girls were reminded that they didn’t need hands and feet for their purpose as breeders.

The rest of the Ceremony involves the Commander and his wife. They make Offred lay between the Wife’s legs with her head resting on her pelvis. The two women hold hands. Both women are fully clothed except for Offred, whose underwear is off. Commander has sex with Offred. Afterwards, he leaves and the Wife sends her away, even though she is supposed to lay still for ten minutes for a better chance at impregnation.

When Offred is safely in her room, she uses the butter she hid in her shoe on her skin to lubricate, since beauty products are forbidden. Offred is restless, so she plans to take a daffodil to stash under her bed to save for the next Handmaid. Nick finds her and they kiss, but pull apart quickly for their own safety. He tells her the Commander sent him to find her because he wants to see her in his office the next day.

The next morning she hears a siren during breakfast. It is a Birthmobile. It is there to collect Offred so she can attend the birth of Warren’s baby. Along the way, Offred remembers the teachings of the matrons about the importance of childbirth. The birthrate has fallen so much that women who choose not to have children are called lazy sluts.

At the house, another bus shows up that is carrying the Wives. Offred thinks the women sit around talking about how much they hate the slutty Handmaids. The Wife of Warren sits in a sitting room waiting like she is giving birth. Ofwarren is in the master bedroom giving birth. The Handmaids stand around the birth bed chanting. Just before the actual birth, Ofwarren and the Wife sit on the birthing stool together with the Wife sitting above. When the baby girl is born with no defects, everyone rejoices. Then the Wife climbs into the bed and holds the baby for the Wives to view. They push the Handmaids away. Ofwarren will nurse the new baby for a few months, then she will be transferred to another Commander. Since she has given birth, she will never be termed an Unwoman and sent to the colonies.

That evening Offred goes to the Commander’s office as ordered. She thinks he wants sex, but what he wants is for her to play Scrabble with him. Her seeing him alone and playing a reading game are both against the rules. Before she leaves he asks her for a kiss and wants her to kiss him like she means it.

As the Spring moves into Summer, she and the Commander meet often, but he doesn’t make any more advances, they just play Scrabble. He signals her when he wants to meet her by having Nick wear his hat askew. Sometimes she can’t go because Serena is knitting in the sitting room. The Wives take turns being sick, so they visit each other. Although Wives can be sick, Handmaids and Martha’s can never be sick because the sick and old are sent to the Colonies. She never sees an old woman.

The friendship of the Commander and Offred develops with their meetings which make the sex even more uncomfortable. She and Ofglen become better friends, too. One day they go by a print shop. The Wives have prayers printed and then the paper is recycled. Ofglen asks Offred if she thinks God listens to the printer. Even though it is sacrilege, Offred answers no. This makes Ofglen believe she can trust Offred and tells her about the group she is a member of that is subversive. She has a fright when a black van stops near them, but it grabs a man with a briefcase instead.

That night Offred’s memories come back. She remembers the fall of the United States and the creation of the Gilead. The President was shot and Congress was gunned down. The army declared a state of emergency. Islamic’s were blamed falsely for executing almost all the government officials. Next, the Constitution was laid aside. The American public was in shock, they stayed home and watched television. Newspapers were censored, roadblocks were set up for checking Identipasses. Paper money was replaced with Compucards that took money directly from bank accounts. One day, Offred’s Compucard wouldn’t work. Then while she was at her job at the library, her boss came in and was forced to fire all the female employees. They had ten minutes to leave and was led out by an armed guard. Women could not legally hold property or a job. Their bank accounts were transferred to the closest male relative. Whether true or not, Offred felt that Luke was patronizing her when he tried to comfort her and that he may like the fact that he now owns her.

When she looks outside and sees Nick’s hat askew, she wonders what he gets out of the arrangement. She begins to realize that the Commander is trying to make her life easier. She also realizes she can use his guilt to her advantage. When he asks her what he can to make her life better, she asks for knowledge about what is going on. That night when she tries to pray, she thinks about suicide.

Ofglen tells Offred that the subversives use “mayday” as a password, but not to use it too often. If she is caught, she will be tortured. When Offred gets back to the house, she sees Nick’s hat askew. But, Serena stops her to help with the wool for her knitting. Serena tells her she thinks the Commander may be sterile. When Offred hesitantly agrees, Serena suggests that another man may be necessary and suggests Nick. She tells Offred that if she will have sex with Nick she will show her a picture of her daughter.

The Commander has begun to drink during their visits. He tells her they thought Gilead would be a good idea. At a Prayvaganza, which is a wedding for the daughter of a Wife,(some as young as fourteen) and only attended by women, Ofglen tells Offred that the subversives know she meets with the Commander privately and wants her to get information for them.

Sometimes Prayvaganzas are held when a Catholic nun converts to the state religion. Catholic nuns are tortured. Then the older ones are sent to the Colonies and the younger ones get to choose the Colonies or becoming a Handmaid. That night Serena shows her a picture of her daughter. She is a happy little girl who seems to have forgotten about her mother. Then she meets with the Commander who is drunk. He makes her dress in a skimpy outfit and takes her out. She hides in the floor of the car and Nick drives them. They enter a club where the Commander tells her to say she is an “evening rental”.

It is the same hotel where she used to meet Luke. There are other women there dressed like her. He tells her that although the club is illegal, men need a variety of women for sex. Some of the women were prostitutes from before Gilead and some were once lawyers, sociologists, and businesswomen who didn’t want to become Handmaids. Then Offred sees her college roommate, Moira. She is wearing a Playboy bunny costume. She gives Offred the signal to meet in the bathroom. Moira tells her story of what happened after she escaped. She was taken by some Quakers to an underground female railroad. But she was caught, taken by the Guards who tortured her. They showed her films of the Colonies, where the old women go. They clean up radioactive spills and dead bodies. They die in about a year. Moira tells her that she saw Offred’s mother in one of the movies. They told her the only other option was to work at the club as a prostitute. Moira’s spirit is broken. When Offred leaves, she never sees Moira again.

The Commander takes her to a hotel room. He is upset that she is not more excited about having real sex with him. So she fakes it. When she gets home, Serena takes her to Nick’s room. They have sex, but afterwards, she feels like she cheated on Luke. She continues to meet with Nick. He doesn’t talk much, but she tells him everything, including her real name. She also tells him about Ofglen who wants her to break into the Commander’s office. The subversives want to know what his responsibilities are. Soon she tells Nick she thinks she is pregnant

The women of Gilead are called into what used to be the stage area where commencements used to be held. They are there to view a Salvaging. This is the execution of women. They decided to quit announcing the crimes that led to hanging because it causes copycats. Two Handmaids and a Wife are hung. There are only three reasons a wife would be hung. Killing a Handmaid, adultery or attempting to escape. All of the Handmaids are forced to touch the ropes to show their consent in the Salvaging. Afterwards, a Guardian is dragged to the front. The matron says that he is accused of raping a pregnant Handmaid and causing her to lose the baby. The Handmaids form a circle and beat him to death. The first to attack is Ofglen who kicks him in the head hard a few times. When Offred asks her why she did that, Ofglen tells her he was actually a subversive and they lied about his crime. She wanted to put him out of his misery quickly.

The next day Offred is met by a new Ofglen. She tells her that the old Ofglen hung herself when she saw the black van coming for her. When Offred arrives home, Serena is furious. She shows her the dress that Offred had worn on the night the Commander took her out and tells her she is a slut like the other Handmaid. Nick, who hears this, stops whistling. Offred goes to her room.

That night Offred waits for her death. She thinks of ways to kill herself and wonders if Serena will just kill her. She hears the black van pull in. Nick opens her door and she thinks he betrayed her. But, he tells her to go with them that they are part of Mayday and have come to rescue her. At the door, Serena wants to know what her crimes are, and the Commander wants to see a warrant. This tells Offred that Serena did not turn her in. They tell the Commander they don’t need a warrant, she is accused of a violation of state secrets. Serena curses her as she enters the van.

Epilogue

They year is now 2195. At a university in the Arctic, a professor is giving a seminar on The Handmaid’s Tale. Many years earlier, some cassette tapes were discovered in a safe in Bangor, Maine. The cassettes start out with songs to cover up what is on afterwards. Offred recorded her story, and it was transcribed after they were found. They believe the names were changed, but they think the Commander may have been of the group that started Gilead during the First Period.

The professor tells his class not to blame the leaders too harshly. The birthrate had dropped off drastically because of infertility caused by nuclear disasters and toxic waste. Gilead made a group of fertile women by making them reproductive vessels. They used the Bible as justification. Although they tried to find the identity of Offred, they couldn’t. Although most records were destroyed, some tapes were smuggled to Save The Women Societies in England. They don’t know whether Offred escaped to Canada or England. The professor says he is unsure of Nick’s motivation. He was a member of the Eyes and of Mayday. In the end, the fate of Offred may never be known.

The audience listening to the presentation by the professor applauds. The last line from the professor is “Are there any questions?”.

Characters Analysis

Offred – the narrator of the story. Before Gilead, she was a librarian with a husband and a little girl. After she is captured, her daughter is given to another woman to raise and she becomes a Handmaid. A Handmaid is kept for her uterus. She is given to a Commander and takes on his name. She is of Fred, who is her Commander. Although she remembers her name, she leaves it out of her story. Throughout the story, she tells the story of how Gilead started and what it was like through memories and her experiences during the story.

She is a regular young woman, who lives in fear and follows the rules trying to not stand out so she can live another day. But, she also thinks often about suicide whenever the cruelties of life as a Handmaid becomes too arduous. Offred is desperately unhappy. She is used by everyone in her life and belittled continuously. She has no friends in the household. Her only friend is another Handmaid, and they have restrictions on their friendships. Offred may have been pregnant with Nick’s child when she escapes.

The Commander – the Commander was in the group that designed Gilead. He grows fond of Offred and likes their dates. Even though it is against the laws he had a hand in making, the Commander takes her to an illegal club, and spends time with her alone in a hotel room. He also has her come to his office often to play Scrabble and talk about his problems. She becomes his Mistress, which could get her sent to the Colonies or hung. Although he comes across sometimes as pathetic, he has the power of life and death for everyone around him.

Serena Joy – in the days before Gilead she was a gospel singer who preached anti – feminism. She pushed the ideas of woman as a lesser being and the importance of wives who stay at home and let their husbands control their lives. But, now that her life was like that, she is desperately unhappy. She is the most influential woman in Gilead but feels less than her underlings because she doesn’t have a child. Even though she needs the Handmaids to get a child, she is jealous of them and treats every Handmaid that goes through her home cruelly. Her desperation for a child makes her send Offred to the chauffeur for impregnation.

Nick – a Guardian who is assigned as a chauffeur and gardener for the Commander. He flirts with Offred, even though it could bring them both torture. He and Offred have a sexual chemistry that is finally fulfilled when Serena Joy sets them up for a sexual encounter in hopes of Offred getting pregnant. They continue the affair in secret since it is illegal.

Nick arranges for Offred’s escape. He is either a member of the Eye’s, which is the secret police of Gilead, or he is a member of Mayday, a subversive group trying to overthrow the government. He may have been a member of both. A double agent. There is no evidence he ever met Offred again. Nor does the narrator say what happened to him.

Margaret Atwood Biography

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on November 18, 1939. She is an environmental activist in addition to being a novelist, poet, and businesswoman. Margaret Atwood writes science fiction, dystopian and historical fiction.

In 1957 she graduated high school in Toronto, then attended the Victoria College at the University of Toronto beginning at the age of sixteen. This is when she decided she wanted to write professionally. Atwood began published poetry and articles in her college paper. In 1961, she graduated with a Bachelor Degree in English with honours and a minor in philosophy and French. Also in 1961 she won the E. J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poetry. At this time, Atwood began graduate studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. In 1962 she had a master’s degree. Atwood also started her doctoral studies at Harvard, but didn’t finish her dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance”.

She was an English Professor at the University of British Columbia in 1965, Sir George Williams University in 1967 to 1968, the University of Alberta from 1969 to 1970, York University from 1971 to 1972, and the University of Alabama in 1985. Atwood was also a Berg Professor of English at the New York University.

Although her books bring to light feminism, she doesn’t think her writing actually falls under that framework, since she would have had to choose to write that way consciously. When critics try to place her books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” into the category of science fiction, Atwood argued that she wrote them as speculative fiction. Her stance is that science fiction has monsters and spacemen, whereas speculative fiction could actually happen.

The LongPen or a method of remote robotic writing was a concept designed by Margaret Atwood in 2004. With this method, a person can write in ink anywhere in the world by using a tablet PC and the internet. This technology allows her to do remote book signings. She formed Unotchit, a company that produces and distributes the technology. The company shifted to businesses and legal transactions in 2011.

In 2014, a chamber opera written by Margaret Atwood was performed at Vancouver’s York Theatre. The opera is the story of Pauline Johnson, a Canadian writer, and performer set in 1913.

Margaret Atwood was very Anti-American during the 1960s and 1970s. When Canada and the United States were debating on the free trade agreement, Atwood spoke against the measure. She is a staunch environmentalist and was an honorary co-president of the Rare Bird Club with her partner, Graeme Gibson. When the University of Toronto tried to put in an artificial turf field she threatened to cut them out of her will.

Future Library Project was conceived by Katie Paterson in 2014. The idea is to gather an original story from popular writers every year until 2114. The manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in Oslo. Margaret Atwood wrote Scribbler Moon as the first contribution. She laughingly thinks that in one hundred years when the book is finally read, they will need a paleo-anthropologist to translate the story.