The Handmaid's Tale Plot Summary
The narrator is a fertile woman living in the late twentieth century in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A religious group called the Sons of Jacob has recently overthrown the United States government. Our narrator has been arrested for being married to a divorced man, which is heretical. She and her husband, Luke, were arrested while trying to escape the country on fake passports. Their daughter was taken away from them, and given to an elite, childless family. Our narrator was sent to the Rachael and Leah Re-Education Center, which is known as the Red Center, to be trained for her new role in The Republic of Gilead. All Handmaids are trained at the Red Center, where they are brainwashed into submission to their new role by a group of women called Aunts. A Handmaid's role is to bear children for elite, childless families of The Republic. They must be pure, which means they cannot read or write or associate with other men or have desires of any kind. Their names are taken from them and they are tattooed with a number. They are taught to believe that the previous ills of society were their fault and that men are blameless. Our narrator is given the name Offred when she arrives at the home of her Commander, Fred. She spends much of her time waiting in her designated room. She wears the outfit of a Handmaid, which is modest and entirely red except for a white, winged bonnet. She discovers a message from the previous Handmaid carved into her closet, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Offred avoids the Commander's Wife because she resents Offred's presence in her house. She sometimes talks with the Marthas in the house. Marthas are women whose role is to do housework.
Offred goes shopping everyday accompanied by another Handmaid, Ofglen. This part of a Handmaid's routine is considered necessary exercise. Offred is afraid that Ofglen may be part of a spy contingent of the government called the Eyes. Everyone is dangerous if you are not a true believer. At one shop, a pregnant Handmaid enters. All the other women including Offred are jealous. If a Handmaid has a child, she will never be killed or exiled to the Colonies to do hard labor with the Unwomen (women who cannot or will not fulfill one of the prescribed roles for women in The Republic). Some tourists ask Offred and Ofglen if they are happy. They must respond positively or risk being found out and arrested. They visit the Wall of the prison, and view several men who were executed. Harsh censorship is one of the defining elements of Gileadean society. Offred cannot help the recurrent dreams and memories she has about her baby girl, husband, and mother. They may as well be dead. She herself feels like a ghost whose existence has become meaningless.
One day, Offred is taken to the doctor for her monthly check-up. He says she is healthy and then offers to do her the service of impregnating her. She declines his offer, which is illegal, although she desperately wants a child. That night is the night of the Ceremony. The household assembles for the Commander to read to them from the Bible. The excerpt is about Abraham having a child with his wife's maid, which is the Biblical story upon which the Ceremony is based. Later the Commander has ceremonial sex with Offred and his Wife in his Wife's bed. Offred lies inert in between the infertile Wife's legs and the Commander mechanically inseminates her and leaves. While he does this, Offred thinks about her rebellious friend Moira, who escaped from the Red Center.
The next day, Offred attends the birth of a Handmaid's child. Many Handmaids attend to assist in the ceremony. The Wives have a party in another part of the house, and come up after the birth to claim the baby and name it. That evening, the Commander has arranged a private meeting with Offred in his study. She does not know what to expect and is cautious. They play Scrabble and he asks her for a kiss. In her bedroom later that night, she cannot suppress laughter over the simplicity of his desires. They continue to meet. He lets her read heretical magazines and brings her some lotion. She discovers that the previous Handmaid had frequented the study as well, and that she hung herself in her room. She begins to think of the Commander in a more complex way. The Ceremony becomes embarrassing.
During a shopping trip, Offred lets Ofglen know that she is not a true believer. They are both relieved. Later Ofglen tells Offred that she is part of a secret information network, and that their codeword is Mayday. Offred does not gain hope though. She often considers killing herself. That day the Commander's Wife offers to arrange a meeting between Offred and the Commander's chauffeur, Nick. She suggests that the Commander may be sterile, which is heretical. Offred agrees.
The next day Offred attends a Prayvaganza where a group wedding of decorated military men, Angels, and Daughters is performed. That night the Commander dresses Offred up in a gaudy costume and takes her to a secret club for the elite, called Jezebel's. There Offred is reunited with Moira, and hears the rest of the her story of escape and capture. Moira was being secretly transported along the Underground Femaleroad when she was captured and given the choice to work at Jezebel's as a whore or in the Colonies disposing of toxic waste. Offred and the Commander return home, after some uninspired sex. Serena knocks on Offred's door later that night and tells her to go to Nick's apartment above the garage. They have sex, but deny themselves any semblance of romance or intimacy. Offred visits Nick repeatedly afterwards. She is ashamed by her faithlessness to her husband Luke, but is compelled to indulge in the sole form of love available to her.
In midsummer, all the women in the district are summoned to a Salvaging. All the Handmaids watch and symbolically consent to the execution of three women whose crimes are not announced. The salvaging is followed by a Particicution, in which a man who is condemned as a rapist is torn apart by a mob of Handmaids goaded to action by an Aunt. Ofglen knocks the man out on purpose to save him further pain. He was part of the Maydays and falsely accused of rape. Ofglen hangs herself after the ceremony when she sees an Eye van stop at her house. Offred is shocked when she hears this, but moreso when her Commander's Wife discovers the costume she wore to Jezebel's and sends her to her room to await punishment. Offred contemplates suicide, but an Eye van comes to take her away before she can take her life. Nick tells her that the Eyes are really part of Mayday and that she should trust them. She is powerless anyway and can only hope he is right. The Commander's wife curses her as she leaves.
The main body of the tale is followed by an excerpt of a historian's speech, in which the speaker attempts to authenticate the Handmaid's Tale as a historical document. This part of the novel serves to provide some more details on the society in which Offred lived and gives the reader another perspective on her story and storytelling in general.