Notes on Characters from The Handmaid's Tale

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The Handmaid's Tale Major Characters

Offred: The narrator and central character of the novel. Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Handmaids are fertile women forced to bear children for elite, barren couples. Fertility is rare and highly valued in Gilead. She has one more year left to have a child before she is determined barren and sent to the Colonies. Offred has been separated from her family and friends and leads a severely repressed lifestyle. Her emotional state alternates between rebellion, resignation, bitterness, and despair. However, she maintains hope and eventually escapes and records her story.

Aunt Lydia: The authoritarian head mistress of the Red Center, where the Handmaids are indoctrinated with rules they must live by. Aunt Lydia is the primary spokesperson for the ideology of Gilead in the novel. Fragments of her speeches come up throughout Offred's narration. Aunt Lydia is ruthlessly manipulative under the guise of piety and concern.

Moira: Offred's rebellious, bisexual friend who she has known since college, before Gilead. Moira is sent to the Red Center along with Offred. She is a staunch feminist and has a penchant for making lewd jokes. She escapes the Red Center, but is apprehended before she can escape the country and is sent to work in the official brothel of Gilead, Jezebel's. Moira represents strength and hope for Offred. However, when they last meet at Jezebel's Offred is concerned that Moira may have lost her spirit.

Serena Joy: The Wife of the Commander. Serena Joy was a gospel singer and an anti-feminist advocate before the war and formation of Gilead. Her pre-war character parodies, two real-life spokeswomen for the conservative right, Tammy Faye Baker and Phyllis Schlafly. In Gilead she is forced into the subdued role of housewife. She resents Offred because her presence is a testimony to Serena's failure to produce children, which is the purpose of a women's life in Gilead ideology. She is also jealous of the sexual relationship Offred must have with her husband, though this feeling is unacceptable by law. The stifled relationship between Offred and Serena Joy points to the failure of the government to produce cookie-cutter women for different female roles.

Ofglen: Offred's shopping partner who is a Handmaid. Ofglen and Offred are careful to appear perfectly pious to each other when they first meet. Months later, the two become more free to share their fears, opinions, and desires with each other. Ofglen tells Offred she belongs to a secret, subversive society and tries to get Offred to get information from the Commander's study. Offred is too afraid to participate. Ofglen hangs herself when government spies discover her anti-government activities.

Commander: Offred's sterile stud and one of the founding fathers of Gilead. The Commander belongs to the ruling elite but appears to cling to certain aspects of life before Gilead. He fulfills his legal obligations within his household, but does so without conviction. He has a large collection of taboo items from the time before Gilead, and he initiates an unorthodox relationship with Offred. His views of women are simplistic and contradictory.

Minor Characters

Janine: A Handmaid who is particularly vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Janine appears to fully adopt the ideology of Gilead even though she breaks down mentally and physically in the process. She is trusted by the Aunts but disliked and pitied by all the Handmaids.

Rita: A servant in the household of the Commander. She belongs to the class of women called Marthas, who are infertile but have done nothing to classify them as Unwomen. She despises Handmaids and fears her superiors.

Cora: A servant in the household of the Commander. She belongs to the class of women called Marthas, who are infertile but have done nothing to classify them as Unwomen. She sympathizes with Offred and hopes Offred will have a child.

Nick: The Commander's chauffer as well as a double agent in the elite, government agency of spies called the Eyes. Nick is a member of the underground rebel group called the Maydays. Serena Joy sets up an illegal rendezvous between Offred and Nick for the purpose of producing a child. Offred and Nick continue to see each other secretly. When Nick believes her to be in danger, he arranges her escape.

Offred's mother: A radical feminist before Gilead. Offred's mother was a single parent and an activist. She disapproved of Offred's marriage for the simple reason that she believed men to be unnecessary. Offred is critical of her mother's extreme views, but mourns her absence.

Offred's daughter: The child Offred had with her husband, Luke, before Gilead. She was given away to another family when Offred was arrested and forced into service as a Handmaid. Offred is tortured by thoughts of her daughter. Communication between them is impossible. Offred feels she has been erased.

Luke: Offred's husband. Luke was married when they began their relationship. He divorced his wife and married Offred. They attempt to escape Gilead, but are caught and arrested. As far as we know, they never see each other again. Offred misses their caring relationship based in equality. She feels guilty when she begins her relationship with Nick.

Previous Offred: The Handmaid stationed at the Commander's home before Offred. Offred finds a message carved in her boudoir by one of the previous Handmaids. She repeats it to herself like a mantra, 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,' which means don't let the bastards grind you down. Offred discovers that the previous Handmaid met the Commander in his study as she does and that she hung herself after Serena discovered their secret trysts.

Aunt Elizabeth: One of the headmistresses of the Red Center. Aunt Elizabeth was threatened and tied up by Moira, who used her outfit and identification to escape the Red Center.

Professor Pieixoto: The speaker at a symposium described in the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale. Professor Pieixoto discusses his efforts at verifying the tale as a historical document. His speech includes important details about certain characters and the historical context of Gilead.

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