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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Plot Summary

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The Handmaid's Tale takes place very roughly in the first half of the 2000s in the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy established by religious fundamentalists who have overthrown the democratic government of the United States and established themselves in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts (a city near Boston that is home to Harvard University). In Gilead, the government controls all aspects of people's lives, enforces strict rules, and exercises terrible punishments for disobedience. People are assigned by the government to groups, or castes. Each caste of people must wear clothing of the same color. Marthas, or female domestic servants, wear green, as do Guards, or the military. Upper-class married women, called Wives, wear blue; lower-class married women, or Econowives, wear stripes; and fertility slaves, known as Handmaids, wear red. Other groups include the Aunts, who reeducate fertile women to become Handmaids, and the Eyes, who act as spies for the government.

Sexuality is strictly controlled, and fertility is rare due to environmental pollution. The Handmaids—such as Offred, the narrator—are fertile women who are required to provide children for wealthy, infertile couples. They do this in a manner that is loosely based on Old Testament stories in which a woman's handmaid conceives a child by the woman's husband and the child is raised as if it were the wife's. Offred is assigned to the Commander and his Wife, Serena Joy, to provide this service. She lives in the Commander's home, along with several other servants. Offred and the Commander are required to have sex each month when Offred is most fertile.

Each day, Offred goes shopping for household food, accompanied by another handmaid, Ofglen. All of the Handmaids are given names that are made up of the prefix Of- combined with the first names of their Commanders. In fact, readers never learn Offred's real name, though she alludes to it often as part of her lost identity. Offred and Ofglen frequently walk past the Wall, where the bodies of executed lawbreakers are displayed as warnings for disobedience. Offred learns from Ofglen that there is a secret resistance group called Mayday.

Throughout Offred's narrative, she flashes back to a time before present-day Gilead to reveal how she came to be in her current situation. Readers have to reconstruct this disjointed narrative to understand the tragic events of Offred's past. Approximately three years ago, she had a husband, a daughter, friends, an education, a job, choices, and opportunities. Then the democratic U.S. government was overthrown, and the Republic of Gilead took its place, a takeover made possible, Offred believes, because people took their freedoms for granted and ignored injustices. As a result of the takeover, society and gender roles changed radically and violently. When Offred and her husband, Luke, tried to escape into Canada with their daughter, they were captured and separated. The daughter was taken away and given to a wealthy couple. Offred became a Handmaid. Luke's fate remains unknown.

After several months at the Commander's house, Offred begins meeting in secret with the Commander at his request. At these meetings, which are outside the boundaries of their lawful relationship, the two talk, read (a forbidden activity for women), and play Scrabble. Sometimes, he gives her gifts. Offred wonders over the Commander's motivation for these meetings, which she determines take place out of boredom with his Wife and his desire to believe that the lives of the Handmaids are bearable. After the relationship is established, the Commander takes Offred secretly to an illegal brothel called Jezebel's.

However, the Commander does not control all of the household's secrets. When Offred does not become pregnant with the Commander's baby, Serena Joy hatches a conspiracy, thinking the Commander may be sterile. She makes plans for Offred to meet in secret for sex with Nick, a servant and the only other man who lives at the Commander's house, hoping Offred will become pregnant. The fact that Nick and Offred live in the same household reduces their risk of getting caught by authorities. Eventually, Offred begins meeting secretly with Nick on her own to conduct an affair and possibly become pregnant, unbeknownst to both Serena Joy and the Commander.

During a daily shopping trip, Ofglen reveals that Offred's secret meetings with the Commander are no secret, and she urges Offred to spy on the Commander and relay any information to the resistance. However, Offred is selfishly unwilling to help the resistance now that she has a small degree of control in her life due to her romance with Nick. The effects of Offred's unwillingness to help the resistance become brutally clear when Offred and Ofglen attend a gathering of women where the Handmaids beat an accused rapist to death with their bare hands. Offred is disturbed by Ofglen's enthusiastic participation in the beating. Ofglen then tells her the man is not a rapist but a part of Mayday, the resistance, and that she has purposefully knocked him out to spare him any further pain.

Offred soon learns that Ofglen, after seeing government authorities coming for her in a black van, has killed herself. Serena Joy confronts Offred about her unlawful relationship with the Commander. Then Offred sees the black van coming for her, too. However, Nick tells her that the men in the van are from Mayday and are there to help her. With the Commander, his Wife, and other members of the household in a confused uproar, Offred goes with the men.

A section called "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale" follows the final chapter of the story. In this section, which takes place at least 150 years in the future, a professor gives a lecture about The Handmaid's Tale as if it were a real historical document transcribed from audio tapes.

The Handmaid's Tale Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Offred is held captive in an old gym with other women.

Rising Action

2 Offred is posted to the Commander's house as Handmaid.

3 Offred meets her new shopping companion, Ofglen.

4 Offred takes part in the Ceremony to become pregnant.

5 Offred begins meeting secretly with the Commander.

6 Offred is taken to Jezebel's, where she learns Moira's fate.

7 Offred begins having a secret affair with Nick, a Guard.

8 Offred goes to a Women's Salvaging.


9 Handmaids kill an accused rapist who is with the resistance.

Falling Action

10 Ofglen kills herself when she sees Eyes coming to take her.

11 Offred leaves in a black van, but Nick assures her safety.


12 In 2195 a professor speaks on The Handmaid's Tale.

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