The Handmaid's Tale Book summary

Margaret Atwood




Margaret Atwood's dystopian masterpiece, "The Handmaid's Tale," has left an indelible mark on the literary world since its publication in 1985. Set in the near-future theocratic society of Gilead, the novel is a chilling exploration of gender oppression and religious extremism. Its success lies not only in its compelling narrative but also in its profound social commentary.

Atwood's narrative was inspired by the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, where discussions about women's rights and autonomy were at the forefront. This context shaped the novel's plot, where fertile women, known as Handmaids, are forced into reproductive servitude. The book serves as a stark warning about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and the erosion of women's rights.

The reception of "The Handmaid's Tale" has been nothing short of remarkable. It has become a seminal work in feminist literature and has won numerous awards, including the Governor General's Award in Canada and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. The novel's adaptation into a successful television series further solidified its impact on popular culture. Its continued relevance and ability to spark conversations about gender inequality, reproductive rights, and authoritarianism attest to its enduring power as a work of literature.


Plot Summary


The Handmaid’s Tale follows the account of a woman named Offred who is designated to the role of a breeder under the theocratic regime of Gilead. The nation-state of Gilead came into power when a group of Puritans overthrew the American government by assassinating the president and the congressmen. The government is led by a group of men who call themselves the Commanders, and they create a severely patriarchal society in which women do not have the right to own property. The dystopian setting of the world includes an extremely polluted environment which has had a severe impact on the fertility of women, while it is considered impossible for men to be sterile. The Commanders create a special class of citizens called the Handmaids, drawing inspiration from a biblical passage of Rachel and Leah, in which a wife offers her handmaid to her husband as a means for her to receive a child. The Handmaids of Gilead are women of viable reproductive capacity and their only role is to provide the commanders and their wives with children. The laws regarding sex are very strict, and men are not allowed to touch women unless they are awarded women by the regime.

Offred begins her account from the days of a Red Centre, where she is psychologically conditioned by a group of abusive women called the Aunts. They are taught that the new regime is beneficial for them, while they are taught to hate their sexuality. As Offred moves from the training center to a Commander’s house, she is constantly reminded of her daughter and husband, Luke. They were both taken away from her when they attempted to escape Gilead. Offred serves the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, an old woman who had once been a gospel singer and then a vocal advocate for Gilead. It is evident to Offred that Serena Joy hates her, but throughout her stay at the house, Offred develops a relationship with the Commander. He secretly arranges for her to meet him, since no relationship is allowed between them except sex. He treats her with kindness, plays games of Scrabble with her, and even gifts her lotion, a prized and illegal commodity. Offred develops a relationship with another Handmaid called Ofglen, who is part of a secret resistance called Mayday. She also develops a distant but magnetic relationship with the Commander’s driver, Nick.

The Commander eventually reveals to Offred that a Handmaid had lived in their house before her, but she had killed herself when Serena found out that the Commander shared a secret relationship with her. Offred continues with their relationship despite the danger and even accompanies him to a hotel, where the commanders commit debauchery with prostitutes in secret. She is unable to feel any true emotion for the Commander, however, she develops a loving affair with Nick. This affair begins when Serena suggests that they use Nick to impregnate her since the Commander may be sterile. Offred continues to see Nick after that first time and feels immensely in love with him. Ofglen attempts to use her to spy on the Commander, but she is soon discovered and she chooses to commit suicide. Serena learns about Offer’s relationship with the commander, but Offred is picked up by a van bearing the crest of the Gilead secret service. Nick assures Offred that the van is sent by Mayday and that she is being rescued. She goes along with them because she has no alternative, unaware of whether she is going towards danger or security.

  • Author(s)

    Margaret Atwood
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

    Feminist Literature

  • Pages





McClelland and Stewart