The Handmaid's Tale
This dystopian novel is written by Margaret Atwood and was first published by McClelland & Stewart in Canada, Houghton Mifflin in the United States. The Folio Society, Random House Publishing and Anchor have also published the book.
The Handmaid's Tale is written for adults but appears on high school reading lists, often in a student's junior year.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
After America has undergone drastic political upheaval, a woman called Offred tells her story. She remembers living in a gymnasium, later called the Red Center, with other women like herself. They slept on cots and were guarded by women called "Aunts." The Aunts used cattle prods to keep the women from talking to each other. Outside, military guards, called "Angels," patrolled the fence, but these men weren't allowed to face the women. At night, she and the other women whisper to each other, hoping to find someone who knew what happened to their friends and family.
Offred now lives in a bedroom of a house with one window with shatterproof glass. There are no fixtures in the room by which anyone could hang herself. The door has no lock, and it doesn't shut all the way. Offred is a "Handmaid" and must wear a long red dress. When she leaves the house, she also wears a large hat that makes it difficult for anyone to see her face or for her to see anything except what is directly in front of her.
She describes the other women in the house, Cora and Rita. They are "Marthas," housekeepers and cooks, who must wear green dresses. The "Wives" must wear blue dresses, and their unwed daughters wear white. Offred wishes she were allowed to speak with the Marthas, but is forbidden to do so except when they discuss household duties. Offred sometimes eavesdrops on Cora and Rita so she can learn something of the outside world. Through their conversations she learns about a Handmaid who tried to poison her Commander with toilet cleaner and how a Wife stabbed her Handmaid with a knitting needle. Offred hears how Rita would never humiliate herself and become a Handmaid, while Cora argues that a Handmaid works for the good of society.
The Commander's Wife, Serena Joy, is usually in the garden or knitting scarves for the Angels. Offred recalls the day she first came to the Commander's house. She'd hoped Serena Joy would be more social than she was. She ordered Offred to remain out of sight as much as possible. Offred recognizes the Serena Joy as a former Gospel singer from a Sunday morning show she used to watch when she was a child.
On her way to buy supplies, Nick, the Commander's chauffer, winks at her. She ignores the subtle flirtation because she is afraid of Eyes — spies — watching her behavior. The government watches everything, and she doesn't want to get into trouble. Offred waits on the corner for another Handmaid, Ofglen, to arrive. They greet each other formally and walk to town together. Handmaids must always travel with a partner. They must pass through a guard post in order to enter town. She comments that the soldiers, or "Guardians of Faith," who watch the gate are either too young, too old or too wounded to be Angels on the front line.
Offred and Ofglen use their tokens at the proper stores. The tokens have pictures on them rather than words. Even the stores have only pictures on their signs so that the women will be kept from learning how to read.
This new country is called the Republic of Gilead. Offred intimates that they are safe here, away from a war being fought along unnamed borders. A pregnant Handmaid enters. The other women touch her stomach and treat her with awe. Offred recognizes the woman from her time in the Red Center. The woman's name then was Janine, and she is now called Ofwarren.
Offred drifts into a memory of her husband, Luke. He hated when she would place plastic bags from stores under the sink because he feared their daughter might get one and accidently suffocate herself. Once their shopping is done, they walk by the Wall, where criminals' bodies are hung as a warning. Offred looks at the six bodies hanging from the Wall and is relieved to know none of them is her husband.
Offred recalls a casual conversation with her best friend, Moira, about college term papers. In another, she and her mother watch people burning pornographic magazines. Offred can't remember much after the government took away her daughter.
Another day, before they part ways, Ofglen comments that it is a beautiful May Day. Offred remembers that the term "mayday" had been used in times of distress.
Offred gives the groceries to Rita and Cora, and they argue over who will give her a bath that night. When she reaches her room, Offred finds the Commander standing outside her door. This is a breach of protocol. He doesn't speak as he lets her by. Alone in her room, she remembers meeting her husband in hotel rooms before they were married, before Luke was divorced from his first wife. In the Commander's house, she found a Latin inscription scratched into the floor in her room. Even though she doesn't know what the phrase means, she relishes the belief that the message is for her from another Handmaid.
At her monthly doctor appointment, the doctor offers to have sex with her to try and impregnate her. Offred refuses. She has a tattoo that the government gave her, marking her as a fertile woman and valuable resource. Back at the Red Center, Moira and Offred recognize each other, but have to meet in the bathroom to talk. She remembers the day she, Luke and their daughter tried to escape. They ran through the woods. She pulled her daughter with her, but her daughter was snatched out of her arms.
On the night of the Ceremony, Offred must kneel by Serena Joy's chair. Cora, Rita and Nick take their places behind her. Nick's boot touches her foot. Offred moves it, but he touches her again. The Commander removes a Bible from a locked chest and reads Scriptures about being fruitful and multiplying and how Rachel gave her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob. After a time of prayer, Offred is brought up to Serena Joy's bedroom where she lies on the bed, fully clothed except for her underwear, while Serena Joy lies behind her, holding her hands. The Commander, mostly in uniform, has sex with Offred. As soon as he is finished, he leaves the room. Serena Joy orders Offred out as well, even though protocol states the Handmaid should rest on the bed with her legs elevated for at least 10 minutes after intercourse to improve the chances of impregnation.
That night, Offred sneaks out of her room, desperate to commit some small act of rebellion. She accidentally meets Nick. He embraces her, and the two share a passionate, illegal kiss. Nick then tells her that the Commander would like her to come secretly to his study the following evening.
Back in her bedroom, Offred wonders if her husband is dead, a prisoner or has escaped.
The following morning, Ofwarren is in labor. A red van takes all the Handmaids in the city to where the baby will be born. Offred wonders whether this will be a baby they can actually celebrate, or an Unbaby, something deformed and half-dead. One in four births is an Unbaby, caused by the pollution of the water and radiation from the atomic power plants.
A blue Birthmobile carries various Wives to witness the birth. The Handmaids sit cross-legged around the bed and try to breathe in the same rhythm as Ofwarren. When the baby is ready to be delivered, Ofwarren is placed on a birthing stool, and her Commander's Wife sits on a seat behind her. Once the baby is born, the Wife lies on the bed, and the baby is placed in her arms. Ofwarren will be allowed to nurse her healthy girl for a couple of months, but then she'll be transferred to a new home to see if she can give another Commander a child. Offred thinks about her own failure to conceive and knows if she doesn't produce a child soon, she could be sent to the colonies as an Unwoman. The colonies are labor camps filled with torturous work and immoral men.
Offred recalls how Moira asked to go to the bathroom one day in the gymnasium. She dismantled the toilet and took a metal shaft from it and used it against an Aunt. Moira exchanged clothes with the Aunt and left her tied up behind the furnace. She became a fantasy for the rest of the women in the gymnasium. Offred wonders whatever became of her friend.
Offred sneaks down to the Commander's study once the rest of the house has settled down for the night. She is nervous because it is illegal for her to be alone with her Commander, but he could punish her if she doesn't obey him. The Commander just wants to play a game of Scrabble with her. Of course, Scrabble is illegal for women to play because it demands they know how to read, but it is still better than the illicit things she thought he might demand of her. Before she leaves for the evening, the Commander asks her to kiss him. Offred does, at first saying it was a cold, formal kiss, but later saying it was gentler.
Offred reveals that she is 33 years old and has only one more chance to have a baby. But now, because of the Commander's request, she has a little power. She can ask for something in return.
Offred continues to see the Commander several times a week. She knows she is to go down to him when she is given the signal by Nick. If he is polishing the car when she leaves for the shopping, and if his hat is askew, she knows she is to visit. The Commander knows that sometimes she cannot come down, even when he's asked, because Serena Joy may still be awake. Not only do they play Scrabble, but the Commander also allows her to read old magazines that were supposed to have been destroyed. Offred eventually asks him for hand lotion.
This new relationship with the Commander makes the breeding Ceremony more difficult the following month. The Commander reaches to touch her face during the act, but Offred moves away.
Ofglen and Offred develop a close relationship. Ofglen admits that she is part of a treasonous group working to subvert the government. When an official black van barrels down the road as they walk home, Offred fears their conversation was monitored. The van stops near them, but armed guards take a businessman into custody.
Offred remembers how her friend Moira disapproved of Offred's affair with Luke, claiming she was poaching another woman's property. Offred countered that since Moira was a lesbian, she poached other women.
Offred is distracted when she sees Nick in the yard with his hat askew. She wonders what Nick thinks about her new relationship with the Commander. Does he know they just play Scrabble and talk or does he think the Commander demands kinky sex?
Later, she asks the Commander what the Latin phrase scratched into her closet means, although she doesn't tell him where she read it. The phrase turns out to be a schoolboy joke meaning Don't let the jerks get you down. Offred asks what happened to the former Handmaid. He says that Serena Joy found out about their private meetings. The Handmaid got so scared she'd be sent to the Colonies, she hung herself. Offred knows the Commander feels guilty about the Handmaid's life and decides to ask him for something more. She wants information about what is going on in the outside world. Later, Offred catches sight again of Nick. The two share a sexually charged glance.
Offred and Ofglen see two bodies hanging from the wall. One is labeled with a C for Catholic. Ofglen tells her that the term mayday is a code used to recognize other subversives, but warns not to use it too often as it is dangerous. Offred's Commander is very important; Ofglen asks her to use her new relationship with him to gain information for the rebels. Offred is too scared to say she will definitely help them.
Back home, Serena Joy asks Offred to sleep with Nick to get pregnant since the Commander may be sterile. Serena Joy promises to let Offred see a picture of her daughter if she will. Although angry at this act of bribery, Offred agrees.
During one of her nighttime meetings with the Commander, he admits that the men of Gilead had grown bored with how easy everything had come to them in the days before the revolution. Women and sex were mundane. This new society made their lives exciting again.
Offred and Ofglen attend a mandatory prayvaganza. Only women attend these events. Wives and daughters of officials sit along the side of a courtyard in wooden seats. The Handmaids kneel on the concrete floor opposite the Wives. Ofglen tells Offred that Ofwarren's baby died. This is Ofwarren's second failed attempt at a baby. Ofwarren thinks it's her fault the babies died because she sinned. Rumor has it that she used a doctor to get pregnant.
The ceremony begins, and 20 Angels enter in their uniforms. Twenty veiled daughters are then escorted in by their mothers. In Gilead, it is the mothers who give their daughters away in marriage. The girls are young, some only about 14 years old. As they leave, Ofglen tells her that they know she's been seeing the Commander alone. She wants Offred to find out anything she can about him.
Serena Joy brings the promised picture of Offred's daughter to her room. Offred can only look at it for a minute before it must be returned. Her daughter wears a white dress, as if she's getting ready for her first Communion. She is holding another woman's hand. Offred knows her daughter no longer remembers her. Offred tries to console herself that at least her daughter is alive and well, but it hurts to know she has been erased from her life.
On her next visit to the Commander, he promises her a surprise. She must first put on a rather scandalous costume. It is about the size of a bathing suit, covered in purple sequins and feathers around the leg holes. He has gotten her some cheap makeup to wear as a disguise. He wants to take her out of the house. Once she is dressed, the Commander gives her one of Serena Joy's winter cloaks to wear so she'll be hidden. Offred wonders what Nick thinks about her as he drives them to the Commander's destination. He takes her to a secret club for Commanders and business men. She is to pretend he hired her to be his escort for the evening. Offred is shocked by the other women's scanty clothing. She wonders how many of them are real prostitutes and how many are like her, Handmaids in disguise. During the course of the evening, Offred spies Moira. She is dressed in an old Playboy bunny costume. They again manage to meet secretly in the bathroom. Moira tells her how she managed to escape from the Red Center. She eventually found a couple to hide her in the city. They helped her get to a Quaker safe house. She spent the next eight or nine months travelling from one safe house to another and nearly made it to Canada, but was finally caught. She was given the option of going to the Colonies, where she'd have to clean up the bodies after the battles, or help deal with toxic radiation; or she could become a government-sponsored prostitute. Moira tells Offred she should try and get into the business. The food is pretty good, and they can get drinks and drugs. Offred is sad that her friend seems to have lost her will to fight the system, but Moira assures her it's still inside her. Later, the Commander takes Offred to a hotel room. Although she doesn't think he's an unkind man, Offred can't let herself enjoy his attentions. She knows he is disappointed that she isn't more responsive, but she can only lie as passively as on the night of the official Ceremony while he has sex with her.
After she returns home with the Commander, Offred waits for Serena Joy. She arrives at midnight to sneak her downstairs. Serena Joy waits in the kitchen while Offred meets Nick in his apartment over the garage. Offred narrates two different versions of her encounter with Nick, without telling the reader what actually happened. In one, they are passionate, and in the other, he is cold. In the end, Offred confesses that she's not sure exactly how things happened in Nick's room, although she does admit to loving Nick. This leads her to feeling guilty, as if she's betrayed her husband, since she doesn't know if he's alive or dead.
Offred continues to see Nick often, without Serena Joy's knowledge. She does it for herself, because of the pleasure he gives her. She tells him about Moira and Ofglen. She tells him her real name, which she has told no one, not even the reader. She tells him she thinks she's pregnant with his baby.
Offred feels alive after so many years, and Ofglen stops asking her to get information for the rebels. One day, the women are called to attend a Salvaging. Again, they are separated by their rank, with the Wives and daughters on chairs, the Marthas around the edges of the courtyard and the Handmaids in the front but with cushions on which to kneel. Three women are led up onstage, two Handmaids and a Wife. The prisoners are Salvaged — hung — immediately.
As the Salvaging concludes, the Aunt asks the Handmaids to stand up and form a circle. Offred knows whatever's coming is not something she wants to see up close, but Ofglen forces her to step near the front of the circle. A male prisoner is dragged out. The Aunt declares he's been found guilty of raping two Handmaids at gunpoint. One of them was pregnant, and the baby died. The prisoner has already been severely beaten and appears drugged. Although angry at his crime, especially since the Handmaids already suffer such indignities, Offred cannot bring herself to harm the man. As the guards step away from him, the prisoner starts to declare his innocence, but the Handmaids don't listen. They descend on the man. Ofglen reaches him first, pushes him down and kicks him viciously in the head three times until he passes out. Offred is appalled when Ofglen returns to her side. Ofglen whispers she did it out of mercy. The prisoner wasn't a rapist, he was one of the rebels. She put him out of his misery before the other Handmaids could tear him apart. As they leave the Salvaging, Offred sees Ofwarren, who has lost her mind. Offred admits she's angry at Ofwarren for taking the easy way out.
In the afternoon, Offred waits for Ofglen, but another Ofglen arrives. The Handmaids greet each other formally. At the end of their excursion, Offred takes the chance to mention that she knew the old Ofglen since May, May Day, in fact. The new Ofglen tells her she should try and forget such old terms. Offred knows she's made a mistake. Her friend has been discovered and taken prisoner. Before they part, the new Ofglen whispers that her predecessor hung herself when she saw the black van coming for her.
Offred's terror only increases when Serena Joy meets her on the steps to the house. She discovered lipstick on her winter coat and found the purple sequined costume the Commander made Offred wear. Serena Joy is furious that the Commander has betrayed her again, but she blames Offred. Offred waits in her room for whatever judgment is coming for her. She contemplates trying to burn the house down with a match she's hidden or tying the bed sheets together to hang herself. She even considers trying to kill Serena Joy. All these thoughts circle her brain, but Offred has no energy to do anything but wait. She hears the front bell ring and knows it is the Angels coming for her. Nick arrives at her door first. She is furious to think he was a spy all along, but he tells her not to worry. The guards are with the rebels. He calls her by her real name, repeats the word mayday, and tells her to trust him. She doesn't know whether to believe him or not, but hopes he's telling the truth. Serena Joy and the Commander wait at the bottom of the stairs. They demand to know why the guards are here. Offred knows this means they didn't call for the black van. The guards tell the Commander that she is wanted for violation of state secrets. She is led to the van, trusting in these new strangers because she has no other help.
An epilogue entitled "Historical Notes" ends The Handmaid's Tale. The chapter reads as a transcript from a symposium held in 2195 in which the Gilead period of history is discussed. A noted expert on the Gilead society, professor Pieixoto, gives a speech about the recently published The Handmaid's Tale. The story was transcribed from audio cassettes found in an abandoned foot locker in Maine. The tapes have been authenticated as from the Gilead period. They were not numbered, so experts had to guess at the sequence of events. Piexoto cautions the audience not to judge the Gilead government too harshly, reminding them that due to environmental pollution and nuclear accidents, the birthrate had dropped dramatically. The government was trying to save the population in the best way they knew how. The first pool of Handmaids was taken from spouses of second marriages and cohabitating couples. This was due to the government's strict religious ideals. Extensive research was done to determine the identities of the characters in the story. The Commander was narrowed down to either Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd, both leaders in the early Gilead period. Waterford was the likelier of the two candidates, as he was executed in the early purges of the government for owning books and having liberal tendencies. The true identity of Offred could not be determined, nor was it confirmed that she did, in fact, manage to escape. Professor Pieixoto believes she probably did flee to Canada or possibly England. She may not have wanted to reveal her true identity because relatives of Handmaids who escaped were known to be tortured. Nick was confirmed to have worked both as a government Eye and as a member of the Mayday organization. The men he called to take Offred into custody were members of Mayday.
The book opens with a passage from Genesis 30:1-3, in which Rachel asks Jacob sleep with her maid, Bilah, so that she can have children through her. Offred describes time as being measured by bells, as it used to be in convents. Serena Joy was once a singer on a Sunday morning Gospel program. One of the Aunts quotes the parable of the seed falling among the thorns, claiming that some of the Handmaids are shallow-rooted. The Aunts also teach them to forgive the Wives if they become jealous, for "they know not what they do." Gilead is the name of a town in the Old Testament. Offred and Ofglen visit an old church. The churchyard has gravestones engraved with angels. A mural inside is of Puritans. Offred remembers Bibles being placed in the drawers of hotel rooms. She sings the first verse of "Amazing Grace," although she substitutes the word bound for blind. An Aunt tells the women that the apostle Paul ordered women's hair to be covered or shaved off. She also said they must try not to get attached to the material world. She quotes, "Blessed are the meek," but never mentions anything about them inheriting the earth. Offred recalls the Aunt asking that the Lord make them grateful for the food that they were going to eat. Religious programs are still offered on the television in Gilead. The Commander must unlock the Bible because it's considered a dangerous book if placed in the wrong hands. He reads several passages from it on Ceremony nights, including God speaking to Adam and Noah about being fruitful and multiplying; and the story of Rachel and Leah. Offred's mind drifts during his reading, and she remembers hearing the Beatitudes at lunch every day in the Red Center. The Commander asks them all to pray before he takes Offred up to Serena Joy's bedroom. He quotes 2 Chronicles 16:9, "For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him." Offred recalls images of saints in foreign cathedrals that people would light candles to and pray to. She prays that her husband, if he was killed, was killed quickly. Offred thinks that God must look like an egg. In the Birthmobile, she thinks another Handmaid is praying. Aunt Lydia calls women who had abortions Jezebels, saying they scorned God's gifts. She also quotes Genesis 3:16 as the reason why no anesthesia would be allowed during childbirth. The Handmaids are told a slogan as to why not all Commanders are given a Handmaid; it is supposed to be a quote from the apostle Paul. People telephone one of five different prayers to a shop's computer — for health, money, a death, a sin or a birth. Offred and Ofglen stop in front of the Soul Scrolls shop. It has several giant computers that print up the prayers. Once the prayers are printed, the paper is recycled and used again. Ofglen asks if Offred believes God listens to the prayers of a computer. Offred remembers that currency used to have In God We Trust printed on it. In the Red Center, the women are taught to pray. The Aunt in charge likes to have them assume a posture similar to that of Christmas card angels. They pray for emptiness, that they would be filled with grace, love, semen and babies. When Offred tries to pray in her room, she follows the outline of the Lord's Prayer, but does it conversationally by interjecting her own thoughts and questions throughout the prayer. It is heresy to say or even think, that a man might be sterile. The infertility problem in Gilead is blamed on the women. Janine thinks the reason her babies have died is because she's sinful. At the Prayvaganza, Offred tries to imagine the Commander in charge having sex with his Handmaid and doubts he is who God had in mind when He commanded men to be fruitful and multiply. The women sing a hymn at the Prayvaganza. The Commander quotes 1 Timothy 2:11-15 during the presentation. Offred is shown a picture of her daughter in which the girl is wearing a dress similar to a first Communion outfit. Moira tells Offred she looks like the Whore of Babylon when they meet at the Commander's club. Moira also says that some of the Commanders like to bring their Handmaids to the club because it's like having sex on an altar since Handmaids are supposed to be so pure. The Quakers who helped Moira escape say prayers every morning. They tell her they are helping her because of their religious convictions. The Aunt in the gymnasium claims to love the sinner and only hate their sin, but the woman takes sadistic pleasure in punishing girls for their transgressions. The Commander's club is called Jezebel's. The Aunts in charge of the prostitutes believe the girls are damned.
Other Belief Systems
A Sufi proverb is quoted at the beginning of the book. Offred revels in the emotions and feelings that summer brings as she walks through Serena Joy's garden. She claims that goddesses are possible. Offred compares the computer that prints out prayers to a Tibetan prayer wheel. Offred says she tries to conjure up the spirits of her lost family, but they fade like ghosts in the morning. Jews are given the option of converting to the religion of Gilead or returning to Israel. Offred says that the nuns who convert seem like witches; they're exotic and mysterious. She says that her generation made sexual love their god. Efforts to stay safe — locking doors and windows or not walking in dark alleys — are treated like prayers.
The Handmaid's traditional greeting includes asking the Lord to open and bless the fruit of their wombs. They often answer others with the term "Praise be." Baptists, Quakers and Catholics are among the denominations considered heretical in Gilead.
Offred says she makes an idol of Nick because of the sense of security he gives her. She feels as if her predecessor in the Commander's house was made into an angel. In the epilogue, the speaker says that Salvagings eventually became so popular in Gilead that in the middle period they happened four times a year. The ceremony became kind of an Earth-goddess rite. The speaker hopes the Goddesses of History will leave them clues to discover more information.
Lord is used in vain with knows, thank and Oh. God's name is used in vain, alone and with Oh, my, d--n and knows. Jesus' name is also used as an exclamation. The f-word is used as a noun, a verb and as an adjective. H---, d--n, a--, b--tard and b--ch are used. Sh-- is used alone and with the word bull. Other objectionable words include tits, pee, whores, b-gger-off, sucks, c--ks, d--k, snatch, buttocks and p---.
Offred hears rumors that a Handmaid was stabbed in the belly by a jealous Wife. Another rumor claimed a Handmaid poisoned her Commander with toilet cleaner. The Wall often has the bodies of criminals hanging from it. Their heads are covered with white linen bags. Sometimes blood seeps through the bags. Offred remembers reading stories in the newspaper about women being beaten to death, mutilated and left in ditches. In the gymnasium, Ofwarren tells the women about how she was gang raped at 14. The Aunt in charge asks the other women whose fault it was, and the Handmaids chanted it was Ofwarren's fault. The Aunts refuse to let a girl use the bathroom, and she is punished for wetting herself. The girl moans in her bed that night from whatever punishment the Aunts gave her. After Moira tries to escape, the Aunts beat her feet so severely with steel cables that she can't walk for a week. A movie shown to the women in the gymnasium depicts a woman being cut apart with garden shears. Her stomach is cut and her intestines spill out. One movie shows an abortion-rights demonstration. A sign in the movie depicts a woman lying on a table with blood dripping from her. Moira uses a sharp piece of metal from the toilet bowl to threaten an Aunt when she makes her escape from the gymnasium. She tells the Aunt she will puncture her lung if she doesn't cooperate. Eventually, Moira ties the woman up and leaves her behind a furnace. Offred remembers hearing that the mistress of a Nazi officer committed suicide a few days after giving an interview about her affair. Women are threatened with the Colonies if they don't obey the government. In the Colonies, they are forced to clean up dead bodies after battles and burn them. Other Colonies require they help clean up toxic chemicals and/or radiation. The women only live about three years before their skin rots away. At the women's Salvaging, three women are hung. A male prisoner, convicted of raping two Handmaids and killing a baby, is beaten to death by women. Ofglen claims he is innocent of the crimes, but he was tortured because of his ties to the Mayday organization. Ofglen kicks the prisoner in the head three times in hopes that he will die quickly. Later, Offred learns that her friend committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the Eyes. As Offred waits for her punishment, she imagines tying bed sheets together to hang herself or burning the house down. She also fantasizes about beating Serena Joy to death.
Offred and Nick kiss passionately in the sitting room. It is evident that they'd both like to do more, but stop themselves because of the danger. After each meeting in the Commander's study, Offred must kiss him good-night. She recalls kissing her husband.
Offred says that the gymnasium where the Handmaids first slept was filled with old sex. She remembers yearning for something in high school, more than the touches in the gym, the parking lot or other places kids went to make out. She says the red of the Handmaid's dress is representative of the blood that defines them, in reference to their menstrual cycle. Offred fantasizes about being touched by men or kissing the guards. In this repressed society, she no longer feels alive because no one knows her real name or touches her, except during the Ceremony. She figures the guards must be sex-starved as they are not allowed to marry unless they become Angels, and all other means of sexual gratification are forbidden. She moves her hips seductively in front of the gate guards and hopes they get aroused at the sight, maybe even having to rub themselves for relief. Much is made of the clothing women used to wear — blouses with buttons, which could be undone. The Japanese women wear stiletto heels, which thrust out their buttocks. Their short skirts and exposed hair exudes sexuality. Offred knows that the Japanese men are excited by the Handmaids because they are forbidden. Offred remembers when men used to say they'd like to get laid. She also recalls a time when she and her mother came across a book burning in the park. One of the demonstrators gave Offred, then a little girl, a magazine. It had a picture of a naked woman suspended from the ceiling by chains. Offred remembers committing adultery with the man who would eventually become her husband. While inspecting every corner of her room in the Commander's house, she finds stains on the mattress that she believes are from a couple's lovemaking. One of the Aunts talks about how women used to make spectacles of themselves in the summer, oiling their exposed skin in bathing suits. An Aunt implies that men are sex machines that women must learn to manipulate. Moira once invited Offred to an underwhore party. Lace-crotched panties and push up bras would be sold. A doctor offers to have sex with Offred to improve her chances of getting pregnant. Offred remembers seeing pictures of harems in museums. The pictures were erotic. Moira contemplates trying to feign illness to get out of the gymnasium. She thinks she can bribe the ambulance drivers with sex because they must be starved for it. The Ceremony takes place on Serena Joy's bed. Offred must lay between Serena Joy's legs while Serena Joy holds her hands. Offred is fully clothed, except for her underwear. The Commander then has sex with her while he wears his uniform. It is a very mechanical exercise. Offred wonders why it takes him so long to complete the act as she thinks it must be every man's wet dream to be with two women at the same time. When she is finally ordered to leave Serena Joy's room, Offred tells of feeling the Commander's juice run down her legs. The Commander's attitude during the Ceremony changes after their meetings in his study. He reaches out to touch her face, but she moves away. She is more embarrassed by the Ceremony as she feels he is actually looking at her now. Offred wonders if Nick is offended, having to pimp for the Commander by sending signals to Offred as to when she should go to his study. Serena Joy bribes Offred into having sex with Nick, in hopes that he might be able to father a child. The Commander explains that one of the reasons for the fall of the government was that men were bored. There was nothing for them to work for because everything came too easy. A man could buy sex anytime. He claims they thought they could make society better, but he realizes, without remorse, that making it better for the men created a difficult life for the women. Offred says that nobody dies from a lack of sex but from a lack of love. She talks about trying to stroke herself, but that she's too dry and hard. Sometimes the girls in the Red Center were shown pornographic movies as a reminder about how women were treated in the past and how much better the women have it in Gilead. Offred remembers movies in which women were giving oral sex to men. Additional scenes depicted women being raped, their legs held apart or chained like dogs. Offred's mother used to say that a man was only good for the 10 seconds he took to make half a baby. She claimed she told Offred's father just to do his business and leave so she could have her baby. She gave her daughter a pop-up book of genitalia when Offred was 4. When the takeover of the government first occurred, all the pornography stores and prostitute vans were shut down. Moira worked for a publishing company that printed books on birth control and date rape. She thinks about the newly wedded Angels and their young brides in sweaty, grunting, sexual encounters or else miserable failures, because the women are cold and unresponsive. Ofglen tells Offred that many of the Commanders ask their Handmaids for kinky sex. The Commander brings Offred to a club. She is dressed in a sequined bodysuit and must pretend to be a hired prostitute for the evening. All the women are dressed provocatively in costumes, including lingerie, bathing suits and cheerleading outfits. The other men keep their hands off her, but they do look her over like a piece of meat. The Commander tells her that men need sexual variety. Women in the past instinctively knew that, so they would buy different outfits to trick men into thinking they were with a different woman. Offred is unable to make her body respond when the Commander has sex with her at the club. She knows he is upset, and she berates herself, trying to at least remember how to fake a sexual response so the act will be over sooner. As Offred sneaks up the stairs to Nick's apartment, she recalls the term separate entrance, which meant that you could meet someone secretly for sex. In one of the versions of her encounter with Nick, she says he spoke coldly to her at first, offering to put his semen in a bottle so she could pour it into her body later. Sometime during the night, she thinks of Serena Joy saying Offred is cheap, that she'd spread her legs for anyone for a cigarette. Offred feels guilty for enjoying sex with Nick when she isn't certain her husband is dead. Nick and Offred continue their affair secretly. Offred's encounters with Nick are sensual, but not overly explicit. She revels in having a man touch her and make her feel alive. She enjoys being known by someone else.
Offred's friend Moira is a lesbian. When Offred had first learned of her friend's homosexuality, she didn't want to hug her. But then Moira told her she wasn't interested in her sexually, and their relationship became less awkward. Moira calls the Commander's club a butch paradise because there are so many women available. She tells Offred the men encourage the women to have sex together as it turns them on.
Tobacco: Serena Joy smokes black-market cigarettes. Nick and Moira also smoke cigarettes. Offred remembers smoking before she was a Handmaid.
Alcohol: The Commander drinks alcohol. Moira asked Offred if she wanted to get a beer when they were in college. Offred remembers drinking Scotch with Moira after the government transferred her bank account to her husband. Offred's mother used to have friends over to listen to music and drink. Someone spikes the grape drink given to the Handmaids while Janine is giving birth. The Wives stay and visit after a Handmaid gives birth, often getting drunk.
Tattoos: The Handmaids receive a tattoo on their ankles, a number and an eye, a sign that they are considered a national resource and cannot leave Gilead.
Gossip: The Marthas gossip about other households. Offred believes the Wives gossip about their Handmaids.
A movie based on The Handmaid's Tale was released in 1990.
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Readability Age Range
High school and up
First published by McClelland & Stewart in Canada, Houghton Mifflin in the United States. The Folio Society, Random House Publishing and Anchor have also published the book
Finalist for the 1986 Man Booker Prize