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.