The narrator is imprisoned with several other women in a gym.
Then she's working at a Commander's house as a Handmaid. This is her third such assignment.
She leaves the house only to go shopping or to other ritual events. She thinks frequently about the woman who was the Handmaid before her, who killed herself.
Throughout the book, the narrator has frequent flashbacks.
In the first series of flashbacks, she remembers her life with her husband Luke and their daughter. She works at a library. When the government collapses, she loses her job and control over money.
The narrator and Luke try to set up fake papers and cross the border. They almost make it but are captured at the last minute. The narrator doesn't know what happened to Luke or her daughter.
In the second series of flashbacks, the narrator remembers the Women's Center, where she was held at the beginning of the book. Here the women are brainwashed, indoctrinated into being Handmaids and forgetting their old lives. The narrator is momentarily relieved when her friend Moira comes to the Center. Moira eventually escapes.
In between these flashbacks, the narrator struggles with the present.
She is forced to have sex regularly with the Commander with his Wife present.
She learns that her companion Handmaid Ofglen is working for the resistance.
She attends a Prayvaganza and a birth.
The narrator starts meeting the Commander in secret, without the Wife. They play Scrabble and talk. He takes her to a brothel called Jezebel's, where she runs into Moira and hears the rest of her story. The Commander makes the narrator have sex with him there.
The Commander's Wife asks the narrator have sex with Nick, the chauffeur, to try to get her pregnant (since the Commander is probably sterile). In exchange, she shows the narrator a picture of her daughter, who is now three years older.
The narrator continues to have sex with Nick and develops feelings for him. She thinks she might be pregnant.
The narrator and Ofglen go to a public Salvaging. She is shocked when Ofglen participates. They both go home, and when the narrator goes to meet Ofglen later that day, another woman is in her place.
The narrator gives herself away as resistance-friendly to this other woman and learns that Ofglen killed herself, too. The narrator worries for her own safety.
She goes home and is confronted by the Commander's Wife, who has found out that she has been spending time alone with the Commander. The narrator knows she's in major trouble.
She goes upstairs to wait and sees a black van – which is what transports political prisoners – coming for her.
Nick assures her that they're resistance workers coming to rescue her, but the narrator doesn't know whether to trust him or not. The men take her away, but we never find out what happens to her.