Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Analysis

By Margaret Atwood

  • Tone

    Dispassionate and Factual

    Let's face it: living in the Republic of Gilead sucks.

    Of course, it's worse for some than others, but even the most powerful don't have that great a time of it. So why sugarcoat something so awful? Even the most beautiful, flowery language wouldn't be able to disguise the way things are—it would just be another form of deceit. There's already enough of that.

    And for a character like the narrator, stuck in a society that's taken so much away from her, it would be adding insult to injury to use language to mask or hide her situation, which is already so empty. Even though the narrator says at one point, "I wish this story were different [...] I wish it were about [...] sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow" (41.1), she can't put in things that aren't there. She can't add frippery or positive imagery.

    The narrator needs to tell her story like it is, as far as she can. There's already so much she doesn't know, and so much we readers will never find out.

  • Genre

    Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Dystopian Literature

    Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction?

    The Handmaid's Tale seems to fit well into the genre of science fiction, with its new social caste system, alternate view of the future, and abandonment of technology for primitive ceremonial systems. Case closed, right?


    The author herself disagrees with this characterization. In 2005 Atwood presented the argument that her work is speculative fiction rather than science fiction, and that the two genres are really super-different:

    I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. (Source)

    Dystopian Literature

    Many of the book's plot elements also fit neatly into the genre of dystopian literature. In a dystopia, we usually find a society that has become all kinds of wrong (in direct contrast to a utopia, or a perfect society).

    Like many totalitarian states, the Republic of Gilead starts out as an envisioned utopia by a select few: a remade world where lower-class women will provide upper-class couples with children, so the human race can feel confident about producing future generations. Yet the vast majority of the characters we meet are oppressed by this world; its strict attention to violence, death, and conformity highlight the ways in which it is a totally miserable place.

    Atwood points to this idea of utopia or dystopia specifically in an exchange between the narrator and Moira:

    [The narrator] said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. (28.7)

    Female characters are often told in The Handmaid's Tale how much safer, more protected and better off they are. By themselves, those are utopian characteristics... but in this context, they're anything but.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Historical Document From the Future... Ugh, that Makes Our Heads Hurt

    If you skip ahead and turn to the back of the book, the way you might to find out whodunit in a murder mystery—not that we at Shmoop would know anything about that!—you find a brief, scholarly interpretation of the title, "The Handmaid's Tale."

    According to the "Historical Notes" section, this wasn't the original title. Not only that, the book wasn't even originally a literary text; it was a story recorded on audiotapes. The scholar, Professor Pieixoto, gives us this explanation:

    […] what we have before us [the majority of The Handmaid's Tale] is not the item in its original form. Strictly speaking, it was not a manuscript at all when first discovered and bore no title. The superscription "The Handmaid's Tale" was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer […]. (Historical Notes.12)

    So what the Professor would like us to believe is that what we just read are transcriptions he and another scholar made of these tapes, which they then put in a specific order. Then they gave the tapes this title partly as an allusion to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

    In Chaucer's famous medieval work, some people are taking a pilgrimage on horseback, which is taking forever. To pass the time they each tell a story, which are named things like "The Miller's Tale" or "The Reeve's Tale" after the main character's role in society. So the title "The Handmaid's Tale" makes sense according to this formula; the narrator is a Handmaid. That's her role in society.

    Tale As Old As Time

    Obviously, though, the Professor is just a made-up character. But that doesn't mean that the reference to Chaucer doesn't apply. The Professor goes on to make some archaic scholarly (but still dirty!) jokes about puns in the title. He's focusing on the "Tale" bit here, suggesting both a "vulgar signification" (you know, like "getting some tail") and also the "bone [...] of contention [...] in Gileadean society" (Historical Notes.12). This last phrase could mean that sex was the biggest problem for the Gileadeans.

    But we can also think about the use of the word "Tale" in the title as meaning a "story": something, perhaps, that's not totally real—a fiction or an allegory. Like when the narrator says,

    I would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. (7.32)

    Actually, there are plenty of hints sprinkled throughout the book that suggest we may not be hearing about things the way they actually happened, that the "Tale" is not what it seems to be. (For more about this, see the "Reading, Writing, and Storytelling" theme and "What's Up With the Ending?")

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Wanted: Dead or Alive

    You know the saying: is the glass half empty or half full? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Well, your natural level of optimism or pessimism is probably going to influence what you think happens at the end of this book.

    The Handmaid's Tale doesn't provide a definitive answer about its heroine's fate. If you're feeling positive when you hit the end of the book, you might walk away thinking, "Phew. She totally made it." If you're feeling negative, you might just think, "Uh oh." So how do both of those options play out?

    Well, we've got two mini-endings going on. In the first, which closes off the narrator's story, the heroine gets into a black car with men who are either there to arrest her for treason or to smuggle her to safety. Oh, that's comforting.

    She has—and we have—no way of knowing which it is. If Nick's as trustworthy as he says he is, then the men are there to rescue her and take her to safety. He addresses the narrator by her actual name, which could be proof that he's genuine—or proof that he's really working for The Man. If he's not trustworthy, this has been a giant conspiracy to weed out traitors, and the narrator's going to suffer the consequences.

    As she says, "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped" (46.41). A "new beginning" would mean freedom, a regained identity, and being allowed to think again. Yet it seems like even death would be preferable to the stagnant, imprisoned life of a Handmaid.

    The second mini-ending can also be taken two ways. It's a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" (Historical Notes.1) and it takes place more than two hundred years after the events of the novel. In this "transcript," scholars discuss a series of audiotapes that recorded the narrator's story, which we've just read.

    They try to make assumptions about who the narrator was, where she was, and who else she was talking about. They can't figure out her identity or what happened to her, although the fact that the tapes were made suggests she at least made it to a safe house on her way out of Gilead.

    After that, who knows? She could have gained freedom or been recaptured and killed. As one of the fictional scholars says at the end of his talk, "As for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure" (Historical Notes.43). The odds of surviving would have been against her, but she at least escaped for long enough to preserve her story.

    In an interview with the New York Times, Atwood said:

    The central character—the Handmaid Offred—gets out. The possibility of escape exists. A society exists in the future which is not the society of Gilead and is capable of reflecting about the society of Gilead in the same way that we reflect about the 17th century. Her little message in a bottle has gotten through to someone—which is about all we can hope, isn't it? (Source)

    So the rest of the narrator's story is left to the reader's imagination. Is your glass half empty or half full?

  • Setting

    The Republic of Gilead

    The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a city in what used to be in the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. In this alternative future state, the democratic government has been overthrown and replaced by a totalitarian one. What makes Gilead so scary is that it still looks pretty much the same... but its government and society are totally alien from our own. Gilead seems to be without freedom or choice.

    One of the most terrifying things about Gilead is how it seems to permeate everyone's psyches. The narrator first hears this when she's being reprogrammed at the Women's Center: "The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you" (5.2). Yikes.

    We mean, even if you lived somewhere really nice, would you want the city to be inside you? There's no getting away from this society's beliefs, ever. They're always with you, because they're "within you."

    The narrator describes the city she lives in as follows:

    The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they're like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.

    This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. (5.1-2)

    Sounds kind of like Stepford, right? It also sounds like the terrifying city on the planet Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time. It's fair to say that Gilead resembles both of those places in that the people have become eerily homogeneous in behavior and appearance.

    But the difference is that there aren't any children. Children bring life and energy to a place, and without them Gilead seems dark and empty. Notice that throughout the book we meet very few children, even though creating them is the object to which all adults aspire. Terrible wars are supposedly raging outside the city (the narrator only hears about this in snippets on television, which may be complete propaganda), but inside the city people are safe from the outside forces of death and destruction. It's the ones inside they have to worry about.

    Gilead is based on Cambridge, MA, specifically the Harvard area, outside Boston. According to an interview she gave to the New York Times, Atwood made this choice because of the region's Puritan background and history of intolerance:

    You often hear in North America, "It can't happen here," but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn't agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there. That's why I set the book in Cambridge. (Source)

    Atwood has a personal connection to this too, since one of her relatives, to whom The Handmaid's Tale was partially dedicated, nearly died by hanging at the hands of the Puritans (source). Even with that personal connection aside, it's easy to see how the idea of something so frightening "not happening here" can so easily be proven wrong.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    So, this book has three epigraphs, which in itself is kind of confusing. (Way to be an overachiever, Margaret Atwood!) Let's take them one at a time.

    Give Me Children, Or Else...

    First, we've got Genesis:

    And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

    And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

    And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3)

    Hard to go wrong with a Biblical quotation right out of the gate, right? It sort of promises an instant legitimacy and seriousness in the book to come. This is a discussion between Jacob and Rachel about how she can't give him children so he should go get her maid pregnant so Rachel can claim them as her own kids. This seems to set the tone for a solemn discussion about infertility and marriage.

    The phrase "Give me children or else I die" is going to be key for the rest of the text. If you're looking closely, the desire for children seems to set up a kind of sanctioned adultery within marriage as long as the ultimate goal is to make children.

    Of course, Jacob had another wife, Rachel's sister Leah, who had plenty of kids. If you've read Genesis, you may remember that Rachel was Jacob's favorite wife, even if Leah gave him more sons. The issue of privilege and favoritism seems to be rearing its big, ugly head.

    Babies For Breakfast?

    Our next epigraph's author is from Jonathan Swift, master of satire:

    But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal... (Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal)

    Here we've got an excerpt from Swift's famous piece of satire "A Modest Proposal." (By the way, if you haven't read "A Modest Proposal" yet, you might want to go check it out. We're about to spoil it, and it's a lot more fun if you figure it out yourself. Go on, it's short. We'll wait.)

    The subject of this satire, although you can't tell from this quotation, is children. Yet while the Genesis quotation is concerned with the absence of children, Swift's is in reference to waaay too many kids. (The full title is actually A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.)

    Swift is writing about Ireland at a time when there wasn't enough food and people were having more children than they could feed. He proposes that people should raise their children like cows or other farm animals and sell them to be eaten. Don't freak out—he's just kidding! What's scary about it, though, is how easy it is take the idea seriously, and how Swift can manipulate language to make his crazy ideas sound like rational solutions to what was, after all, a very real problem.

    So we've moved from the ultra-serious to the ultra-sarcastic in the first two epigraphs, and it's up to the third to break the tie.

    Stone Soup

    In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. (Sufi proverb)

    Hmm…. This one is a real head-scratcher. Unlike the first two epigraphs, most Western readers probably aren't familiar with it, and at first glance it doesn't make a ton of sense. Unlike the other epigraphs, this quote is not about children.

    This Sufi proverb presents us with a negative: there's no sign, but if there were one it would say "don't eat stones." Well, if there's no sign, maybe it's because the rule is super obvious: of course you shouldn't eat stones, let alone stones in the desert. Sheesh.

    Maybe this epigraph is pointing to the fact that some things simply aren't acceptable (like breeding women), no mater how desperate the situation. Some rules don't have to be written down; they should be obvious. But that's just our take on this mysterious epigraph. What do you think?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    • Tricky narrative structure? Check.
    • Lead character who may or may not be lying? Check.
    • Lots of characters going by fake names or no names at all? Check.
    • Uncomfortable subject matter? Check.
    • Absence of quotation marks during dialogue? Check.
    • Ambiguous ending? Check.
    • Compulsive readability? Oh yeah, that too.

    While The Handmaid's Tale isn't James Joyce's Ulysses, it's still a pretty complicated book. It's going to be tough for anyone squeamish about infertility or tricky narrative structures, and it asks readers to commit to a world all the more frightening because it resembles our own. It's a gnarly ride, but we think it's worth it.

  • Writing Style

    Blunt and Opaque

    Blunt and opaque? Isn't that like saying "hot and cold" or "black and white"? Yes, in the normal world. But remember that the world of The Handmaid's Tale is far from normal.

    This is a tricky one—even though narrator speaks plainly and bluntly throughout the book, much of the time her words seem to cloak or obscure what really happened. The contrast between what's being revealed and what's being hidden is formally emphasized by the slippage between what characters say and what they think.

    From a technical standpoint, we can see this in the absence of quotation marks to separate speech from thoughts and feelings, particularly in memories. For example, consider this excerpt, in which the narrator flashes back to a disagreement she had with Luke when she tried to explain to him how being stripped of her agency in society has made her feel:

    You don't know what it's like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn't crying. Also, I couldn't put my arms around him. (28.86)

    This conversation takes place in the narrator's mind, so we have to take her word for it that this is how it went down. Here the book moves rapidly between what the narrator says to Luke, first "You don't know what it's like," then "I feel as if somebody cut off my feet."

    The second statement could be an internal thought, since it overlaps with "I wasn't crying." The narrator then immediately shifts to what her body can't do: "put [her] arms around him." She can't put into words "what it's like" for her, and she can't act on her feelings. Her body is defined by what it can't do: cry or hug her husband.

    So there are facets of this argument that we can't see. Its lines are blurry, and the narrator reinforces that blurriness, but she also doesn't shy away from the tough moments in her text.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Bible and Religion

    The novel is peppered with frequent allusions to different parts of the Bible. The most obvious is the reference to Genesis 30:1-3 (Epigraph), with its catchy phrase, "Give me children or else I die." That text, with its focus on bringing a "maid" or Handmaid into a childless marriage to create heirs, is the fundamental idea behind the Republic of Gilead. (For more on this, see "What's Up With the Epigraph?" or "Shout Outs.") Specific parts of the Bible that glorify marriage, that absolve men of adultery for the purposes of childbirth, and that convict women of it, have been cherry picked from the text and made into law. Other parts, such as the ones that emphasize meekness and humility, have been used to dictate behavior to the Handmaids. (It goes without saying that there's only one authorized religion permitted in Gilead, the one promoted by the state.)

    Obviously a variety of Western monotheistic religions rely on versions of the Bible in different ways, and the Bible is often seen as a moral weight in society. But in the United States, Biblical law is separate from state and federal law. You don't have to abide by what your neighbor says is in the Bible if you have a different interpretation of it (and vice versa). In Gilead, what the government has decided should be taken from the Bible has become absolute law. The authority the Bible already has becomes even more powerful.

    Strange, small pieces of Biblical text show up frequently throughout the book. This is particularly evident in place names and propaganda. For example, there's Gilead itself. Within it, all the stores the Handmaids are allowed to shop at have Biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Lilies. The hotel where the prostitutes are kept is called Jezebel's. Whenever the narrator remembers a piece of dialogue or something that happened at the Center, it usually includes a piece of Biblical content. These references, though, have been bastardized or altered in some cases to further the goals of the Republic, so even if knowledge of the Bible is excellent, you might not catch them all.

    Eyes and Seeing

    "Eyes" are the spies who work for the government and are situated throughout Gilead. Anyone could be an Eye, and the assumption is that characters are always being watched. It's really interesting that the visual aspects of spying are emphasized when you consider that the Handmaids, in particular, are supposed to be kept from both seeing and being seen. As reproductive objects, they must not be sexualized, and one of the freedoms Gilead is supposed to provide them is freedom from the lascivious male gaze. But the watching the government does, through the Eyes, is even more invasive.

    Fertility and Sex

    Gilead rose to power in large part because no one was making babies any more. Even though baby-making is a two-person process, society has shifted all the blame for infertility onto women:

    There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law. (11.18)

    Gilead's solution to this problem is to parcel out the few fertile women left to powerful men and their wives. In order to make this seem legitimate and proper, the government has made people follow Ceremonies and read the Bible before engaging in a very particular kind of sex. Presumably, in order to make it seem like a baby born to a Handmaid will really belong to the wife, the man and the Handmaid are required to have businesslike, non-erotic sex with the wife present. The Handmaid lies between the wife's legs while the man has sex with the Handmaid. This arrangement is echoed in childbirth, should any household be so lucky as to get to that point: the wife sits with her legs around the Handmaid as she endeavors to give birth.

    Despite all these arrangements, nothing is working and not enough babies are being born. Everybody is secretly breaking the rules. We're constantly reminded of the lovelessness and absence of eroticism in this society, as well as the absence of choice and free will. (For more on fertility, see "Flowers" and "Eggs" in this section.)


    Throughout the book, the narrator makes references to or compares women to flowers. For example, the Commander and Serena Joy's house is completely doused in floral imagery: there's a "watercolor picture of blue irises" (2.4) in the narrator's room; the bathroom is "papered in small blue flowers, forget-me-nots" (12.1); the master bedroom is decorated with "a starry canopy of silver flowers" (31.46). The first thing the narrator finally works the nerve up to steal is a daffodil from one of Serena Joy's arrangements. Even Jezebel's, where the Commander takes the narrator, is decorated with flowers. Flowers are also used to disguise things that are ugly or terrifying; the narrator compares the bloody mouth of a hanged man, for example, to the "red of the tulips" in Serena Joy's garden (6.26).

    Flowers are often considered symbols of beauty or fertility. In The Handmaid's Tale they're given special attention as objects that can bloom and grow at a time when few women can. From a technical standpoint, flowers are also the part of a plant that hold the reproductive organs. They're constant reminders of the fertility that most women lack.

    It seems the older Wives are seeking to hang onto their attractiveness and fertility by decorating themselves with flowers and tending gardens: "Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for" (3.2). Serena Joy takes a bizarre pleasure in mutilating flowers: when the narrator sees her chopping them awkwardly, she wonders, "Was it [...] some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body" (25.25). Perhaps these are attacks Serena Joy would like to make on the Handmaid, who can be seen as a flower living in her house.


    The idea of eggs comes up frequently in the book. With each mention we're reminded that they're part of a human woman's reproductive cycle, even though usually what the narrator is doing is eating them. She usually has them for breakfast, eating eggs so she can make her own healthy eggs. When, one night, she falls asleep in her closet and terrifies Cora into dropping her breakfast the next morning, it's an egg that falls to the ground and has to be thrown away.

    One day at breakfast the narrator thinks, "I think that this is what God must look like: an egg [...] To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure" (19.11, 12). She adds that she is living "The minimalist life. Pleasure is an egg. Blessings that can be counted, on the fingers of one hand. But possibly this is how I am expected to react. If I have an egg, what more can I want?" (19.15). The narrator's attitude toward eggs alludes to what eggs symbolize in Christianity:

    The egg is a wonderful symbol of birth and rebirth, an apparently lifeless object out of which comes life. [...] It is a symbol of Christ's Resurrection. [...] The egg represents the Creation, the elements, and the world itself, with the shell representing the firmament, the vault of the sky where the fiery stars lie; the thin membrane symbolizing air; the white symbolizing the waters; and the yolk representing earth. (source)

    If the egg can be seen to contain God and pleasure, a whole world, the narrator wonders, perhaps she should not desire anything else. In her next thought, however, she worries that she's been given the egg and these feelings so she won't want anything else. Even philosophical abstraction and meditation has been undermined by Gilead.


    See our discussion in "Character Clues: Clothing."

    The Republic of Gilead (Cambridge, MA)

    See our discussion in "Setting."

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)

    What information we get about Gilead, we get from the woman currently known as Offred—even though she's only allowed a really limited view of the world. And we mean that literally: she's not allowed to make eye contact with most people.

    We see Gilead as "Offred" sees it; we interpret it as she interprets it; and our only knowledge of it comes from the tidbits she gives to us. From a dramatic or plot standpoint, we only discover the narrator's history and the events that led up to the foundation of the Republic of Gilead as she reveals them, almost as an aside to her narrative about what's happening to her at her third posting (the Commander's home).

    We have to trust her about Gilead and what happens to her. At the same time, that trust is continually undermined by her comments about how she wishes she could change the direction of her story and admissions about how she has changed it, as well as constant evasions and the use of pseudonyms. She even says at one point, "This isn't a story I'm telling," before turning around in an about-face and saying, "It's also a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along" (7.34-35).

    Frustrating? Sure. But not nearly as frustrating as being stuck in Gilead.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Falling Stage

    The narrator is captured, sent to the Center, and assigned the position of Handmaid.

    The narrator is not alone in her capture and brainwashing; she is part of a select group of fertile women whom this new government has chosen to be molded into child-bearing vessels for the upper classes. Their identities are removed and their personalities gradually scrubbed away.

    Recession Stage

    In order to distance herself from her current situation, the narrator retreats to flashbacks and memories.

    The narrator realizes that her situation could be worse: she could be in the Colonies or even dead. She uses her memories to take herself out of her body, away from the demeaning circumstances that constrict her, and relies on them to remind herself of her intelligence and capacity for love. By holding onto these things, she manages to grit her teeth and bear it as a Handmaid. She has opportunities to kill herself and doesn't take them. She finds ways to take small pleasures and satisfactions from her situation.

    Imprisonment Stage

    The narrator is forced into secret sexual relationships with the Commander and Nick. Discovery of either could result in her death. She considers giving up the desire to escape and staying in this demeaning position of Handmaid just so she can be close to Nick.

    The narrator enters into several different relationships, each of which is illegal and dangerous. She can no longer rely on her flashbacks to distance herself from her situation. She can't ignore how precarious her situation is or how close she is to losing the very little she has left. She's trapped in a cycle of non-pregnancy, unable to achieve the one thing that could keep her safe. Time is running out.

    Nightmare Stage

    The narrator's openness to the resistance is potentially revealed after Ofglen's death, and Serena Joy finds out about her involvement with the Commander. The narrator is waiting for an unknown punishment.

    The delicate balance the narrator had been trying to achieve comes crashing down after she has to watch a terrible execution. One of her only friends and allies disappears, and Serena Joy is furious with her for her betrayal. The narrator fears she has lost her place and must wait for a punishment she can't imagine.

    Rebirth Stage

    The two Eyes, who could be government agents or resistance workers, come to take the heroine away.

    The narrator's removal from the Commander's house is a redemption of sorts: she's taken away from a place where she's been marking time. Yet the redemptive qualities of this rescue (or arrest, depending on your point of view) are purposefully left ambiguous. We don't know if the narrator is really being redeemed or if she's been damned by her flirtation with the resistance.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    The narrator is sent to her "third posting," a position as Handmaid to the powerful Commander.

    This is pretty straightforward: the narrator arrives at a new location while explaining both her position in society and how she got to it. It's kind of like the first "exposition" scene in a show like Law and Order, where the characters toss out a lot of backstory with straightforward dialogue.


    The Commander wants to be more than just Commander and Handmaid; that is, he wants to play Scrabble and take the narrator to a brothel called Jezebel's.

    The whole point of the narrator's role in the Commander's house is as a sexless vessel to be impregnated. He's not supposed to enjoy being with her, and she's not supposed to threaten his relationship with his wife.

    So when the Commander wants to enjoy some one-on-one time, he's getting his rocks off and putting the narrator in jeopardy. The fact that he wants to play Scrabble at first is way less predictable than his eventual desire to go to Jezebel's.


    The Commander's Wife wants a baby so she tells the narrator to start sleeping with the chauffeur, Nick.

    Clearly, breaking one rule isn't enough. Now the narrator has to get involved with another man, Nick, while keeping that part of her life from the Commander. It seems like she has a different private arrangement going on with everyone she knows. If that's not complicated, what is? This is a disaster waiting to happen.


    The narrator starts to fall in love with Nick and thinks she might be pregnant. Meanwhile, she and her friend Ofglen have to go watch a Salvaging (execution). There, both women behave slightly abnormally and, as a result, put themselves in jeopardy.

    Just as the narrator may be starting to carry a new life, she has to go observe death. While pregnancy should be a ticket to safety, the fact that she wants to be with Nick is only going to get the narrator into more trouble. As if on cue, she has to go to a Salvaging and see the terrible punishments that happen when women break the rules. This is reinforced when she sees Ofglen stand up for another person in the resistance. She begins to worry about how so little in her world is what it seems.


    The narrator finds out that Ofglen has compromised herself and vanished. The Commander's Wife finds out about the narrator's secret meetings with the Commander, and the narrator is forced to wait for some unknown punishment.

    In what we like to call an "uh-oh" moment, Ofglen stops coming to their rendezvous. Another woman is there saying she's Ofglen. The narrator just saw the other Ofglen that morning—what's happened while she's been having lunch?

    This stage in the book is full of different kinds of waiting. First the narrator has to wait to find out what happened to the real Ofglen (she killed herself) and whether this new one is also in the resistance (doesn't seem like it).

    While she's trying to figure out whether she's in danger as a result of what the old Ofglen knew about her, the Commander's Wife confronts her about secretly spending time with the Commander. Now the narrator also has to wait to find out what revenge the Commander's Wife is going to take on her—which could be really, really bad. Only bad stuff seems to lie down this path.


    Men dressed as Eyes come to arrest the narrator. We don't know if they're really Eyes taking her away to be punished/killed or if they're resistance fighters there to rescue her.

    This "unwinding" of events is remarkably ambiguous and suspenseful. The narrator says she doesn't know whether this event represents the end of her story or a new beginning. We never find out. In a neat inversion of the "Initial Situation" stage, the narrator is removed from her house and sent to a different posting of some kind, the likes of which we, and she, can only imagine.


    At an academic conference several hundred years in the future, a professor provides historical context for the narrator's story and tries to explain what it all means.

    For the scholars who speak in this section, the ideas here continue to be ambiguous. We can gather from the fact that the scholars are having the conference and discussing the Republic of Gilead as a thing of the past that at least the society that put the narrator through all that stuff is over. The chairperson of the conference is a woman, so obviously women can write, think, and participate in the world again.

    The effects of the terrible Gileadean society are now studied from a safe historical distance, the way we might study the French Revolution. Yet these scholars, looking through their historic lenses, can't tell us what happened to the narrator, whether she made it, or even who she was. They can only guess that she managed to get out long enough to pass her story down to us.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    The narrator begins working as a Handmaid to a Commander and gradually becomes more involved with him, while also trying to find her way into the resistance and battling with flashbacks from her past.

    Act II

    The narrator's secret relationship with the Commander switches from being about Scrabble to being about sex. When she's with him at Jezebel's she runs into an old friend, Moira, whose experience shows that their society is tough on all women at that point. She also begins having sex with the house chauffeur, Nick.

    Each of these relationships is illegal and secret—the Commander's Wife can't know about her relationship with the Commander and the Commander can't know that his Wife is making her sleep with Nick. The narrator realizes that she may be pregnant with Nick's child.

    Act III

    The narrator has to attend a Salvaging (execution), where her friend Ofglen, also in the resistance, is compromised. Ofglen disappears and the narrator learns that she killed herself. The narrator realizes that she too may be in danger. We learn that the Commander's Wife has found out about the narrator and the Commander. The narrator is waiting for the axe to fall when some men dressed as government agents come to arrest her. Nick says they're from the resistance, but who knows? The narrator goes with them and we never find out what happens to her.

  • Allusions

    Biblical References

    • Gilead, a land mentioned in the Bible
    • Genesis 30:1-3 (Epigraph)
    • Whirlwind, Chariot, Behemoth (4.3)
    • Mark 4:1-9 (4.13)
    • Store names that reference the Old Testament: Lilies of the Field, Milk and Honey, All Flesh (5)
    • Isaiah 40:6 (8.21)
    • Luke 23:34 (8.217)
    • Deuteronomy 17: 6 (11.24)
    • Matthew 5.5 (12.12)
    • The Bible (15.4)
    • Genesis 8:17, 30:1-8, 30:18 (15.20, 39)
    • The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-13 (15.21)
    • 2 Chronicles 16.9 (15.54)
    • 1 Corinthians 13:13 (19.5-6)
    • Jezebel (19.27)
    • Genesis 3:16 (19.38)
    • St. Paul, Acts (20.5)
    • Jesus (21.25, 25.86)
    • Book of Job (28.16)
    • The Lord's Prayer (referenced throughout 11.30)
    • 1 Timothy 2:12 (34.18-24)
    • The Whore of Babylon (38.13)
    • The Crucifixion (45.2)
    • The Old Testament (Historical Notes.28)

    Art and Literary References

    • Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (Epigraph)
    • Sufi proverb (Epigraph)
    • Little Red Riding Hood (2.11)
    • The Shape of Things to Come (8.25)
    • Les Sylphides (ballet music) (13.6)
    • "The Night Before Christmas" (17.7)
    • Tennyson (25.29)
    • Raymond Chandler (29.9)
    • Charles Dickens, Hard Times (29.9)
    • The Sabine Women (painting) (29.38)
    • Krishna and Kali (Historical Notes.6)
    • Geoffrey Chaucer (Historical Notes.12)
    • William Wordsworth, "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads (Historical Notes.20)

    Historical References

    • Beethoven (8.6)
    • Queen Victoria (16.8)
    • Saints of the Darker Ages (24.10)
    • Nazis (24.18)
    • The Renaissance (25.54)
    • Edwardian period (25.55)
    • Venus de Milo (29.37)
    • Colosseum (29.37)
    • The Warsaw Tactic (Historical Notes.6)

    Pop Culture References

    • Humphrey Bogart (5.13)
    • Lauren Bacall (5.13)
    • Katharine Hepburn (5.13)
    • Tarzan (7.20)
    • Time (8.21)
    • Newsweek (8.21)
    • "Amazing Grace" (10.2)
    • "Heartbreak Hotel" (10.4)
    • Weight Watchers (13.17)
    • Oklahoma! (14.47)
    • Agent Orange (19.40)
    • Scrabble (23.43-46 and frequently throughout remainder of book)
    • Vogue (25.51)
    • "In god we trust" (28.17)
    • Mademoiselle (29.9)
    • Esquire (29.9)
    • Ms. (29.9)
    • Reader's Digest (29.9)
    • There is a Balm in Gilead (34.4)
    • Elvis Presley's Golden Years (Historical Notes.17)
    • Folk Songs of Lithuania (Historical Notes.17)
    • Boy George Takes It Off (Historical Notes.17)
    • Mantovani's Mellow Strings (Historical Notes.17)
    • Twisted Sister at Carnegie Hall (Historical Notes.17)