The Handmaid’s Tale is a first-person account of a woman’s life in the former USA, after the government has been overthrown by a fascist theocracy. New England is now the Republic of Gilead and is governed under Martial law derived from the Old Testament. Civil war is ongoing. Women have been stripped of all rights and allocated are specific roles. The heroine is a Handmaid: her only function is to bear children.
The Handmaid (whose real name is unknown) was once a librarian with a husband and young daughter. Her mother was a radical feminist, her best friend Moira a lesbian feminist.
Following a series of catastrophic national events, extreme right-wing religious fanatics infiltrate the US government and assassinate the President before machine-gunning Congress. The Constitution is suspended. Appalled by the new theocratic regime, the heroine and her family attempt to flee to Canada but are caught. Separated from her husband and daughter under new immorality laws, she is sent to be trained as a Handmaid by the ‘Aunts’, who hammer Old Testament doctrine into her and force her to watch violent porn and snuff movies from the 'time before' in order to demonstrate how her life will be ‘better’ under the regime. Moira is also brought into the training centre, but she escapes.
The Handmaid is assigned to live with Commander Frederick and his infertile Wife, Serena Joy, a former televangelist. Handmaids are given patronymic slave names: she becomes Offred (‘Of Fred’). In nightly ‘ceremonies’ she has grim, clinical intercourse with the Commander. She must reproduce for the state or she will be sent to the colonies to clear up radioactive waste.
Daily, Offred is sent grocery shopping with a fellow handmaid, Ofglen. They are meant to police each other’s behaviour. She gradually realises that Ofglen is not a committed follower of the regime but a member of the Mayday Underground, a resistance movement.
One night, the Commander summons her to his study where asks her to play Scrabble with him. Faintly amused, Offred does so. Regular illicit meetings ensue, despite the extreme risk. The Commander gives her books (reading is forbidden to women) and face cream (ditto cosmetics). One night, he dresses her in a gaudy costume and takes her to a hotel now called ‘Jezebel’s’ which operates as a secret elite brothel. Inside, Offred is shocked to spot Moira. They have an emotional reunion, but this is the last Offred ever sees of her.
Serena soon reminds Offred she has still not conceived and ‘suggests’ she sleep with Nick, the chauffeur. She goes to him as instructed, in his apartment over the garage. They are awkward at first, but her visits become regular. If caught, Offred could be hanged, but she feels alive for the first time in years.
The Handmaids attend public executions of disobedient women. After one such execution, a battered man is brought out, supposedly a rapist and child murderer. This is a ‘particicution’ and the Handmaids are encouraged to tear him apart. Offred hangs back in horror but notices Ofglen rush forward to knock the man out. She later tells Offred the man was a captured Mayday operative; she was putting him out of his misery.
The following day, Offred is shocked to find a ‘new’ Ofglen waiting for her. This woman does not respond to the Mayday password, and Offred endures the rest of the shopping trip in silent, abject terror. However, as they part, the new Ofglen whispers that her predecessor hanged herself; she had seen the authorities coming for her.
Serena Joy finds out about the Handmaid's visits to the Commander. Enraged, she denounces her. Two 'Angels' arrive to take her away, led by Nick. He whispers to her that the ‘Angels’ are in fact Mayday operatives; they have come to rescue her. She is led away at gunpoint, unsure what to believe.
In an epilogue taken from a 2195 symposium for Gileadean Studies, we learn that the regime was eventually overthrown. Offred’s story was transcribed from a set of thirty cassette tapes discovered in an old army locker in the former state of Maine. From this we can assume she did escape via the ‘Underground Femaleroad’ but nothing more is known of her or her fate.