The Handmaid's Tale
Handmaid:A corruption of a Bible passage. A wife lets her husband sleep with her handmaid so that they can have a child.
Main Character: her name is June, but she is usually called Offred because she is the sex-slave prisoner of "Fred". She is a handmaid.
Aunt Lydia: The sex-slave instructor at the RED CENTER. She reads bible passages instructing handmaidens how to serve Gilead.
Moira: The main character's best friend. She starts out as a handmaid, but escapes. Later she is recaptured and sent to work at a brothel. She is a lesbian.
Janine: Another handmaid. She's an annoying girly-girl. She likes being a handmaid because she feels guilty. She thinks she deserves it because she was gang raped at seventeen, became pregnant, and had an abortion.
Commander: His first name is Fred. He is a powerful military guy that plays scrabble with the main character. He seems nice, but he is a bad guy.
Commander's Wife: Her name is Serena Joy. She used to sing gospel. Now she gardens and smokes.
Rita: The Commander's housekeeper.
Cora: The other housekeeper.
Nick: The Commander's driver. He's the sexy, mysterious figure. He winks at the main character a lot. Eventually they have sex to get her pregnant.
Luke: The main character's husband. He is captured by the regime and she worries about where he is.
The Handmaid's Tale takes place in the 1990's in the Republic of Gilead. But Gilead isn't a real place, it's a place that might be (according to a feminist in the 80's). Gilead used to be the United States before the Gileadeans take over. They are a Christian fundamentalist regime. Their society shows what "family values" might look like if they were enforced. Women stay at home (a woman's place…) gardening and having babies. If women cannot or refuse to do this they are labeled unwomen and executed or sent to concentration camps called The Colonies.
This book was written during the anti-feminist backlash of the 80's, and it paints a very bleak and nasty picture of the patriarchy. The main character, a handmaid, is a sex slave. Lots of women in Gilead are infertile because of pollution and radiation. If an important woman is infertile she is allowed to remain just a wife. A handmaid will be given to her. The handmaid occasionally sleeps with the wife's husband in a weird menage a toi ritual so that the wife can have a baby. This isn't really perverted. In the bible this is how Jacob and Rachel have kids, so in Christian Gilead it’s the way things are done. If a woman is fertile she has to be a handmaid. She dresses like a nun, except all in red. She looks "sexy" and is hard to miss.
If a woman is sterile she can be a martha (think Martha Stewart). They are housekeepers and wear green. The wives wear blue. Econonwives wear stripes.
The book recounts the main character's training as a handmaid at the Red Center, her servitude at the Commander's house, and her eventual escape. The novel ends at an history conference in 2092 where a bunch of academics and scientists talk about Gilead. The handmaid recorded her story on a bunch of cassette tapes and they are discovered and translated. But, ironically, the scholars don't learn anything important from her stories. They just talk about the facts. There are very few facts which they are certain of. The novel ends asking, "Are there any questions?"
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER
- The Red Center is the training ground for handmaids. It is in an old gymnasium. Atwood's description is the same as her old highschool gym in Toronto.
- The main character remembers highschool sex and freedom. But now she and the other handmaids sleep on army cots.
- They are guarded and instructed by Aunts (who wear Brown). They are like really bitchy Sunday school teachers. They carry electric cattle prods on leather belts to keep the handmaids under control.
- If you count the list of names at the end of this chapter carefully, you will discover that the main character's name is June. Moira is her best friend. Alma, Janine, and Dolores show up later.
- June is in the Commander's house where she is a handmaid. This is her third placement.
- She describes her room. Like a jail cell, there is nothing here that she can use to kill herself with.
- The two marthas (Cora and Rita) argue about whether handmaids are sluts. They say that lying on your back isn't difficult work, that its debasing, but that the handmaids are "doing it" for us. Cora is much nicer than Rita.
- If June doesn't get pregnant soon she'll be sent to the colonies.
- She realizes that the Commander's wife is Serena Joy, a former gospel singer for Growing Souls Gospel Hour. Obviously, this is bad.
- Now she meets the Commander's driver, Nick. Nick is low-status and doesn't get a wife. He's horny and winks at June a lot.
- June pretends not to notice, but she thinks he's hot.
- She goes shopping with her partner (another handmaid) because they can't be alone in public.
- They talk about the war. The Baptists have been beaten. Also, they talk about the weather and say things like "Praise be," "Blessed be the fruit," and "May the Lord open". It's hard to have a meaningful conversation because everyone is listening, and anyone could be a spy.
- June lets a guard see her eyes, this is flirting. She fantasizes about sneaking out at night and taking off her red nun's outfit in front of him. But she couldn't really do this because she would be shot.
- She remembers when there were fewer rules for women. And those rules were unwritten, such as: don't open your door to strangers, don't sleep around, don't wear too much make up etc. In Gilead there are written and enforced rules about everything.
- Aunt Lydia says her famous line: "Freedom to and freedom from". She explains that society as we know it is anarchy. In Gilead everyone is protected from anarchic freedom.
- Janine shows up at the grocery store. She is pregnant. She's showing off, and the other handmaids are jealous.
- June sees Japanese tourists. They wear knee length skirts and high heels that look obscene to her even though she used to wear them. She points out that the Eastern Japanese are now westernized…and she is not.
- She tells them not to take her picture and remembers Aunt Lydia saying that to be seen is to be penetrated.
- June and her shopping partner take the long way home. They stop to look at executed bodies hanging from hooks in the wall. One man was killed because he used to practice abortions.
- She remembers college with Moira. Moira wrote a paper on date rape. June says it sounds like desert – date rapé.
- She remembers her single mother who was a feminist. And she remembers burning porno mags with her at a demonstration.
- She sees a picture of her own stolen daughter dressed as if she's in a convent.
- Her shopping partner tries the underground resistance code word "Mayday" on June, but June isn't sure if its really a code word in this context because its May.
- The maids (Marthas) argue about who will give June her bath before the handmaid ritual.
- June remembers her husband. When they started dating he was married to someone else. June had an adulterous affair.
- June discovers forbidden writing in her room. It was carved by a previous handmaid.
- It says: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. But June doesn't know Latin.
- Written words are forbidden to women in Gilead. But in June's room is a pillow that says FAITH. She fixates on this word. She likes playing with words, she used to be a librarian.
- She sees the commander and wants to spit on him or throw the pillow at him.
- She goes to the gynecologist. The doctor suggests that they have sex to get her pregnant because the commander is probably infertile. But nobody tests the men so June would get blamed for not having a baby.
- She will be sent to the colonies if she doesn't have a baby with the commander, but she turns the doctor down.
- June remembers her daughter being kidnapped at the grocery. The kidnapper was caught, but was heard screaming that the child was hers and that the Lord had given it to her.
- This is creepy because if June has another child the same thing will happen, and the kidnapping will be legal.
- In the bath sHe notices the tattoo on her ankle. It is four numbers and an eye, a sort of id tag so that she can never disappear.
- June remembers Dolores wetting herself at The Red Center and being beaten.
- June wants to steal something from the Commander's sitting room so that she can feel like she has some power.
- She remembers trying to escape with her husband and daughter.
- The Ceremony – where the commander has sex with the handmaid while his wife holds her down and watches.
- First the Commander reads from the bible while June remembers her friend's escape from this life.
- June lies between the wife's legs. They both face the commander. She is fully clothed from the waist up. The commander wears his uniform, but unzipped.
- June remembers the queen's advice to her daughter about sex:
- "Close your eyes and think of England."
- June wonders sympathetically if the ceremony is worse for her or for the wife.
- Afterwards, she lies in bed alone wanting her husband and wanting to hear her real name (June) instead of Offred. She still wants to steal something for power.
- She sneaks down to the living room to find a trinket to steal, but the driver finds her there. He doesn't snitChapter
- He does tell her that the Commander wants a private meeting with her in his study, but everyone knows this is illegal. She worries that her sex-slave duties are being expanded to more kinds of kinky sex.
- She imagines her husband's possible escape from Gilead and that he will come back to rescue her.
- Janine is giving birth, and all of the handmaids and wives are excited.
- The wife who will get Janine's baby pretends to be giving birth, too. The other wives massage her belly.
- Janine isn't allowed to hold or name her baby. She'll nurse it for a few months and then never see it again.
- Moira's story. This chapter explains how she escaped from the Red Center, but no one knows what happened to her afterwards.
- Cora talks about wanting June to have a baby, but June can only think about her private meeting with the Commander.
- If she sees him, his wife could cause her lots of problems if she gets caught. But the Commander has lots more power than his wife does, he's the man after all. To defy him would be worse.
- She's afraid of being molested, but he just wants to play scrabble and give her a kiss.
- She later wishes she had thought about murdering him while she had the opportunity.
- She remembers a documentary about the mistress of a nazi leader.
- She seems to relate the memory of the mistress to herself and her relationship to the commander. The mistress wore lots of make-up, unlike June, but she was never asked if she loved the Nazi. In Gilead love doesn't matter, either.
- The mistress killed herself shortly after the documentary interview.
- June has regular dates with the Commander two or three nights a week.
- She loves playing scrabble with him, and sometimes he lets her read old fashion magazines.
- He gives her some hand lotion as a treat because handmaids aren't allowed these things anymore.
- She feels strange during the sex ceremony since she is getting to know the Commander. She feels ashamed of her hairy legs.
- She doesn't love him, but she considers their relationship something to keep her busy.
- She finally realizes that her shopping partner is a member of the resistance. She is invited to join.
- Then they witness an assassination on the street. June is nervous about her subversive activities.
- She remembers The Catastrophe that started everything. The President was shot, Congress was machine gunned, and Muslims were blamed for the terrorism. With the government destroyed, the constitution was suspended and Gilead began to take over. Women lost their jobs and their right to hold property. Everything went to shit, and the fundamentalists stepped in.
- She finally figures about from the Commander that the Latin sounding graffiti in her room is a sort of school boy joke that meant:
- Don't let the bastards grind you down.
- But June realizes that the previous handmaid didn't follow this advice because she learns that the woman before her hanged herself.
- The Commander says that he wants June to enjoy her life.
- June says that to do this she wants to know as much about the way the Republic works as possible. She's trying to learn info for the underground resistance.
- June talks to God in her prayers. She complains and questions all the shit that’s going on.
- The Commander's wife suggests that June try to get pregnant with the Chauffeur in secret.
- She bribes June with info about her daughter and promises a picture.
- She gives her a cigarette and a matChapter June imagines burning down the house.
- The Commander asks June what she thinks about the way things have changed. She says she has no opinion.
- June sees Janine at a PRAYVAGANZA. Its like a promise-keepers meeting for women. Janine is starting to go insane.
- There are twenty marriages at the PRAYVAGANZA– all are arranged. Some of the girls are only 14.
- Her shopping partner somehow knows that June is seeing the Commander privately.
- The wife brings the photo of the daughter to June. She can only keep it for a minute before giving it back. This parallels the situation with her future child. She will only be able to hold it for a moment before its taken from her.
- The Commander makes June dress up in make-up and a sequined teddy and says he's taking her out to a night club. She has to lie on the floor of the car to sneak by the check points. Classy guy!
- All the women at the nightclub are dressed in tatty old lingerie and dance costumes. They are prostitutes. Gilead allows them to exist for use by elite men. These men are considered too pious and important to be corrupted by slutty women.
- The Commander tells June that some of the women were prostitutes before. But others were lawyers or entrepreneurs. The Commander thinks they prefer this to being handmaids because they get to drink and smoke.
- June finds Moira at the club. Moira says the club is not so bad. She can fool around with other women. Of course, she really thinks the club is horrible.
- Moira tells the story of her escape from the Red Center. They talk about the lack of options for women in Gilead. Moira sounds really cynical and depressed. Go figure. She has to wear a playboy bunny costume.
- They never see each other again.
- The Commander has sex with June without his wife for the first time. They go to hotel. She can't get hot for him, though. She's pissed at him because of the club.
- The wife sneaks June into the chauffeur's room so that she can sleep with him.
- She enjoys herself this time. They agree to have nothing romantic, or no strings. But they fall for each other anyway.
- She keeps seeing the chauffeur, Nick, all by herself. She thinks she's cheating on the Commander.
- She gets pregnant.
The women are forced to watch the executions of other women.
- Now they do a Particicution. All the women attack a supposed rapist. The women are inflamed by gory details of the rape and then they throw rocks, spit, and eventually bash his head in. But he wasn't a rapist; he was a member of the underground.
- June finds out her shopping partner's connection to the underground was turned in. She hanged herself just before the black van came to get her.
- The wife catches June. She had found her nightclub outfit. She's furious.
- June sees the black van coming for her and she panics.
- Nick, the chauffeur, tells her its safe; it’s the Mayday underground helping her escape.
- She's not sure, but she thinks he wants to protect her and their baby so he arranged for her getaway. He calls her by her real name and she trusts him.
- The novel flashes forward to a history conference in Nunavet in 2195.
- The historians talk about the discovery of June's diary. She has recorded her story on a bunch of audiotapes.
- The historians try to figure out who the commander really was, but they aren't sure.
- They understand that women were made into handmaids if they were in second marriages or an adulterous relationship. First wives could stay as econowives.
- But eventually all non-Gileadean marriages were nullified and children and women were rounded up to be made use of by true believers.
- The historians conclude wondering how Nick engineered June's escape, and what the consequences of it were for everyone.
- It seems that June escaped but that her Commander was later prosecuted for liberal sympathies and harboring a subversive.