The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Intro & Plot Summary

July 23rd, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Introduction

The Handmaid's Tale (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

While “The Handmaid’s Tale(s)” started out as a simple review, it turns out that I’m so enamored of the book that it’s impossible to boil a discussion down to 3,000 words or less. Given the length of the essay, I decided to break it down into a series of posts; I’ll upload one every day or two until they’re all online.

Hopefully at least one of my observations is fresh, yet so much has been written on The Handmaid’s Tale that many of my thoughts have most likely been voiced previously, probably by more adept literary critics than myself. However, the only resource related specifically to The Handmaid’s Tale I consulted while writing the essay is Wikipedia, and only to confirm the color of the Econowives’ dresses. Hence, no reference list. (But there are links to additional resources where appropriate.)

Without further ado, Part One in a nine-part series: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Plot Summary.

(A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.)

Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Plot Summary

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 02)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the great classics of our time; no, of all time. This feminist atheist is embarrassed to admit that she only discovered Atwood’s vision of a dystopian, fascist/theocratic America at the ripe old age of 29. Which is simply inexcusable! The Handmaid’s Tale should be taught in every Western classroom, for the lessons it imparts are needed now more than ever. Though it was published more than twenty years ago, it’s especially relevant today, particularly in America – an America in which the Christian religion is shielded from any and all criticism, and women, religious minorities, people of color, GLBT persons, non-human animals, etc. suffer oppression at the hands of the patriarchy.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the not-too-distant future (which is actually now the present, as the book was published 23 years ago). In a world marked by environmental catastrophe, widespread pollution, nuclear fallout, declining birth rates, religious fervor and a violent anti-feminist backlash, America is in the grip of a Civil War. Taking advantage of the social unrest, the Republic of Gilead, a patriarchal and power-hungry band of True Believers ™ and wanna-be social engineers, have seized the Northeast States as their own. The Angels of Gilead continue to battle rebel groups outside the Republic’s borders, while The Eyes weed out the political dissidents within. The world’s other political powers are either unwilling or unable to save the United States from itself and help restore democratic rule. (Maybe they’re still sore over the mess we left in Iraq?)

The Republic of Gilead is marked by a hierarchical social structure that’s almost caste-like in nature. Among the men, those who occupy the top rungs of the patriarchy are military commanders and political strategists; those True Believers ™ who first conceived of Gilead and helped to ignite the Civil War (called the Sons of Jacob in their early days). The Eyes rank below their commanders; they are the spies of Gilead (think KGB). Next come the Angels, Gilead’s soldiers. These are followed by The Guardians, the low-level “protectors” of Gilead, of which there are many. The Guardians man Gilead’s maze of checkpoints, act as assistants or chauffeurs to higher-ranking men (as well as escorts for all Gileadean women, as women are rarely allowed out alone, and never behind the wheel of a car), and are generally assigned grunt work and menial tasks. Rounding out Gilead’s rigid social ladder are the common men, store owners, doctors and such. Well, that’s not entirely true; at the bottom are what you might call “the Untouchables”: those men who have sinned in the past or present, and who have been sent to labor in the fields or The Colonies, or who are imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed in Gilead’s jails.

If the male hierarchal system strikes you as rigid, the females’ is damn near ironclad. Women are divided into one of five groups: Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives and Unwomen. The Wives (and Daughters), as a whole, are the top-ranking women, but even within this group, they are ordered according to their husband’s status: Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians and everyone else. The upper-class married couples that cannot bear children on their own (or should I say, the upper-class married woman who cannot bear children on her own; infertility is never the husband’s fault, even when nature says otherwise) is assigned a Handmaid: a young, fertile woman who will bear a child for the couple – the Biblical way (i.e., as did Rachel and Leah of Book of Genesis fame). Marthas are the Wives’ domestic servants; incidentally, could Atwood have chosen a more fortuitous name than “Marthas”? (Hello, Martha Stewart!) Econowives fall somewhere in between Wives and Marthas; they do the duties of both (though Wives don’t seem to have any real “duties” to speak of), and are given to lower-ranking men who are still powerful enough to deserve a woman (all new marriages in Gilead are arranged). At the bottom are Unwomen; political dissidents, nonconformists, troublemakers, gender traitors (i.e., lesbians), religious minorities. Along with their male counterparts, they labor in the fields – if they’re lucky. The lowest of the lot are sent to The Colonies, to clean up nuclear waste, pesticides, radiation and other environmental hazards. Some uppity women – the young and the beautiful, at least – are recruited as Jezebels: working girls which service the Commanders and assorted foreign dignitaries. All women are considered property, with ever-diminishing rights (or should that be “standards of welfare”?) based on their place in Gilead’s social structure.

(There’s also a small, elite group of Aunts, whose job it is to “educate” (read: indoctrinate) the Handmaids; it’s unclear where their status falls compared to the Wives. They do have special privileges that other Gileadean women do not, such as freedom of movement and the right to read, however Atwood doesn’t fully flesh out the Aunts’ standing in the grand scheme of things. Or even speculate whether Aunts will be needed once Gilead has passed its “birth pangs” stage.)

We learn all of this from Offred (literally meaning “Of Fred”; Handmaids take their Commanders names and, like the other women in the household, belong to their master), who went by the name of Kate in what she euphemistically refers to as “the time before”. Through a series of seemingly real-time narrations and disjointed flashbacks, Kate tells the story of Gilead: the early social unrest, the rebellion and takeover of the United States, the closing of Gilead’s borders, the breakdown (or is that “up”?) of families, the sectarian warfare. Gilead’s story is her story, too: in the time before, Kate was happily married to a man named Luke; she had a daughter she loved, and a job she enjoyed.

And then the Sons of Jacob began to sew the seeds of Gilead. Kate, along with every other American woman, saw her bank account frozen and her job snatched away in a single morning. By the time she and Luke realized just how bad things had become in America, it was too late. They were caught trying to flee across the border into Canada. Luke was likely killed; their daughter was taken and placed with a childless couple of True Believers ™; and Kate was sent to the Red Center to be trained as a Handmaid. After graduation and one unsuccessful posting, here we find Kate – now called Offred – placed with a new Commander and his wife, who was called Serena Joy in the time before. Rounding out the household are Cora and Rita, the Marthas, and Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur.

Through Kate, we get a glimpse of the life of a Handmaid: the daily shopping excursions with a fellow Handmaid (her temporary “pair”), the monthly Ceremonies, the all-too-infrequent Birthing Ceremonies, and the occasional Prayvaganzas, Women’s Salvagings and Particicutions. The life of a Handmaid is one of degradation, submission and above all else, boredom. She serves but one purpose – to bear a healthy child for her Commander and his Wife. Even so, and try as she might, Kate cannot completely empty her mind and become the “vessel” she’s supposed to be. She carves out a life for herself, as sad and insignificant as it is. The Commander begins a sort of affair with Kate, if you can call it that; it’s a sadistic arrangement, though primarily of the intellectual sort. Kate, meanwhile, finds comfort in the arms of Nick, who in addition to being the Commander’s chauffeur is also a member of The Eyes and a May Day rebel – as is her paired Handmaid, Ofglen.

By the end of Kate’s tale, we realize that we’re not listening to her speak in the here and now. Rather, it is all a flashback, recorded on cassette tape, after her escape…from what? The Commander? Serena Joy? The Republic of Gilead? She doesn’t say. All we know is that Nick, under the guise of the ever-watchful Eyes, arranged for her escape from the Commander. We don’t know how far Kate got, and neither do the researchers who discovered her audio tapes 200+ years later. We do know, thankfully, that Gilead eventually fell. The society that succeeded it may be a more just, fair, democratic one…or it may not. In any case, it’s obvious that they’ve yet to appreciate the lessons told in The Handmaid’s Tale.


The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)


(An edited version of this review was cross-posted on Library Thing and Goodreads.)

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8 Responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Intro & Plot Summary”

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