Offred is the narrator and the protagonist of the novel, and we are told the entire story from her point of view, experiencing events and memories as vividly as she does. She tells the story as it happens, and shows us the travels of her mind through asides, flashbacks, and digressions. Offred is intelligent, perceptive, and kind. She possesses enough faults to make her human, but not so many that she becomes an unsympathetic figure. She also possesses a dark sense of humor—a graveyard wit that makes her descriptions of the bleak horrors of Gilead bearable, even enjoyable. Like most of the women in Gilead, she is an ordinary woman placed in an extraordinary situation.
Offred is not a hero. Although she resists Gilead inwardly, once her attempt at escape fails, she submits outwardly. She is hardly a feminist champion; she had always felt uncomfortable with her mother’s activism, and her pre-Gilead relationship with Luke began when she became his mistress, meeting him in cheap hotels for sex. Although friends with Ofglen, a member of the resistance, she is never bold enough to join up herself. Indeed, after she begins her affair with Nick, she seems to lose sight of escape entirely and suddenly feels that life in Gilead is almost bearable. If she does finally escape, it is because of Nick, not because of anything she does -herself. Offred is a mostly passive character, good-hearted but complacent. Like her peers, she took for granted the freedoms feminism won and now pays the price.
The Commander poses an ethical problem for Offred, and consequently for us. First, he is Offred’s Commander and the immediate agent of her oppression. As a founder of Gilead, he also bears responsibility for the entire totalitarian society. In person, he is far more sympathetic and friendly toward Offred than most other people, and Offred’s evenings with the Commander in his study offer her a small respite from the wasteland of her life. At times, his unhappiness and need for companionship make him seem as much a prisoner of Gilead’s strictures as anyone else. Offred finds herself feeling sympathy for this man.
Ultimately, Offred and the reader recognize that if the Commander is a prisoner, the prison is one that he himself helped construct and that his prison is heaven compared to the prison he created for women. As the novel progresses, we come to realize that his visits with Offred are selfish rather than charitable. They satisfy his need for companionship, but he doesn’t seem to care that they put Offred at terrible risk, a fact of which he must be aware, given that the previous Handmaid hanged herself when her visits to the Commander were discovered. The Commander’s moral blindness, apparent in his attempts to explain the virtues of Gilead, are highlighted by his and Offred’s visit to Jezebel’s. The club, a place where the elite men of the society can engage in recreational extramarital sex, reveals the rank hypocrisy that runs through Gileadean society.
Offred’s relationship with the Commander is best represented by a situation she remembers from a documentary on the Holocaust. In the film, the mistress of a brutal death camp guard defended the man she loved, claiming that he was not a monster. “How easy it is to invent a humanity,” Offred thinks. In other words, anyone can seem human, and even likable, given the right set of circumstances. But even if the Commander is likable and can be kind or considerate, his responsibility for the creation of Gilead and his callousness to the hell he created for women means that he, like the Nazi guard, is a monster.
Though Serena had been an advocate for traditional values and the establishment of the Gileadean state, her bitterness at the outcome—being confined to the home and having to see her husband copulating with a Handmaid—suggests that spokeswomen for anti-feminist causes might not enjoy getting their way as much as they believe they would. Serena’s obvious unhappiness means that she teeters on the edge of inspiring our sympathy, but she forfeits that sympathy by taking out her frustration on Offred. She seems to possess no compassion for Offred. She can see the difficulty of her own life, but not that of another woman.
The climactic moment in Serena’s interaction with Offred comes when she arranges for Offred to sleep with Nick. It seems that Serena makes these plans out of a desire to help Offred get pregnant, but Serena gets an equal reward from Offred’s pregnancy: she gets to raise the baby. Furthermore, Serena’s offer to show Offred a picture of her lost daughter if she sleeps with Nick reveals that Serena has always known of Offred’s daughter’s whereabouts. Not only has she cruelly concealed this knowledge, she is willing to exploit Offred’s loss of a child in order to get an infant of her own. Serena’s lack of sympathy makes her the perfect tool for Gilead’s social order, which relies on the willingness of women to oppress other women. She is a cruel, selfish woman, and Atwood implies that such women are the glue that binds Gilead.
Throughout the novel, Moira’s relationship with Offred epitomizes female friendship. Gilead claims to promote solidarity between women, but in fact it only produces suspicion, hostility, and petty tyranny. The kind of relationship that Moira and Offred maintain from college onward does not exist in Gilead.
In Offred’s flashbacks, Moira also embodies female resistance to Gilead. She is a lesbian, which means that she rejects male-female sexual interactions, the only kind that Gilead values. More than that, she is the only character who stands up to authority directly by make two escape attempts, one successful, from the Red Center. The manner in which she escapes—taking off her clothes and putting on the uniform of an Aunt—symbolizes her rejection of Gilead’s attempt to define her identity. From then on, until Offred meets up with her again, Moira represents an alternative to the meek subservience and acceptance of one’s fate that most of the Handmaids adopt. When Offred runs into Moira, Moira has been recaptured and is working as a prostitute at Jezebel’s, servicing the Commanders. Her fighting spirit seems broken, and she has become resigned to her fate. After embodying resistance for most of the novel, Moira comes to exemplify the way a totalitarian state can crush even the most independent spirit.