What is a Handmaid?

In the Republic of Gilead, many married couples are unable to have children. The women in these couples are blamed for the couple’s infertility and labeled “barren.” It is forbidden to suggest that a man might be sterile. High-ranking infertile couples can be assigned a Handmaid: a single woman of proven fertility who is duty-bound to have sex with the husband of a “barren” wife in order to produce children. Sex between husband and Handmaid is only permitted during the “Ceremony,” a monthly ritual which involves the “barren” wife as well.

Why does the Commander want to see Offred alone?

The Commander encourages Offred to do things which are forbidden for Gileadean women: to read and write, to converse casually with him, to wear a revealing outfit, and finally to have sex with him outside the confines of the Ceremony. It may be that the Commander misses the more liberated women of earlier times, but Offred suspects that he simply enjoys the thrill of breaking the rules.

Why does Offred agree to have sex with Nick?

Offred has nothing to lose by having sex with Nick. If she gets caught, she would be sent to the Colonies—a death sentence in all but name— but she faces the same fate if she fails to become pregnant by the Commander, who may be sterile. At the same time, Offred feels desire for Nick, and it is this desire which ultimately pushes her to go to him. The novel argues that no amount of totalitarian oppression can entirely suppress the force of erotic desire, above all the desire to reproduce.

What happened to Offred’s daughter?

The story of Offred’s daughter is related to us in snatches, conveying the sense that Offred cannot bear to think about her daughter for too long at a time. Over the course of the novel we learn that mother and daughter were separated when they were caught trying to escape the country. While Offred was taken to the Red Center, her daughter was rehomed with an infertile couple. Offred does not learn that this is what has happened to her daughter until Serena Joy shows Offred a picture of the now nearly grown girl.

Who are the Eyes?

The Eyes of the Lord—or just the Eyes—are the secret police of the Gileadean regime. They spy on ordinary citizens, and when they detect signs of rebellion or dissent they abduct the culprits, torture them and hand them over to be killed by hanging or Particicution. Eyes, real and symbolic, are a recurring motif in The Handmaid’s Tale. They serve to remind us of the feminist idea that in male-dominated societies, the way men look at women can be a form of control and even violence.

How did Offred become a handmaid?

Before receiving the name Offred, the narrator and her husband, Luke, attempted to escape to Canada with their daughter. Although they were pretending to be taking a day trip and possessed fake passports, Offred believes someone tipped off the guards because “they were ready for us, and waiting.” Once they were captured, Offred’s marriage to Luke was dissolved since it was his second, and Offred was sent to the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center. Since she had previously given birth to a healthy child, she became a handmaid.

What does Offred’s name mean?

Offred, the name given to the narrator when she enters the Commander’s home, is derived from her condition of belonging to the Commander: The name is made of the two words “of” and “Fred.” All the handmaids’ names are made by adding “Of” to the name of their commanders. Further, Offred’s name can be broken down into “off” and “red” as well, indicating that she might be different than the other handmaids and highlighting the color red, which has such significance in the handmaids’ world.

Why are women forbidden to read or write?

As in many totalitarian societies, females in Gilead are forbidden from reading and writing—the punishment for a first offense is having one’s hand cut off—which enables the authorities to more easily maintain control over them. Women who can read and write can communicate and strategize secretly, form thoughts and ideas independent of government propaganda, and maybe even make plans to escape or rebel. Further, illiteracy limits women’s education and keeps them ignorant. While many females still retain the skill of literacy, Offred acknowledges the future loss, commenting that the girls who are younger than nine or ten will soon be unable to remember a time when they were allowed to read: “They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent.”

What is the significance of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in The Handmaid’s Tale?

The use of Cambridge, Massachusetts, allows Atwood to indirectly link the fictional Gilead with the historical Puritan society created hundreds of years earlier, in the 1600s. Both groups emphasized religion, patriarchal authority, and the banishment of those members who did not agree with their beliefs and ideas. In fact, the most readily identifiable feature of Cambridge—Harvard University—was first established as a seminary. By never naming Cambridge or Harvard, however, Atwood broadens her novel's appeal as well as its horror, underscoring the idea that such authoritarianism could arise anywhere, even in the reader’s own community.

Read more about the influence of Puritan society in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

What is significant about the words that Offred plays in Scrabble with the Commander?

Several of the words Offred forms while playing Scrabble with the Commander provide subtle commentary on her life. In her first game, Offred spells out larynxvalance, and zygote, among others. The larynx is the voice box, and like all women in Gilead, Offred is not allowed to speak out or have a say in society. A valance is a piece of fabric that shades the top of a curtain; Offred must keep her true feelings guarded from others, and conversely, the outside world is shaded from her. She represents her sole purpose with the word zygote, which is a fertilized egg. In another game, Offred plays the word prolix, which means “lengthy and long-winded in writing”—this word is ironic since Offred is forbidden to read or write yet is secretly telling her story. She also forms quandary, which highlights the perpetual state of uncertainty of her life.

What is the purpose of the Japanese tourists Offred and Ofglen meet while shopping?

The scene in which Offred and Ofglen cross paths with a group of Japanese tourists while shopping demonstrates several key points. First, Offred is so assimilated to Gilead culture that she initially reacts to the women’s clothing and makeup with a sense of repulsion at the sexuality on display. Second, the reader is able see the handmaids and their world through outsiders’ eyes. The tourists view the handmaids as part of the surreal spectacle that is Gilead, not as independent beings. Finally, this scene informs the reader that despite its changing domestic policies, Gilead still maintains ties with modern nations; such duality emphasizes the republic’s hypocrisy.

What is the significance of Offred’s tattoo?

Offred’s tattoo, clearly given to all Handmaids but with different numbers, serves to depersonalize her at the same time as it circumscribes her identity. The tattoo shows that she is considered nothing but the property of the Gilead government. For Offred, the tattoo is “a supposed guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape.” No matter where she goes in Gilead, whether with the Commander’s family or if she escapes, she is trackable, like a package or a pet. Further, a permanent tattoo links Offred and other handmaids to the Nazis and the branding of their prisoners at concentration camps, suggesting that Gilead has certain similarities to Nazi Germany.

Why doesn’t Offred reveal her name when she records her story?

The reader never learns why Offred chooses not to share her name but can make educated guesses. Perhaps Offred fears being captured or targeted. This act of distancing herself may also be an act of survival; as she observes early on, a person’s name matters, and if she thought too much about her real name, she might focus on the loss of her former life. From the reader’s point of view, Atwood’s choice to withhold Offred’s real name renders Offred more of a blank slate, one upon which any female can superimpose herself and the specifics of her own life.

What was Ofglen’s role in Mayday?

While Ofglen never explicitly states her role in Mayday, she clearly is a member of the resistance organization. She knows about the group, possesses its password, can find out information from other members, and recognizes the man at the Particicution as one of Mayday’s agents. She tries unsuccessfully to recruit Offred into the organization and asks her to look through the Commander’s desk and papers. Ofglen may even have killed herself to prevent sharing information with the Eyes if she was tortured upon capture.

What is the function of the chapter titled “Historical Notes”?

The chapter titled “Historical Notes” takes the form of an academic paper presented at a conference in the post-Gilead era. This section gives Atwood the opportunity to explain how Offred was able to narrate her story and hints at what happened to her after she left the Commander’s home. It also provides additional context to the Gileadean society, which was quite narrowly focused through Offred’s point of view. Readers, for instance, discover that Gilead lasted only several hundred years, a relatively short period of ascendancy.