The central conflict of The Handmaid’s Tale arises as Offred struggles to preserve her sense of herself as a human being under the oppressive regime of the Republic of Gilead. This struggle takes place across three timelines. In the present action, Offred fights to see herself as a person despite the fact that her Commander and his Wife view her as a little more than a walking uterus. Reflecting on her time in the Red Center, Offred struggles with the regime in the person of the Aunts, who run the Center, brutally conditioning Offred and her peers to limit their own autonomy. As she recounts her earlier life with her mother, her friend Moira, and her husband Luke, Offred unearths elements of the struggle between male domination and female self-determination which existed even then.
For most of the novel, Offred remains passive. When she finds an opportunity to express herself she takes it: for instance, she seizes chances to talk to Moira at the Red Center and at Jezebel’s, and she accepts the Commander’s invitation to see him alone. However, at no point does she take an active stand against the regime. The novel contrasts Offred’s passivity with the active resistance of her mother, who joins feminist “Take Back the Night” marches. Other active resisters include Moira, who escapes from the Red Center, and Ofglen, who is a member of the rebel group Mayday. Offred’s conflict with the regime is less dramatic. Simply by preserving her memories and faithfully witnessing what happens to her she tries to maintain own identity. The novel argues that Offred’s minimal resistance is all that can be expected of most oppressed people, and that her resistance has value.
The novel’s climax arrives when Offred gives in to the urge to express the part of herself which has been most repressed: her sexual desire. Her desire for Nick is doubly forbidden. Under the Gileadean regime, Offred is forbidden from touching any man apart from the Commander. She is also held back by her personal loyalty to Luke, which, the novel suggests, is another form of male control, albeit a mild one. The fact that Offred’ gives in to her desire, despite her fear and passivity, suggests that desire cannot be entirely repressed by any means. Offred escapes from her situation not because of any active effort on her part, but because Nick needs to get rid of her in order to protect himself. Offred remains passive to the end, but she manages to maintain her sense of herself as a person. The evidence is the book itself, Offred’s first-person account of who she is and who she has been.