The Handmaid’s Tale imagines that some time in the near future of our own world, a political group called the Sons of Jacob has overthrown the U.S. government and created a new country, the Republic of Gilead. Gileadean law is loosely based on an extremist reading of the Old Testament, and it is extremely oppressive. Black Americans have been forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to “Homelands.” Women are not allowed to work, possess property of their own, or read. Sex outside marriage is strictly forbidden. Due to environmental deterioration and other factors, many Gileadeans are unable to reproduce. Officially, Gileadean women are blamed for this, and labeled “barren.” It is illegal even to suggest that men can be infertile. In order to address the declining birthrate, the Gileadean government offers a choice to women of proven fertility who have committed crimes, such as sex outside marriage. These women can either go to the Colonies—effectively a death sentence—or they can choose to become “Handmaids.” Handmaids are required to have sex with the husband of a “barren” wife, and to give any resulting children to the couple.

Most of the action of the novel takes place in the home of the Commander, a high-ranking official of the Gileadean regime. To Offred, the Commander’s home is virtually a prison, where she feels watched all the time. She describes a patch of plaster in the ceiling of her bedroom as a “blind plaster eye” and the mirror on the stairs as a “fisheye” (Chapter 17). Beyond the walls of the house, however, the garden serves as a constant reminder of the powerful forces which the Commander and his government have tried to suppress: “There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards” (Chapter 25). The Commander’s house is in the vicinity of what was once Harvard University, and the novel uses this recognizable setting to emphasize how quickly and easily the U.S. has been overrun by totalitarian forces. The old buildings are all still in use: the former university library is now the home of the Gileadean secret police.