Your "The Handmaid's Tale" study guide before you start watching the show on Hulu
Maybe it’s been awhile since you read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Or maybe you purchased a copy for the first time after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States because it seemed eerily timely. And now, a series based on the 1985 dystopian novel is coming to Hulu (Wednesday!), and it’s starring Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Judging from the screener, we can already tell you that The Handmaid’s Tale series will chill you to the bone — and you’ll want to binge the whole thing in one day. But before you do, here’s a quick refresher.
Characters to know:
Offred is the novel’s main protagonist — that’s also not her real name, but she dare not speak it now. The novel alternates between her present-day activities, to her past choices that brought her to being a Handmaid. Throughout the novel, we learn that she was married before, to a man named Luke (their relationship began on a scandalous note), and they had a daughter. Though it’s clear that Offred rejects the idea of being a Handmaid, her surroundings have forced her to become very complicit to what’s happening around her.
Moira is Offred’s best friend, and they’ve seemingly known each other since college, if not longer. Moira had to become a Handmaid because she’s a lesbian, and being part of the LGBTQ+ community is a no-no in this new world. After a failed attempt to escape Gilead, Moira finally makes it out. Offred later finds her at a brothel, where she’s chosen to be a prostitute.
Ofglen is Offred’s walking partner. The two spend a lot of time walking to and from the town, quietly gossipping about mundane things. And also about the secret underground resistance. It’s clear that Ofglen is a clear believer and supporter of it, and knows a lot of things that shock Offred.
The Commander is the man Offred is assigned to. She’s not really his mistress, and she’s not really a concubine — she’s just there to try and help reproduce. That’s what her body exists for, now. The Commander doesn’t speak much, and it’s never made entirely clear what he does in the outside world (it’s alluded at the end of the novel that he played a big part in the reconstruction of the government). However, he’s got a soft spot for Scrabble, and he and Offred begin an off-limits relationship playing the board game.
Serena Joy is the Commander’s wife. Offred indicates that she used to be a TV star, but it seems like Serena Joy isn’t allowed to pursue her career in television anymore. She’s also supposedly sterile, which is why she and the Commander are required a handmaid (although it’s hinted in the novel that he’s the one who’s sterile). Serena eventually tries to set up Nick (the Commander’s chauffeur) with Offred, so that he could impregnate her. That way, Serena could become a mom, and Offred would avoid being sent to the Colonies for not producing a baby.
While Offred and Nick began having sex purely for procreation purposes, Offred starts to develop feelings for him. It’s unclear whether he’s a party loyalist (an Eye, aka the secret police, even) or a rebel — but it’s assumed that he’s the latter.
Luke is Offred’s husband before the fall of the U.S. Government. He was married before he met Offred, and cheated on his wife to be with her. He eventually left his wife to be with Offred and the two had a daughter together — but both were considered adulterers in Gilead. After Offred and Luke try to escape to Canada and are caught, Offred never hears from him again.
Where it takes place:
Shockingly, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in New England, but New England is long gone, instead replaced by the Republic of Gilead. Specifically, the story seems to take place in and around the city of Boston, since many Boston locations are reference in the book, and at one point Moira mentions how she almost made it to Maine.
The chaos isn’t just limited to Massachusetts, though. The Republic of Gilead spreads all across the U.S.A. — kinda in the same way that Panem was established in The Hunger Games.
The Handmaid’s Tale, which is told from Offred’s perspective, is about a dystopia that polices women’s bodies and utilizes them as surrogates. Gilead follows the Bible’s interpretation of family and social structure — as in, women exist to serve men and are their property. Women aren’t allowed to have jobs, own property, manage their money, vote, or read. If you’re a person of color, you’re sent away to the Midwest to the “National Homelands,” and if you’re Jewish (and refuse to convert), you’re shipped off under the guise of traveling to Israel, only to be drowned. Jews who stay in Gilead and are caught practicing their faith are publicly executed. While women are either homemakers, handmaids, or are sent off to live in the Colonies (a wasteland where infertile women live), men are basically just in the military.
It got this way, because a radical Christian movement called the “Sons of Jacob” took over the U.S. by executing the President and most of Congress. They essentially threw out the Constitution and made up their own laws which are based on the Old Testament. Leading up to the takeover, more and more people have become sterile because of the toxic environment and spread of STDs. Women who have committed some sort of “crime” are given the choice to either become a handmaid, or go live in the Colonies. As a handmaid, a woman has a certain amount of time to become pregnant with the Commander’s child or else she’s sent away to the Colonies. Every month, the handmaids participate in “ceremonies” where they physically position themselves in front of the Commanders’ wives and engage in sex with the Commander.
Offred and the Commander begin to have an affair (Offred doesn’t have much choice here). Confused about how she feels, she also starts to question her existence and identity as a woman in Gilead. After Serena Joy sets up Nick and Offred to procreate (which is highly illegal), Offred confesses her past and feelings about Gilead to Nick. Offglen comes out as a rebel to Offred, and invites her to become involved in the resistance which is working on overthrowing the government.
In the book, Offred is taken away by the Secret Police and escorted into a black van. Nick, who orchestrates the whole thing, tells her that she’s being rescued by the resistance and to trust him. We’re not sure what happens to Offred, but in an epilogue which takes place years later, a professor discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as though deciphering a historical text. We learn that Gilead is taken down and a society which values the equality between men and women is eventually re-established.
Why people are re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale now, in particular:
Soon after the election in November, waiting lists for The Handmaid’s Tale exponentially grew in libraries in the U.S. and Canada. Considering the U.S.’s current president admittedly sexually assaulted a woman (and seemingly doesn’t hold women with high regard), and has been accused many times of similar behavior, and his VP is in favor of abolishing a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, the story of The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seem totally farfetched anymore. President Trump’s cabinet is pro-life, and a large proponent of defunding Planned Parenthood — could what happened to Offred’s world happen to ours?
Well, nothing is impossible.
Watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, which premieres April 26th.