The Handmaid’s Tale – Summary & Ending Explained

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a chilling and thought-provoking dystopian novel set in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic society that has replaced the United States. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Offred, a woman stripped of her identity and forced into the role of a Handmaid—whose sole purpose is to bear children for the ruling class.

The Republic of Gilead emerges in the aftermath of societal collapse, where a theocratic regime seizes control, subjugating women and eroding individual freedoms. Offred, once a woman with a family and a name of her own, is reduced to a mere vessel for procreation. The society is divided into rigid classes, with Handmaids serving the elite in a desperate attempt to reverse the declining birth rates.

As Offred navigates the oppressive regime, memories of her past life, her daughter, and the freedoms she once took for granted haunt her. The novel weaves together themes of power, control, gender oppression, and the consequences of religious extremism. Atwood’s narrative masterfully captures the tension between the oppressive present and the nostalgic yearning for a world that once existed.

The plot unfolds with gripping suspense as Offred navigates the intricate web of Gilead’s rules, the Eyes who enforce them, and her clandestine encounters with others who resist the regime. The novel’s conclusion leaves readers with lingering questions about Offred’s fate and the broader implications of the oppressive society.


Offred: The protagonist and narrator, Offred is a Handmaid forced into a life of submission. Her internal monologue provides a window into the psychological toll of Gilead’s oppressive regime. Offred’s resilience, subtle rebellion, and internal conflicts make her a complex and relatable character.

The Commander: A high-ranking official in Gilead, the Commander symbolizes the privileged class that enforces and benefits from the oppressive regime. Despite his role in the system, the Commander becomes a nuanced character as Offred discovers unexpected layers beneath his authoritative facade.

Serena Joy: The Wife of the Commander, Serena Joy represents the contradictions within the female elite of Gilead. Once an advocate for the regime, Serena Joy experiences the consequences of the society she helped create. Her relationship with Offred is fraught with tension and a reflection of the power dynamics among women.

Moira: Offred’s rebellious friend from the past, Moira provides a glimpse into the resistance against Gilead. Her character serves as a contrast to Offred’s submission, embodying the spirit of defiance against the oppressive regime.

Nick: The household chauffeur, Nick’s role becomes central to Offred’s story. His ambiguous allegiances and the complexities of their relationship add layers of intrigue to the narrative.

Atwood crafts characters that embody the multifaceted nature of resistance, complicity, and survival within a dystopian society. Each character contributes to the exploration of power dynamics and the impact of oppressive systems on individual agency.

The Handmaid’s Tale Ending Explained

Note: Spoiler Alert

The novel concludes with Offred’s fate left uncertain. The ambiguous ending leaves readers to speculate on whether Offred is captured by the Eyes, escapes to a better life, or succumbs to the oppressive regime.

The conclusion, symbolized by the phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”), underscores Offred’s resilience and resistance. The enigmatic ending challenges readers to grapple with the uncertainty of Offred’s destiny, echoing the broader theme of resistance persisting in the face of oppressive systems.

Some interpretations suggest that the historical notes appended at the end of the novel, depicting an academic conference in the distant future, provide a glimpse into Gilead’s eventual downfall. Scholars discuss Offred’s narrative as a historical artifact, hinting that resistance and societal change eventually emerge.

Atwood intentionally leaves the ending open to interpretation, emphasizing the ongoing struggle against oppressive systems and the endurance of hope. The lack of a definitive resolution prompts readers to reflect on the broader implications of Gilead’s society and the timeless theme of resistance against tyranny.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It based on a true story? No, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a work of fiction and not based on a true story. Margaret Atwood drew inspiration from historical events, political ideologies, and the feminist movement to create a speculative dystopian narrative. While the novel reflects elements of societal oppression, the Republic of Gilead and its specific events are products of Atwood’s imagination.

What is the main idea of the book? The main idea of “The Handmaid’s Tale” revolves around the consequences of unchecked power, the subjugation of women, and the impact of religious extremism on individual freedoms. Atwood explores themes of resistance, the erosion of autonomy, and the enduring spirit of those who defy oppressive regimes. The novel serves as a cautionary tale about the fragility of civil liberties and the importance of safeguarding individual rights.

Is this book worth reading? Absolutely. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a seminal work that delves into the complexities of power, gender, and societal control. Atwood’s prose is both lyrical and evocative, drawing readers into a dystopian world that resonates with contemporary relevance. The novel’s exploration of individual agency, resistance, and the consequences of authoritarian rule makes it a compelling and thought-provoking read.

What is the symbolism in this book? Symbolism in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is pervasive, with objects like the red cloak and bonnet worn by Handmaids symbolizing oppression and loss of identity. The ceremony of childbirth, the Eyes, and the forbidden acts of reading and writing all contribute to the novel’s layered symbolism. Atwood employs symbolism to convey complex themes, inviting readers to engage in a deeper exploration of the narrative.

Can you recommend me any other interesting books of this author? Certainly. If you appreciate Atwood’s exploration of dystopian themes and societal critique, “Oryx and Crake” is another compelling novel by the author. The book delves into a world where genetic engineering and corporate power shape a post-apocalyptic landscape. Atwood’s keen insights into the consequences of unchecked scientific advancements and societal structures are evident in this thought-provoking narrative.

Can you recommend me other interesting books in the similar genre? If you are drawn to dystopian literature that examines the impact of societal structures on individuals, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is a classic exploration of a highly controlled and stratified society. Additionally, Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” offers a speculative vision of a future America marked by environmental and societal collapse. Both works share thematic resonances with “The Handmaid’s Tale” in their examination of the consequences of authoritarian rule and the resilience of the human spirit.