The premise, in short, is that a fundamentalist religious dictatorship has overthrown the US government and created the Republic of Gilead, gradually instituting strict gender, racial, and class roles for all people. In order to signify these roles, all people are marked according to gender and class by their clothing. As no people of color seem to exist in Gilead, it is not clear how race is marked; what is clear is that racial groups are separated, with patriarchal Gilead being comprised of only white people.
The protagonist of the story is a woman who carries out the role of handmaid, a fertile woman whom the Gilead government forces to be a surrogate mother for an infertile, married heterosexual couple. Her name being Offred ("Of Fred," because she is Fred's property), she has lost her former pre-revolution identity as a wife, mother, and wage earner, and her only value to the current society is her capacity to potentially bear a child for the married couple with whom she has been forced to live. All handmaids are marked by the red clothing they must wear at all times, which is described as somewhat like a nun's habit.
The lives of the handmaids are lonely, isolated, and uneventful. Mostly, it consists of waiting in their bedrooms for ovulation so they can be impregnated by the man of the house. Reflecting on this waiting, Offred is reminded of historical depictions in art of harems, and notes, "...maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men" (69). Her existence is an erotic male fantasy, as the handmaid's life finds meaning only via a man, and waiting for him.
The ruling class, all male of course, are called commanders and they wear black. They are entitled to wives, a privileged class of women who wear blue, many of whom are sterile due to nuclear radiation. If these wives do not bear children, the commanders are entitled to handmaids that they can "have sex with" for reproductive purposes (quotes necessary as the handmaids have no power to refuse sexual consent). Men who are not commanders are either soldiers, spies, or laborers and many of them are allowed to take wives if they play by the society's rules. Those who misbehave are publicly executed.
Several classes of women exist, all of which are limited to serving domestic, reproductive, parenting, patriarchal training, or sex work roles. Women who are unable or unwilling to assimilate into this patriarchal society are called "unwomen" and include sterile women and feminist types. "Unwomen" are forced to live and work in labor camps and are worked to early deaths.
Although Atwood's novel is thought of as speculative or science fiction, the similarities between her society and fundamentalist patriarchal societies in the real world are striking and obvious. For one, clothing is used to mark perhaps the most important distinction of all in a patriarchal culture, gender, often with the effect of "hiding" women. In nearly all fundamentalist religious groups- Mormons, Christians, Muslims, Jews- followers adhere to strict gendered clothing requirements. Visible male and female uniforms, so to speak, reinforce and exaggerate the differences and the hierarchical relationship between men and women.
Secondly, in accordance with the exaggerated marking of gender, heterosexuality was compulsory and, for women who were fertile, so was pregnancy. This situation mirrors our own US history wherein (a) the economic opportunities for women were extremely limited, (b) marriage to a man was the only means of economic stability for many women, and (c) men were legally entitled to rape their wives and (d) birth control and abortion were restricted and/or outlawed.
Third, women are defined completely by their reproductive capacities and their adherence to patriarchal rules. Whereas no man in Gilead is stripped of his status as male, women who cannot or do not play by the rules are stripped of their humanity and constructed as "unwomen." As women are hidden in the realm of the domestic sphere, Gilead is an exaggerated version of US history, wherein a privileged class of mostly white men (our version of the commanders) limited the legal and financial rights of all women and many men and proceeded to (supposedly) "invent, discover, create, and build" everything good and important in the whole entire world as though doing so proved that they were inherently superior to everyone else, as opposed to the reality that what they had actually created was a giant affirmative action program for themselves.
With this backdrop in mind, several scenes within Atwood's book, which I also find to be quite beautiful from a poetic standpoint, were particularly poignant:
1) The wives of the commanders, while comparatively privileged by their class, still led limited, boring lives that, due to isolation and the restrictions on female education, lacked meaning. Since the primary purpose women held in this society was to bear children, wives who could not bear children were without purpose. Indeed, Serena, Fred the commander's wife, seemed to have little purpose in life, given that she had servants to do all cooking and chores, a handmaid to attempt to bear her husband's child, and no career. In this way, the pedestal of being a wife was both a privilege and a prison.
In an apt move, Atwood seemed to have written Serena as a Phyliss Schlafly/Anita Bryant persona, as she is described as a former religious television personality who, prior to the Gilead revolution, favored a return to the traditional family. In Gilead, Offred sardonically observes:
"She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word" (46).
Serena was unhappy, bored, and ill-suited with the role she advocated for in her previous life as a woman against women's rights. Or, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, "How's that workin' out for ya?"
Serena, like all of the wives, reinforced patriarchy and remained complicit in their own oppression in exchange for the privileges and status of being a wife. To be a wife, was to be the highest form of woman and, "when power is scarce, a little of it is tempting."
2) While the book is written from the point of view of Offred, we do get some limited insight on the perspective of the commanders. In general, they seemed to possess a general cluelessness about what life was like for women. Fred, the commander, assumes that the women are relatively happy and satisfied, which again would be the ultimate patriarchal male fantasy. This ignorance and wishful thinking is exemplified by Offred and Fred's very different takes on their sexual interactions. Offred describes the reproductive "ceremony"/rape thusly:
"What [the commander] is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved" (94).
The commander, however, reads something more into this "relationship," and secretly orders Offred to his chambers for periodic alone-time, which is against the rules. While these secret meetings do not always involve sex, Fred does not seem to "get" that Offred does not have the power to refuse these "dates." Although, given her limited, boring life, she does come to look forward to them as a way to break the tedium of her daily life. Throughout it all, she remains repulsed by the commander, while he imagines her to be as infatuated with him as he is with her.
After getting to know Offred a bit, he only then notes that he finds the reproductive "ceremony" a bit "impersonal" (162), something that should have been quite obvious from the get-go. Later still, he makes Offred go to a harem with him and, before forcing her to have sex with him, tries to seduce her, saying "I thought you might like it for a change" (254). Despite trying to fake her enjoyment, she is unable to feel anything but aversion.
This ignorance was not limited to the commanders, even though they seemed to be the most clueless about the oppressive conditions women faced. Just after the revolution, the Gilead dictators froze the assets of all women and ordered all workplaces to fire the women, leading to the economic dependence of women on men. When this happened, Offred was at the time married to a man and had a job. To her horror, all of her money got transferred into her husband's account.
Although he promised to take care of her "always" and didn't seemed that concerned about the monetary transfer, the juxtaposition of (a) both partners in the marriage being financially independent and then (b) one being forced to be totally dependent on the other underscored the male-female power differential. Offred noted, "We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his." (18). And, indeed, from that day forward she belonged only to men and never to herself.
To end, Atwood's final chapter is written as a symposium in the year 2195 with historical scholars giving a presentation on Gilead. Although the novel itself is heavy, I found the contents of this final chapter to be humorous in a satirical, dark way. For one, the fictional dude scholar mansplained that the present reader "must be cautious about passing judgment on the Giladeans" since, you know, given moral relativism and all, "our job is not to censure but to understand" (302). Parallels to some of today's fundamentalist patriarchal cultures are obvious.
He then ended by snarking that, had the narrator Offred "had the instincts of a reporter or a spy" she might have written a story about More Important Things, such as "the workings of the Gileadean empire" (310). A mere story about the plight of women, you understand, tells us little about a society.
Some things never change.