The story is set in the United States in the near future. A brutal attack has left all members of Congress dead and the country has collapsed into civil war. A section of the United States, governed by religious fundamentalists, becomes a totalitarian state called the Republic of Gilead. The Constitution is suspended; civil liberties and freedoms are dissolved; the death penalty is instituted for dissidents, homosexuals, and non-Christians; and women loose the right to work and earn money.
Radiation poisoning from the war has resulted in almost all women becoming infertile. Those few in Gilead who can still bear children are forced to become Handmaids, surrogate mothers for infertile couples. The book takes the form of a personal diary belonging to a Handmaid named Offred, who is commissioned to the house of a Gileadean commander, and whose sole purpose is to routinely copulate with him in order to bear a child for his infertile wife. Using this as the basis of the story allows Atwood to address the conservative, traditional and sometimes religious belief that the only purpose of a woman is to bear children. In Offred’s own words:
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Pg136.
“What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.” Pg 194.
Offred takes the reader through her many trials as she struggles to come to terms with her place in a suppressive and legalistic society. The story frequently flashes back to Offred’s memories of her life before the war, when she had her own job, money, a loving husband and a young daughter. This dualistic nature of the story provides the reader with a comparison between two societies: one where women have choice and the other where women have little or no choice at all.
This is a dystopian novel, and through it Atwood provides a warning of what could happen if religion becomes the ultimate law of the land, and if women are no longer free to make their own decisions, especially regarding sexuality and reproduction.