In a dystopian near-future, the totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government of Gilead rules the former United States amidst an ongoing civil war. Society is organized along a new, militarized, hierarchical regime of Bible-inspired social and religious fanaticism and newly-created social classes, in which women are brutally subjugated, and by law are not allowed to work, own property, control money, or read. Widespread infertility due to warfare-induced environmental contamination has resulted in the conscription of the few remaining fertile women; called Handmaids, according to Biblical precedent; who are assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, where they must submit to ritualized sex with their male masters in order to become pregnant and bear children for those men and their wives. wikipedia.

Offred has a name, a secret now, as Handmaid's are known by their Commander's names. She is little more than a "womb on legs". Her whole existance revolves around the monthly "Ceremony" and her ability, or inability, to carry a child. Offred is on her third assignement. She has two years in which to bear a child for Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. If she fails, she will be declared an "unwoman" and sent to the colonies to clean up toxic waste. The Handmaids are women who are considered to have transgressed against the laws of Gilead. Offred had been married to a divorced man, and so her marrige is declared void and her daughter is illegitimate.

But Offred has a secret world that she can go to when she is alone. Her memories of her marriage to Luke and their daughter Hannah make her happy, and help her to remember that there was a time when she was free and loved. But she cannot allow herself to indulge in memories too often, or she would go mad with grief, contrasting her happy past with the dreadful present. Her memories give her hope; but she cannot afford to be trapped in the past or like Ofwarren, she would be emotionally destroyed.

Offred often seems to be emotionally passive. Her face is schooled and expressionless. Every step she takes is observed; by the Waterfords, by the Marthas in the kitchen, by the Eyes in the house and all around. Even the Handmaid who accompanies her on shopping trips could be a spy. But whatever she experiences of the horrors of living as a woman in Gilead, she never gives up. She takes the motto of the previous Offred to heart: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She never forgets her family, nor that in her previous life her name was June.