How to Analyze 4 Important Handmaid’s Tale Characters

Ever go to a party with your BFF, and when you get there, the only person you know is the friend who invited you?

While meeting a whole bunch of new people is great, it can be a mental challenge to try to remember people’s names, what they do, or even if they’re the people hosting what has now turned into a pretty awesome party.

Reading a novel filled with tons of characters can feel just like walking into a party of strangers.

In both instances, it can be hard to keep names and stories straight.

It’s probably not a big deal if you see Andria at the party later and call her Arianna. But it probably is a big deal (at least to your professor) if you’re analyzing a novel, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, and you refer to the protagonist as Ofglen rather than Offred.

If you’re still trying get to know everyone in The Handmaid’s Tale, let me be your host, and I’ll introduce you to four key characters.

handmaid's tale characters

How to Analyze 4 Important Handmaid’s Tale Characters

The Handmaid’s Tale is filled with a variety of characters, so I won’t be introducing you to everyone. Instead, let’s stick to four important characters in the novel: Offred, Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia, and the Commander.

Handmaid’s Tale Character #1: Offred

Offred is the narrator and protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale. She tells the story of her life as a Handmaid: a woman who is forced to bear the children of infertile, elite couples.

While she sometimes reflects back on her life in the United States (before the rebellion and before it became Gilead), Offred is essentially complacent with her current existence.

Analyzing Offred

Offred’s complacency is an important aspect of her character. She’s a prime example of how people learn to accept their lives, no matter what they’re like. She’s willing to accept (at least on some level) that the new society of Gilead is actually of benefit to women.

Like many others, she’s also willing give up her freedoms and does little to fight for herself. As a result, she (and others) loses all freedom, allowing the government (who, by no coincidence is composed of men) to have complete control.

Because Offred has given up control of her freedom, her identify, and her body, it’s clear that she can’t be labeled a feminist. Men control every aspect of her existence, and she allows men (including Nick, with whom she ends up having an affair) to control her.

Essay idea:

Analyze one or more themes (such as feminism or complacency) in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Want to read an example essay that focuses on the theme of feminism in The Handmaid’s Tale? Check out Feminism in The Handmaid’s Tale, a Novel by Margaret Atwood.

Handmaid’s Tale Character #2: Serena Joy

When Gilead was still the United States, Serena Joy was an anti-feminist who advocated for traditional, conservative family values. In Gilead, she holds a high social ranking as she is the Commander’s wife.

Serena Joy, however, doesn’t live up to the name she has chosen for herself and is anything but serene or joyful.

She is angry because she too is completely controlled by men and is jealous of the Handmaids who are forced to have sex with her husband (and possibly bear the children she is unable to conceive).

handmaid's tale characters

Analyzing Serena Joy

Serena Joy is the quintessential mean girl. She’s at the top of the social ladder, so she thinks she can bully others.

Therefore, even though she too is miserable in her own life because she is controlled by men, she takes out her anger and jealousy on the Handmaids, including Offred.

Irony is a big part of Serena Joy’s life.

Pre-Gilead, she fought against feminism and for traditional values. Ironically enough, she got what she fought for once Gilead was established.

The values she fought for, though, leave her powerless and angry rather than fulfilled and joyful.

Essay idea:

Compare and contrast the social hierarchy of Gilead to that of other dystopian novels.

Want to read more about the social structure in Gilead? Read The Social Mechanics of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Handmaid’s Tale Character #3: Aunt Lydia

Aunt Lydia is part of a group of women called Aunts. Aunts work for the government and are assigned the task of essentially brainwashing women (like Offred and the other Handmaids) into accepting their new roles in society.

Aunt Lydia appears as a Handmaid’s Tale character mainly in flashbacks.

She is very much a part of Offred’s internal monologue as Offred often thinks back to what Aunt Lydia preached during the indoctrination. (Whether she believes all of Aunt Lydia’s words is debatable.)

handmaid's tale characters

Analyzing Aunt Lydia

In a world where women are oppressed, Aunt Lydia is certainly not a gal’s best friend or confidant—and most certainly not a Handmaid’s BFF.

Aunt Lydia works hard to convince Handmaids that they’re destined for their duties. She uses Bible verses in an attempt to illustrate that Gilead and its rules are God’s will and that the Handmaids are performing essential roles in society.

She seems to enjoy her power over the Handmaids and has little sympathy for their place in Gilead. Yet she does sometimes sympathize with the wives of the Commanders, asking the Handmaids to see life from their point of view.

Essay idea:

Analyze the use of language (including language of the Bible) in The Handmaid’s Tale to illustrate how the government asserts power and control over its citizens.

Read the example essay Margaret Atwood’s Biblical Allusions in The Handmaid’s Tale to see how one writer analyzes the author’s use of Biblical verses in the novel.

Handmaid’s Tale Character #4: The Commander

handmaid's tale characters

The Commander is the head of the household in which Offred is the Handmaid. Though at times he feels trapped in society, he’s a powerful man who actually helped construct Gilead.

(I imagine at least one Handmaid saying things like, “You feel trapped? Ha! Try seeing life from my point of view!” or “Really? You’re not happy with society? You’ve got no one but yourself to blame!”)

Offred doesn’t see the Commander as all good or all bad. At times she even likes him because he actually shows some compassion toward her. They can sometimes even seem more like friends or lovers as they talk or play Scrabble together.

Analyzing the Commander

There is no doubt that the Commander holds the power. He is the head of the household and even helped construct the social order of Gilead. (It’s no coincidence that his title is actually “Commander.”)

The Commander appears to feel compassion for Offred as he allows her to play Scrabble and read. He also suggests that he enjoys her company and enjoys their conversations.

On the surface, this all seems well and good, but it can be argued that his motives are personal.

He treats Offred like a mistress. He tells her that his wife doesn’t understand him and asks Offred to dress up so that he can show her off at Jezebel’s (which is no more than a glorified brothel).

And he does all of this for his own satisfaction and doesn’t care if there are any consequences for Offred if she is caught breaking the rules.

Essay idea:

Examine the Commander’s motives. Is he being compassionate by letting Offred break the rules with him? Or is he being selfish by not caring about her feelings or what might happen if she’s caught?

Read more about the Commander and his motives in the example essay The Key Role of the Commander in The Handmaid’s Tale, a Novel by Margaret Atwood.

Now That You Know Everyone…

handmaid's tale characters

Now that you’ve been officially introduced to a few of the key Handmaid’s Tale characters, you’re ready to turn your analysis into an essay.

If you’re still looking for essay topic ideas, check out these additional example essays:

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