Offred This unidentified, faithful wife of Luke, mother of a daughter, and successful clerk or computer operator working in the discing room of an office or possibly a library among eight or ten other female employees, bears the state-contrived label of "Offred," a term that identifies her as a handmaid specifically to be bred "by Fred." Early in the novel, before she has become "Offred," she is separated from work and loses control of her finances, feels the stirrings of paranoia, and agrees to attempt flight across the Canadian border. The failure of her family's escape leaves her uncertain as to the safety and disposition of family members, who may still survive in the society of Gilead. After becoming the psychologically conditioned Handmaid and mistress of Commander Frederick, she fails her state-mandated mission — to conceive a child. Agreeing to the urging of Serena Joy, Offred becomes the lover of Nick, the family chauffeur. At Nick's instigation, Offred flees with double agents posing as the secret police. Evidence suggests that she departed the Boston area via the Underground Femaleroad, settled in a Quaker way station in Bangor, Maine, and taped a narrative about her servitude in Gilead. Like other escapees, Offred may have relocated in Canada or England, possibly to live in seclusion.
Moira A next-door friend to the novel's central character during college, Moira, who shares internment at the Rachel and Leah ReEducation Center, remains "quirky, jaunty, athletic . . . irreverent, resourceful." She organizes an "underwhore party" to sell risque lingerie to college girls, and later she works for the publishing division of a women's collective. After the takeover of the Congress and suspension of the Constitution, Moira warns her friend that something bad will happen. A logical, skillful survivalist, after being remanded to Handmaid training, she lifts Offred's spirits in clandestine meetings in the washroom. Moira suffers torture for feigning an attack of appendicitis, then overpowers a matron and escapes. Reunited with Offred, Moira continues their tradition of washroom conspiracies at Jezebel's, a nightclub where Moira works as a prostitute. Moira, who is happy to coexist among other lesbians, explains how she was remanded there because of her incorrigible behavior. After Offred's only visit to the night spot, she learns no more about Moira's fate.
Serena Joy A former soprano on the Growing Souls Gospel Hour and crusader for traditional female roles, Serena Joy, whose real name is Pam, once performed maudlin TV antics; she was well-known for being able to weep copiously on camera. Serena enters late middle age with arthritis and the responsibilities of the Commander's household. Pampered by servants, she putters about her garden, sometimes just sitting under a willow tree or leaning on her cane in contemplation of her flower beds. A barren Wife, she detests the intrusion of the Handmaids, who threaten the stability of her marriage. On June 25, 2195, Professor Pieixoto believes that he has possibly identified her: she could be Thelma Waterford, wife of Frederick R. Waterford.
The Commander A gray-haired former market researcher and semiretired top military official of the Eyes, his sober posture and stooped shoulders give away his age. Mild-mannered, but cynical and acquisitive, he rules over Wife and Handmaid as though they are chattel and interprets the ban on pre-Gilead decadence as it suits his needs and desires. After the Commander gets to know Offred, he treats her like a precocious child or lap dog and takes pride in her skill at Scrabble. She sees him as "daddyish" and recognizes his loneliness and need for heavy nighttime drinking. Tentatively identified by historians as either Frederick R. Waterford or B. Frederick Judd, Professor Pieixoto's descriptionseemingly pinpoints the former as Offred's mate. Waterford was the designer of the Handmaids' uniforms and originator of the term "Particicution." He succumbed to a political purge as a direct result of his "liberal tendencies" for retaining banned pictures and books and for "harboring a subversive."
Nick A trusted, over-confident chauffeur for the Commander, he bears messages that summon Offred to the office and supplies black market cigarettes to Serena Joy. When Offred first enters the Commander's household, she notices Nick, who is polishing the staff car; soon afterward, he regularly stares at her, shows off his muscles, whistles, and displays an insouciant cockiness that belies his later importance in her life. As Offred's lover, Nick listens dispassionately to her recital of past history and emotional outpourings during their fervid lovernaking. On the day that Serena confronts Offred with evidence of adultery and calls her a slut, Nick, purportedly an operative for the Eyes and double agent for Mayday, sets up a phony arrest and has her spirited away in an Eyes van, possibly to an Underground Fernaleroad way station in Bangor, Maine.
Aunt Lydia Caught up in her fervency as a vigilant matron at the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center, Lydia, with her uplifted face, protruding yellow teeth, and steel-rimmed spectacles, spouts a tedious line of platitudes and truisms, warnings against immodesty, materialism, and a lack of interest in the traditional maternal role, especially motherhood. She seems sincere in her belief that the "Republic of Gilead . . . knows no bounds. Gilead is within you." Like a glory-struck drill sergeant, Aunt Lydia, armed with pointer, whistle, and cattle prod, stalks the gymnasium/barracks and administers mild, authoritative taps, a demonstration that "a little pain cleans out the mind." In class, she inculcates Gilead's future Handmaids with simplistic dogma: "It's a risk you're taking . . . but you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance, into dangerous territory. The greater the risk the greater the glory."
Luke Offred's husband is recalled in wisps of memory — the two of them walking down the street as they discussed buying a house or starting a family, throwing out accumulated plastic grocery bags to protect their daughter from suffocation, making up the term "sororize" to mean "acting like a sister." After fleeing his first wife to rendezvous with the novel's main character during afternoons in hotel rooms, he enjoys lying close with her. A good-natured man, Luke teases his feminist mother-in-law about the differences between men and women. She refers to him as a chauvinist "piglet." After the creation of the despotic state of Gilead, Luke exhibits what his wife interprets as paternalistic attitudes and behaviors toward her disenfranchisement and impounded bank account. He devises an escape plan and helps ease her tensions as the family packs a picnic and drives leisurely toward the Canadian border. Gunshots indicate that the foiled escape may have caused his death or, at best, grave injury during his capture.
Ofglen The second of three Handmaids "of Glen" during the story, this current Ofglen serves as a daily shopping companion for Offred three weeks after her arrival at the Commander's house. Giving the impression of exhibitionistic piety, Ofglen asks to divert their return from town so that she can pray at the churchyard. Later, Ofglen reveals that her sanctimony is pretense, a cover-up for "us," an ill-defined rebel group. A rabid participant at the Salvaging, Ofglen, a target of the Eyes, hangs herself before she can be arrested. Her replacement becomes the novel's third Ofglen.
Rita Serena Joy's tight-lipped, over-sixty kitchen servant frowns at Offred and rifles officiously through the groceries in her basket. Rita, who envies Offred her freedom to walk to the market, exerts limited domestic power by unlocking a cupboard and parceling out a single kitchen match to Offred.
Cora Serena Joy's fiftyish cleaning woman discovered Offred's predecessor hanging from the bedroom light fixture and later finds Offred sleeping in the closet and fears a subsequent suicide. A childless, dull-witted drone, Cora offers the semblance of friendship to Offred by concealing an untouched breakfast. Out of frustration for the family's lack of children, Cora weeps as Offred is led away.
Offred and Luke's Daughter A small girl, she is only a sweet, ephemeral memory of Offred's past. The child was kidnapped briefly from a shopping cart one Saturday when she was eleven months old. Offred and the child were separated when the child was five. A single Polaroid picture confirms that she survived capture and is being groomed as a whitegowned Daughter.
Offred's Mother An ardently militant feminist, she gave birth to her daughter at age thirty-seven and would be seventy at the time of the story, if she survived. Offred's mother maintained a platonic relationship with her mate and engaged in harmless badinage with son-in-law Luke, but was in deadly earnest on the Saturday when her companions burned pornographic magazines in the park. In Offred's dim memories, after a pro-feminist balloon release, her mother fades into the crowd as though losing her identity in mob mentality. At the time of the takeover, she lives in Boston and makes frequent visits to Offred's residence. Moira recognizes Offred's mother as an Unwoman in a documentary film about the nuclearpolluted Colonies, where the life span of clean-up crew members averages three years.
Janine/Ofwarren A former waitress, mother, and fellow Handmaid-in-training with Moira and Offred, she loses herself in the "ecstasy of abasement" and consults privately in Aunt Lydia's quarters. Before other inmates at the Red Center, Janine testifies publicly to gang rape during the decadent period preceding the formation of Gilead. Her trance-like state alerts Moira and Offred to her tenuous hold on reality. Aunt Lydia rebukes Janine for maudlin displays of piety, but calls on her to spy among the other girls for information concerning Moira's escape. In later encounters, Offred observes Ofwarren's self-important display of a rounded abdomen during the late months of pregnancy, a violation of rules protecting expectant mothers from unnecessary public exposure to injury or harm. After the birth of baby Angela, Ofwarren weeps "burnt-out miserable tears." Her triumphant delivery of a healthy child assures that she will never be sent to the Colonies or declared an Unwoman. Later, the baby proves to be a "shredder," a failure that Janine blames on herself. During the Particicution, Janine, her eyes denoting madness, benignly smiles at the savagery she participates in.
Aunt Elizabeth A key authority figure at the Red Center, she guards the washroom on the day of Moira's escape. Although Aunt Elizabeth suffers assault, stripping, feet-to-neck trussing, and confinement behind the furnace for seven hours, the authorities treat her as a possible collaborator by conducting an official interrogation. As birth master, Aunt Elizabeth supervises Ofwarren during childbirth and smiles as she delivers baby Angela.
Delores She is a Handmaid-in-training who wets the floor rather than leave an afternoon session of Testifying.
Offred's Predecessor The Handmaid who previously occupied Offred's room, she visited the Commander in his den, accompanied him to the club, and scratched a doggerel Latin phrase in the closet. Serena's discovery of the illicit affair led to the former Offred's suicide and the removal of the bedroom light fixture from which she hanged herself. The current Offred, who ponders the personality and fate of the doomed Handmaid, calls her "my ancestress, my double."
Ofcharles She is a Handmaid who is executed for an unnamed crime at a Salvaging during the summer of Offred's third year at the Commander's house.
Alma A Handmaid who whispers her real name to Offred during the birthing ceremony, she offers to report any clues about Moira's whereabouts. Offred suppresses the urge to ask about Luke, whom Alma would have no reason to know.
Professor Maryann Crescent Moon She is a glib, mildly humorous chair of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies and a professor at the Department of Caucasian Anthropology at the University of Denay, Nunavit, a fictional setting in the Arctic region.
Professor James Darcy Pieixoto The tediously pedantic director of the 20th and 21st Century Archives at Cambridge University, England, he serves as keynote speaker at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies.
Wilfred Limpkin A sociobiologist during the early Gileadean period, he was present at meetings of the Sons of Jacob Think Tank. Limpkin kept a diary in code and, foreseeing his demise, hid it with his sister-in-law in Calgary. His interest in "the odder practices of the regime" produce documents that convince him that Offred was Handmaid to Commander Frederick R. Waterford.
Frederick Judd According to Limpkin's diaries, Judd was a "hard-liner" Commander of the Eyes from Gilead's early period and was responsible for banning literacy for women. He masterminded the President's Day Massacre as well as the National Homelands and Jewish boatperson plans and used scapegoating through Particicution as a relief of tensions among Handmaids.