The Handmaid's Tale Questions and Answers
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale book cover
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Why is reading and writing forbidden?

Reading and writing are entirely forbidden for women in The Handmaid's Tale as a means of tightening control over their lives, particularly their ability to communicate with others. This severely restrains their ability to communicate independently and secretively, thus limiting the possibility of rebellion.

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Reading and writing are forbidden for a number of reasons:

First, women are forbidden to read and write because the government of Gilead does not want them to be able to communicate with one another secretly. They cannot send one another letters or messages that they might use to start or join a resistance. Since they are deprived of all modes of communication besides verbal speech, the women's communication can be much more tightly controlled, because it can be monitored: overheard, caught on video, and so on.

Second, reading is one major way that people educate themselves. When we read, we learn about other people and other societies, and we expand the way we think about the world. The Gileadean government does not want women to be educated or thoughtful. They are supposed to be obedient and submissive. In fact, if you think about it, it is only the first generation of women in Gilead who will be literate. After...

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seefreetutor | Student

In The Handmaid's Tale, the act of reading and writing is a tool of those in power and control. As Gilead is a theocracy (meaning that religious doctrine dictates the law of the land), those who have the divine power to read and interpret God's law also have the supreme power to shape the rules and laws of the land. Therefore, how the male Commanders read and interpret the Bible -- regardless of whether their interpretation of scripture is correct or not -- has dire implications for those who are banned from reading and writing. For instance, lines of scripture are used out of context by the Commanders to justify Ceremonies, the act of raping Handmaids in order to impregnate them in God’s name. As the women of Gilead are banned from reading, they are thus banned from questioning the interpretation and application of law, as to even begin the process of questioning would be an offense punishable by mutilation and even death. To deny one the power to have a voice -- regardless if read, spoken, or interpreted -- is to deny one to have agency and choice. This is a deliberate move by those in positions of power: the Commanders of Gilead.

lenida7 | Student

Reading and writing is forbidden for women in The Handmaid's Tale, because they do not possess power. The power lies with the men in Gilead. Men are allowed to read and write in order to fulfill their duties in this dystopian world. Men are in charge of the household and have to be able to read mail, orders, and other documents. They also need to read the bible in order to interpret it correctly. Then, they need to write their thoughts and orders in order to communicate with other men in this world.

This is one way in this dystopian world that the men show their power over the women. Since women are not allowed to read and write, it shows that they are inferior to the men in society. It also does not allow them to educate themselves and communicate with one another or the outside world. This allows for control within this world.

Reading and writing is forbidden to shift power and control to the men in the society and to keep women controlled.

tiffany810 | Student

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale portrays a bleak and oppressive future. Due to dangerously low reproduction rates, individuality is forbidden, women are subjected to systemic rape, and those who cannot contribute to Gilead are either executed or sent to labor camps in toxic regions. Such restrictions and laws are for "the greater good" of society.

One of Gilead's laws is women are forbidden from reading and writing. There are many possible rationales behind this decision:

  • Knowledge is power, and in order to keep women submissive, Gilled forbids them from partaking in activities that stimulate the mind.
  • Gilead may fear women's ability to utilize reading and writing for rebellious purposes (e.g. secret code).
  • In this society, men have the power. By stripping women's right to read and write, Gilead successfully maintains their power structure (especially since men are not forbidden from such acts).
  • Since citizens are no longer seen as individuals, personal choices and preferences--such as clothes, colloquialisms, films, music, etc.--are banned. In order to prevent women from reading or writing things that do not align with Gilead's norms, it would be easier to ban the acts all together.

The aforementioned reasons align with themes concerning power, fear, individuality vs. society, and gender roles.