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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

Topic #1
Many democratic governments have been overthrown in the Twentieth Century. The Handmaid’s Tale shows how the government of the United States might be overthrown by a fanatical group and a dictatorship established. Consider how a government such as Gilead is created and how those in power attempt to maintain their control.

I. Thesis Statement: The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates that a dictatorship can be established by playing upon people’s fears and dissatisfaction with societal conditions and that, once dictatorial controls are instituted, fear tactics can be asserted to attempt to keep the government in place.

II. Dissatisfactory conditions of the pre-Gilead society
A. Environmental deterioration due to increased pollution and nuclear explosions
B. Increased objectification of women through pornography
C. Increased sexual violence against women
D. Decreased birth rate among the Caucasian population
E. Rampant new strain of syphilis

III. Measures taken to seize control of the government and the society
A. Use of media to promote dissatisfaction
B. Assassination of the President and Congress
C. Mass firing of all women and seizure of their assets
D. Savage repression of protests

IV. Fear tactics used to maintain control in Gilead
A. Regimentation of society
1. Women assigned to groupings according to theirfunction
2. Society in uniforms, based upon groupings
3. Elimination of choice in daily life
4. Rivalries and jealousies between different groupings encouraged
B. Indoctrination
1. The Red Center
2. Misinformation on television, the only remaining information medium
3. Enforced illiteracy
4. Society involved in the punishment of offenders (Salvagings)
C. Creation of paranoia and fear
1. Meetings, even most conversations, banned
2. Threat of banishment to the Colonies
3. Public display of execution victims
4. The Eyes/the black vans

V. Resistance to government of Gilead, despite the repressive controls
A. War in Latin America and in various states
B. The Mayday resistance
C. The Underground Female road

VI. Conclusion
A. The manipulation of societal fear in establishing and maintaining a dictatorship
B. The inevitable vulnerability of a dictatorship due to the ability of resistance movements to move beyond fear

Topic #2
Sexism and misogyny exist when women are not granted the same rights as men, when women are restricted to the domestic sphere, and when women are valued primarily for their functionality rather than their humanness. Consider the way that sexism and misogyny share the culture of Gilead as well as the societies that precede and follow it.

I. Thesis Statement: The Handmaid’s Tale presents an extreme example of sexism and misogyny by featuring the complete objectification of women in the society of Gilead. Yet by also highlighting the mistreatment of women in the cultures that precede and follow the Gileadean era, Margaret Atwood is suggesting that sexism and misogyny are deeply embedded in any society and that serious and deliberate attention must be given to these forms of discrimination in order to eliminate them.

II. Discrimination of women in pre-Gilead society
A. Increased objectification of women’s bodies through pornography
B. Increased sexual violence against women
C. Growing sentiment that women are at fault for falling birth rates and for sexual violence committed
against them

III. Extreme forms of misogyny in Gilead
A. Women denied basic human rights
1. The right to claim ownership of children
2. The right to work outside the home
3. The right to make choices in daily life (dress,friendships, sexual partners)
4. The right to have an abortion
5. The right to own property
B. Women grouped according to their domestic functionality
1. Handmaids— expected to reproduce
2. Marthas—expected to perform household chores
3. Wives—expected to raise children and to enforce the rules of the domestic sphere
4. Econowives—lower class wives expected to carry out all three domestic functions in their homes
5. Women who do not have value in the domestic sphere relegated to brothels or to the Colonies
C. The dissatisfaction of all women in Gilead
1. Suicide rate of the Handmaids
2. Bitterness of the Wives towards Handmaids and coldness towards husbands
3. Jealousy of the Marthas towards the Handmaids

IV. Sexism of futuristic society revealed in the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies held in 2195
A. Speaker’s joke about the Underground Frailroad and his pun on the word “tail”
B. Speaker’s interest in the possible identity of the Commander, not in the human suffering of Offred
C. Speaker’s unwillingness to pass moral judgment on Gileadeans

V. Conclusion
A. The Handmaid’s Tale presents an extreme form of mi-sogyny
B. Echoes of this misogyny in the cultures preceding and following Gilead suggest that sexism is prevalent and deeply embedded in society
C. Misogyny takes a great personal toll on all people—male and female—in a sexist society

Topic #3
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood presents a first person narrator who chronicles her experiences under an extremely oppressive, misogynistic regime. Explore the development of this character during the course of her narrative. Does she move from fear and intimidation to the liberation of her will, or is the character formation more complicated in this text?

I. Thesis Statement: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not a narrative of a character living under repressive conditions who unambiguously moves from fear and intimidation to full-fledged resistance. Rather, Offred’s character development is complex, for her desire to resist the life that has been assigned her is compromised at various points throughout this narrative. Atwood is highlighting the human impulse towards complacency in order to gain security or happiness, but she is also emphasizing the importance of resistance, regardless of the costs.

II. Offred’s resistance to activism in the days prior to the Gileadean revolution
A. Her desire to distance herself from her mother’s feminist activism
B. Her complacent nature in comparison to the assertive Moira
C. Her naiveté about the misogynistic sentiment being fostered in the society

III. Offred’s character changes during her time at the Commander’s house
A. Her initial fear and intimidation
1. Her frequent consideration of suicide
2. Her attachment to the previous Offred
3. Her tenuous hold on her sanity
B. Her growing confidence in the possibility of resistance
1. The information about the Mayday resistance group
2. The example provided by Ofglen
3. Her knowledge of the Commander’s weaknesses and her growing influence over him
C. Her renewed complacency and fear of punishment
1. Her disinterest in escape due to her attachment to Nick
2. Her fear for herself after Serena Joy learns of her intimacies with the Commander
3. The example of complacency provided by Moira at the club

IV. Offred’s possible rescue, despite the inconsistency of her desire to resist

V. Conclusion
A. The difficulties of resistance, considering the human impulse towards security and happiness
B. Atwood’s emphasis—despite these difficulties—on the dangers of complacency and the need for the reader to challenge sexist structures in society

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