lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 1-6: Questions and Answers

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Study Questions
1. Why does Offred want to recall the games and dances that
were held in the former gymnasium that is now the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center?

2. Why are the Handmaid-trainees housed in the gym rather than the classrooms, and why are the cots in the Center set up with space between them?

3. Offred explores the room she has been assigned and discovers that the chandelier has been removed, the window glass is shatterproof, and the window only opens halfway.
Why have these measures been taken?

4. What clothing is worn by the Handmaids and by the Marthas, and why are these outfits so important to the regime?

5. What does Offred remember of the Commander's Wife from the past, and why does Atwood choose to make this Wife a person who was famous in the time before the revolution?

6. Why does Serena Joy spend all of her time gardening and knitting scarves for the soldiers, and why is Offred envious of these pastimes?

7. Why does Offred fear that Nick is a spy? What would he be spying on?

8. Since Gilead is a fundamentalist Christian regime, why would the Baptists rebel against it?

9. Why are all the words banished from store signs? Why are Handmaids forbidden to read and write?

10. Why might Gilead have shipped most of its older women to the Colonies?

1. Offred recalls the games and dances to keep her memories of the past alive. Remembering serves as both an act of rebellion against Gilead and a way for her to maintain her sense of selfhood and sanity. She can easily recall the yearning teenager she once was, someone who looked forward to leaving home and starting her own independent life, because having been reduced by the Gilead regime to the status of a helpless child, she again yearns for independence.

2. The Handmaid-trainees are forbidden to talk with each other; it is far easier to enforce this rule if they live in a single dormitory room. It would be impossible to monitor them with the same strictness if they were housed six or eight to a room. There are spaces between the cots to further ensure their silence and their obedience, but the women still manage to communicate by touching each other's hands across space, lipreading, and exchanging their names.

3. The alterations have been made to the room to keep a Handmaid from attempting an escape through suicide. That these precautions are automatically taken suggests the unhappy existence of the Handmaids since many of them must have resorted to this desperate measure.

4. The Handmaids are dressed in red, ankle-length dresses, red gloves, and red shoes. They wear white wings around their faces that limit their perspective and prevent them from being seen by others. The Marthas wear long, dull green dresses without the white wings; nobody cares if their faces are seen. Since the Handmaids and Marthas are servants of the state, their clothing must reflect their status. Most totalitarian societies put their people, even children, in uniforms to remind them of where their primary allegiance should be. This also serves to prompt children to inform on their parents, their siblings, and their friends, an important part of totalitarianism.

5. Offred recalls that the Commander's Wife was formerly Serena Joy—a television Gospel singer and later a critic of the American way of life. This realization suggests to Offred that her new situation might be worse than her previous two. That Serena Joy once had a career and fame makes her position as a Wife all the more ironic. Having railed against the values of American life, and promoted the values that Gilead goes on to adopt, she finds herself almost as much a prisoner of those values as any Handmaid is. Besides, just as with Serena Joy's husband, the Commander, Atwood wants to show how the initiators of Gilead are having to cope with the new regime. From top to bottom, Gilead is one giant prison.

6. Having led a very active life before the revolution, Serena Joy is reduced to just two things: gardening and knitting. By giving her arthritis as well, Atwood seems to be saying this once-powerful woman has stripped herself of all that power and now leads a pitifully narrow life. She knits useless scarves just to pass the time, in a small way killing the emptiness of her life. Offred envies these pastimes because they remind her of hobbies she had in the past and also because her present life is filled with meaningless waiting.

7. Nick's cockiness, his whistling, and the wink he gives Offred all add up to his being someone who doesn't fit what he is supposed to be. Since in Gilead everyone must fit in, Offred naturally thinks Nick is more than he appears, so he must be suspect. Gilead is full of informers; Handmaid-trainees are encouraged in this. Offred quite naturally would think he is spying on her, even though there is little reason for Gilead to assign a spy to her, simply because it teems with paranoia, as do all dictatorships.

8. While it is possible that conservative Baptists might have supported Gilead at the start, it is likely that they would have broken with the regime early on when they saw the way the Bible was being distorted and rewritten, and perhaps for other reasons as well. There is no worse enemy than one who has been betrayed, and Gilead is a betrayer of conservative Christianity. For the regime, religion is only a means to achieve power. The Bible is merely a weapon in their hands to keep people in line, and they feel free to adapt it to their needs, rather than adapt themselves to it.

9. Handmaid were similar to slaves in the antebellum South. Slave states in the antebellum South forbade the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. Thus, they had no access to subversive writings, such as those of Northern abolitionists, or to any books or journals dealing with freedom and human rights. They could only communicate with fellow slaves by word of mouth, which limited the chance of rebellion and made any concerted uprising impossible. Writing helps one to develop ideas as well as to communicate them. In Gilead, women, and Handmaids especially, are not supposed to
have ideas.

10. Gilead probably has a surplus male population that has to find employment. So it would also have a surplus female population, especially since women are not allowed to hold jobs. Because it regards women as second-class citizens, it can kill two birds with one stone by sending older women to the Colonies: it gets the toxic waste cleaned up and it has thousands fewer mouths to feed from a diminishing stock of food.

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Chapters 7-12: Questions and Answers