lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 13-18: Questions and Answers

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Study Questions
1. Why doesn’t Gilead give Handmaids “pig balls” to pass the time?

2. Why does Offred increasingly dream of Luke and her child?

3. What does Moira mean to Offred?

4. The TV news is meant to show Gilead’s successes. Why does Offred manage to take comfort from it?

5. Why is Gilead transporting African Americans to “homelands” in remote areas?

6. Why are parts of the house the Commander’s and other parts Serena Joy’s?

7. Why is the Ceremony likely to be unsuccessful?

8. What does the hidden pat of butter mean to Offred?

9. Why does Nick kiss Offred?

10. Why does Offred begin thinking of Luke and wondering about his whereabouts after the events of this evening?

Answers
1. Gilead probably denies Handmaids the equivalent of “pig balls” to remind them of their place. But all creatures need stimulation, as the pigs and rats show, to maintain their well- being. Depressed and unfit women are less likely to conceive and go on to bear healthy children than physically fit, happy ones. Mind and body interact, so Gilead’s divorce of the two is not likely to help increase the birth rate.

2. Offred’s dreams of Luke and their child are haunting ones
of them dying or disappearing. They suggest that Offred is sinking into despair and her chances of survival are waning.

3. Moira is all that Offred is not: physically and emotionally strong—going her own way at whatever the cost. She is a role model for Offred. She is also Offred’s closest friend.

4. Although the news shows rebels defeated and Quakers of the new underground railroad under arrest, it does show that both of these things exist, and the fight goes on. The existence of organized resistance to Gilead helps boost Offred’s will to resist.

5. Gilead was created by whites to correct the decline in the white birthrate. It is essentially racist, exiling African Americans and Jews, and probably others who don’t fit their pattern.

6. With its emphasis on the family, it seems odd that husbands and wives have separate territories in their homes. Perhaps it stems from the presence of a Handmaid in the house and the resulting hostility between husband and wife. Or, since Gilead is ruled by men, and organized around state prostitution (i.e., the Handmaid system), perhaps the Commanders have divided their homes in this way to see as little of the Wives as possible.

7. The Handmaids are demoralized, and the only exercise they ever get is an occasional walk to the store. The Commanders are in their 50s and 60s, maybe older, with a declining libido. The Ceremony happens only once a month. The circumstances for the Ceremony are anything but relaxed. All of these facts together virtually ensure failure, if the aim is a high birthrate.

8. The butter, Offred’s substitute for face cream, gives her a tiny sense of normalcy, a reminder of when she had nice shampoos and hair conditioners, body lotions, and face creams to pamper her body and make her feel attractive. Even butter is better than nothing. This act of applying the butter—what Offred calls a private ceremony—also helps to support her hope that she will some day escape from her circumstances and will be touched again, in love or desire.

9. Guardians, as shown earlier, can scarcely even look at Handmaids, and cannot talk to them except on official business. Touching them is forbidden. So Nick, if he is not an agent provocateur, is either desperate for a woman or a kind of male Moira, prepared to risk his life rather than knuckle under to the Gilead system.

10. It is likely Offred’s thoughts turn to Luke because of her brief entanglement with Nick. Since she doesn’t know if Luke is dead or alive, she seems to feel guilty over her possible infidelity. Her sexual involvement with the Commander during the Ceremony probably does not evoke feelings of guilt since that was not consensual sex.

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Chapters 19-24: Questions and Answers