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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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No other Atwood fiction has aroused the public debate that has accompanied The Handmaid's Tale, and thus it should provoke lively discussion in any group undertaking to read it. The most obvious focus for attention should be its provocative thesis that religious conservativism around the world threatens to reverse the gains of the contemporary Women's Movement and create a nightmarish subordination of women to a reinvigorated patriarchy. Similarly, readers should examine Atwood's underlying assumption that the oppression of women has some of its most tenacious roots in theology; while her most obvious target is the West's Judeo-Christian tradition, she also incorporates elements from Islam and Hinduism, among other religions. Readers might consider Atwood's claim that there is no political circumstance in the text that she cannot document as having occurred at some point in the historical past or present — it is worth contemplating the impact of so many such practices brought together in one social system. For those familiar with other famous dystopias, a brief comparison with Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984 might help to clarify the assumptions informing Atwood's imaginary realm and determine where she agrees with her predecessors' premises and where she sets forth premises unique to her own vision of ideologically driven totalitarianism.

Another equally controversial facet of Atwood's analysis involves her criticism of the censoring impulses being unleashed by abuses of public expression and eruptions of violence in free societies around the world. The novel asks readers to consider the price of freedom and the potential consequences of circumscribing what can and cannot be said or thought. Atwood is just as uncompromising with feminists as with fundamentalists on this subject, and she lampoons those in both camps who argue for a monolithic imposition of their ideology for the "good" of human society; it is worth asking, then, in what ways political idealisms at any point on the spectrum fall into the trap of absolutism and intolerance.

The novel's evocation of ecological apocalypse invites discussion about the plausibility of its nightmare scenario and the relationships Atwood draws among consumerism, militarism, and natural catastrophe. Her placement of infertility at the center of this crisis offers a cunning point of intersection between legal, religious and scientific arguments about human behavior and could provoke lively debate about alternative scenarios dealing with the inability of humans to procreate — including ones already surfacing in contemporary culture such as surrogate motherhood and in vitro fertilization.

1. Why are women the special targets of the new social order devised in Gilead? What other special targets exist, and why? Why do race and gender hierarchies matter so much to the ruling elite of this world?

2. How does class stratification blur and reinforce the other categories of differentiation in Gilead? Why are class designations so important to the workings of this society? How are those in the lower social rungs kept there?

3. Atwood's fictions are routinely set in Canada and involve Canadian characters, but this one is situated squarely in the U.S. Does her critique of what she once called "Americanism" continue in such a choice? What does she seem to consider distinctively American about Gilead and the historical and cultural processes that have brought it into being?

4. Why does religion stand at the center of the backlash Atwood imagines against women's liberation in the late twentieth century? What premises about women does it permit, and what kind of action on those premises does it encourage? Why?

5. What is Offred's world view and how does it shape her behavior in the years before the revolution? What is...

(This entire section contains 1092 words.)

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she like at the start of the novel when she is introduced as a "handmaid?" How does her attitude about her situation change in the course of the narrative? What prompts those changes, and where do they lead?

6. What do the relationships among women both before and after the revolution suggest about women's responsibility for the nightmare that has overtaken them? How are those tensions exploited and institutionalized in Gilead to ensure that women will not organize to change their circumstances?

7. What role does Offred's mother play in her daughter's imaginative life? How does she represent the Women's Movement of an earlier era? In what ways is she satirized? In what ways is she vindicated? How might Moira be seen as an extension of the older woman — and how is she distinctly different?

8. How does the relationship between the Commander and his wife Serena Joy illustrate the nature of gendered relationships in Gilead? Are they a happy couple? What fissures exist between them, and what opportunity for redress does the state provide?

9. Consider the Puritan implications of the novel's New England setting. What is "Puritanical" about the elites' perspective on sexuality? What promises are made to women about the ways the kingdom will safeguard their sexual dignity? How does the sanctioned emphasis upon procreativity backfire against women and men both? What is suggested about the ability of any political system to control the sexual energies of human beings?

11. What is the Commander like? Is he in any way surprising, given his position among the elite? In what ways is he also a cliché of male tendencies? What does he want from Offred? What does it matter that we know of others he has attempted to possess in the same way?

12. The concept of "gender traitor" rests upon very definite notions of what constitutes "proper" masculinity and femininity in Gilead. In what ways can women be gender traitors? Men? Why is homosexuality a particular target in this regard?

13. What kind of relationship does Offred have with her husband before the revolution? How does political upheaval change it? What becomes of her family in the revolution's aftermath? How might that earlier relationship compare with the one Offred develops later with Nick? What does the latter suggest about the potential of heterosexual bonding beyond Gilead?

14. Why does "telling" this story become so important to the novel's themes about women's voice and its fate under patriarchies like Gilead? Why does it matter that we have actually been "listening" to tapes Offred composed after her escape? What does it mean that we are denied the satisfaction of knowing what happened to her?

15. What does the final framing device of the novel add to our experience of reading this story? What is the effect of the narrative's projecting us beyond the life of Gilead itself to a time far in the future? Why put Offred's tapes in the hands of academics who seem only interested in their antiquarian value? Is the work of feminism really done?

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