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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 1-6
1. Discuss why Atwood has set her novel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. What does this add to the novel?

2. Atwood chose not to follow a strictly chronological pattern in the telling of Offred's story. Why do you think she did so? What does it add and what are its disadvantages?

3. Aunt Lydia says to the Handmaid-trainees, “We were a society dying of too much choice.” How does this relate to her distinction between freedom from and freedom to? What freedoms does Gilead claim to be providing its citizens? What freedoms are being denied?

Chapters 7-12
1. Consider the naming of the Handmaids—Offred, Ofwarren, and Ofglen, for example. What does this reveal about the values and power dynamics of Gilead? What parallels can be made between the naming system of their society and the naming of women in our society?

2. Each category of women in Gilead is resentful of the others. Explain the reasons for this resentment and discuss its ultimate effect.

3. How does Gilead’s policing of language help to control the thoughts of its citizens? For example, why is Offred so shocked when her doctor uses the word “sterile” in reference to men?

Chapters 13-18
1. Offred and Moira are very different people. Outline these differences and discuss what may nevertheless make them friends. What does their friendship do for the novel?

2. Offred’s narration is made up of a confusing mix of details from the present tense action of the novel and details from her various memories of the past. In what ways are her memories connected to what is happening to her at the Commander’s house? Why has Atwood chosen a narrative style that so frequently blurs distinctions between present and past?

Chapters 19-24
1. Offred and her mother made different choices for themselves in terms of love and family. Compare their choices. Also, consider the way Offred was affected by her upbringing, both during her pre-Gilead life and during her life as a Handmaid.

2. Discuss what the Scrabble game means to the Commander as opposed to what it means to Offred.

Chapters 25-30
1. Discuss ways in which Gilead demonstrates that it is a patriarchal misogynic society, and its justification for this.

2. How is the treatment of Handmaids similar to that of Jews in Nazi Germany, inside and outside the concentration camps?

3. In Gilead, a woman’s body entirely determines her role in society. Discuss the ways this is, and is not, true in today’s society.

Chapters 31-40
1. Discuss the use of computers for good and ill in Gilead.

2. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” was a well-known Negro spiritual. Explore this link as well as the many other connections between Gilead and antebellum America that Atwood is establishing in this novel.

3. Protestantism is based on an individual’s relationship with God, with no intermediaries. Show how Soul Scrolls and other aspects of “Protestant” Gilead deny that personal relationship.

Chapters 41-46 and Historical Notes
1. Discuss the various ways Gilead turns its people’s anger and frustration away from the regime and onto some safe target—a scapegoat. Discuss other instances of such scape- goating in real life.

2. Draw a composite picture of all the opposition movements against Gilead, with their strengths and their weaknesses.

3. Compare the society of the year 2195 to the society of Gilead. In what ways have the society’s values changed? In what ways have they remained the same? What is Atwood’s intention in depicting this futuristic society as she does?

4. The Historical Notes strongly suggest that Offred was rescued by Mayday when she was taken from the Commander’s house. What impact do the Historical Notes have upon Offred’s narrative? Do they take away the ambiguity of theeending, or can the significance of these Notes be problematized? Consider Atwood’s intentions in including the Historical Notes.

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