The Handmaid's Tale Teaching Approaches
by Margaret Atwood

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Teaching Approaches

Offred’s Identity Quest: Offred’s narrative depicts a transformation that seems to mirror a dystopian bildungsroman. Traditionally, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story in which a character, usually a child, undergoes positive transformation by improving herself over time. Though she is not a child, Offred arguably undergoes a radical, if imperfect, transformation from victim to hero. However, the extreme oppression she experiences— part of which involves the enforced erosion of her selfhood—prevents her from achieving an essential hero status.

  • For discussion: How does Offred’s character change from the novel’s beginning, when she has been newly assigned to the Commander and Serena Joy’s home, to the novel’s end, when she is carried away by the alleged members of Mayday? In what ways does her character remain the same? Does her character change in positive ways? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: Offred vacillates between exerting individuality by rebelling against the Republic and surviving by obeying the rules. Why is it so difficult for Offred to commit fully to either rebelling or obeying? What do you think she should do? Why? Give evidence from the text to support your answer.

Offred and Moira as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Offred and Moira. Though both Offred and Moira oppose Gilead, Offred opts to become a Handmaid while Moira repeatedly attempts to escape—and even comes close to crossing the border into Canada.

  • For discussion: Follow Offred’s and Moira’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. What matters most to each character? How does each woman react to oppression?
  • For discussion: We never learn exactly what happens to Offred or to Moira. However, we can assume that Moira dies after serving her three or four years as a prostitute at Jezebel’s, while Offred may or may not have successfully escaped to Canada. What do these women’s assumed fates imply about the novel’s stance on rebellion versus survivalism in the context of totalitarianism?

Freedom vs. Confinement as Theme: No one in Gilead has total freedom. Even Commanders have limitations placed upon them, particularly in relation to sexual relationships and intimacy. People who are lower on the social hierarchy are forced into labor—sometimes labor that guarantees death—and stripped of their individuality. However, despite the oppressiveness of Gileadian life, many characters perform small acts of insubordination.

  • For discussion: Which characters break the rules, even in the smallest ways? What do they do? Why do they do it? Who gets caught and who gets away with it? Do you think rule-breaking is an act of liberation? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: Offred’s Commander is one of the most powerful men in Gilead. However, he blatantly disregards the rules by inviting her to play games and to accompany him to Jezebel’s. Why would he break the rules if he was instrumental in setting them? What would be the impact if he changed them instead?

Gender Roles: Gender is an important part of the plot in The Handmaid’s Tale. Men and women perform rigid, oppressive roles in Gilead. Men—especially Commanders—are considered superior and enjoy more freedom. Women, however, are considered inferior and have much less freedom. Fertile women in particular are treated as mere reproductive vessels and have no rights. Infertile women, or Unwomen, are sent to their deaths in the Colonies.

  • For discussion: In Gilead, it is illegal to suggest that a man is sterile. Instead, women are blamed for infertility. As a result, Handmaids are sometimes encouraged—even by Commanders’ wives—to be impregnated by a man who is not her Commander. Why is it so important that men not be blamed for infertility? What would the impact be if men and women were both held accountable for reproduction?
  • For discussion: Janine, otherwise known as Ofwarren, is perhaps the most dramatic example of...

(The entire section is 2,289 words.)