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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Teaching Approaches

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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...

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  • 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 feminine weakness in the novel. Offred does not seem to think much of her, even though she is aware that Janine is only compliant and excessively agreeable because she is “like a puppy that’s been kicked too often.” Why are Offred and the other Handmaids so hard on Janine? What would change about the novel’s plot if Janine had more agency, even if agency meant being an enthusiastic supporter of Gilead?

Religious Extremism as Theme: Gilead is a theocracy that was established by a group of religious extremists—the Sons of Jacob—who force citizens to enact a biblical solution to infertility. However, many of Gilead’s practices are not consistent with other virtues espoused by the Bible: notably, kindness, charity, and mercy. Furthermore, Offred mentions occasions at the Rachel and Leah Center when the Aunts played recordings of verses that never actually appeared in the Bible. Salvagings and Particicutions, too, were held more often to eradicate dissenters than to punish sins.

  • For discussion: Why is it important that the Sons of Jacob created a Bible-inspired utopian society while simultaneously falsifying verses and cherry-picking teachings in order to fit their agenda? What is their agenda?
  • For discussion: What would be the impact if Atwood described a society that imitated the Bible exactly? Be sure to cite evidence from the novel to support your answer.

Offred as an Unreliable Narrator: Throughout the novel, we are frequently reminded that Offred may be lying. She never reveals her real name, and she tells different versions of events—as she does when she and Nick have sex for the first time—instead of telling us exactly what happened. In the Historical Notes, Professor Pieixoto explains that Offred also likely used different names for her loved ones because she did not want to endanger their safety. Offred is therefore a highly unreliable narrator.

  • For discussion: Why would Offred lie about what has happened to her? Why not be totally honest, or else not tell her story at all? What would be the impact if Offred was totally reliable and confided every detail as truthfully as possible?
  • For discussion: Part of Offred’s unreliability stems from self-erasure—she is forbidden from claiming herself as an “I” because she has no right to her life, her body, or even her name. She also, if Professor Pieixoto is correct, avoids using her husband’s and daughter’s real names in order to protect them. Therefore, the reader has no true idea of who anyone is in The Handmaid’s Tale, other than perhaps Offred’s Commander and Serena Joy. Why is identity such an important aspect of reliability in Offred’s case?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Sexism: Women regularly suffer abuse and oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale. Students may find this upsetting and confusing. 

  • What to do: Give students a warning about the sexism and violence against women in the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Atwood may have included them. 
  • What to do: Have students trace examples of sexism back to the novel’s overarching themes. What do women’s sole function as reproductive vessels suggest about the novel’s position on gender roles? Why is it important that, long after the fall of Gilead, Professor Pieixoto seems to be as sexist and prejudiced against women as the founders of Gilead were?

Sexual Content: In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are regularly forced to have sex with Commanders. Furthermore, Offred has flashbacks of her sex life with Luke, and later describes her sexual relationship with Nick. Students may find this to be confusing, controversial, or upsetting.

  • What to do: Notify students in advance about sexual language and sex scenes throughout the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Atwood may have included them.
  • What to do: Have students trace sexual language and sex scenes back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why is it important that we witness the impersonal, awkward Ceremony between Offred and the Commander? What does the Commander’s desire for an intimate sexual relationship with Offred suggest about the novel’s stance on men, sexuality, and intimacy?

Violence and Suicide: Brutal violence, whether implied or described, takes place many times throughout the novel. Furthermore, the topic of suicide is brought up repeatedly, either as an actual event or an option that Offred considers as an escape. Students may find this triggering, upsetting, or confusing.

  • What to do: Warn students that violence and suicide are discussed or depicted throughout the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Atwood may have included them. Why is it important that Gilead is such a violent place?
  • What to do: Have students trace each new act of violence and suicide back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why is it important that executed bodies are displayed on the Wall for all to see? What does Ofglen’s suicide, as well as Offred’s recurring fantasy of taking her own life, suggest about the novel’s stance on agency in the midst of an oppressive regime? Why does Atwood include such violence in the first place?

Racism and Bigotry: In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Republic of Gilead is structured around preserving the white American race. People of color, dissenters, gay people, abortionists, Muslims, nuns, Catholic priests, and Jewish people who refuse to convert are immediately killed or sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and burn dead bodies. 

  • What to do: Have students connect themes and events in the novel to actual historical occurrences, such as Fundamentalist Christian groups claiming to protect women by censoring pornography while also advocating for oppressive gender roles and restricted rights for women. Why does Atwood’s contemporary moment figure so prominently in the novel? Why are racism and bigotry so common in Gilead? 
  • What to do: Ask students to contextualize the novel in today’s world. What fictional themes or events have parallels in the recent news? What similarities can you find between Atwood’s contemporary moment and your own? What would be the impact if Gilead were a regime with no obvious connection to real-world problems? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Handmaid's Tale

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Fetishizing Motherhood as Theme: Gilead purports to value women by elevating them in ways that, as the Commander explains to Offred, the previous culture did not. However, Gilead redefines what it means to be a woman by fetishizing motherhood. Women are valued according to their ability to produce children; those who are successful are socially prized, whereas those who fail are harshly punished. Commanders’ wives are forced to witness their husbands’ routine adultery if they cannot have children. Handmaids are declared Unwomen if they are unable to have healthy children and are sent to the Colonies to die, while Econowives can become Marthas. Other women, like Moira, choose to become prostitutes at Jezebel’s, a role that also includes eventual death. Regardless of what life was like before, it is clear that Gilead’s idealization of women—and especially motherhood—only serves the purpose of subjugating them.

  • For discussion: Many supporters of the Republic insist that women lead much better lives in Gilead than they did before. Why? Are there arguments in favor of a woman’s life in Gilead? If so, which?
  • For discussion: Why is it important that Commanders’ wives still get to be mothers if their Handmaids are able to give birth? Why not allow Handmaids to marry their Commanders and raise their children, given that women’s infertility is so unacceptable that barren Handmaids are sent to the Colonies to die?

The Handmaid’s Tale as a Critique of the Feminist Movement: Though the novel is commonly regarded as a feminist text, The Handmaid’s Tale does not wholeheartedly endorse the feminist movement that took place while Atwood was writing. Offred’s memory of accompanying her mother to a collective group burning of pornographic magazines strongly suggests that the novel imagines a similarly dismal reality for women if feminists are permitted the same level of censorship and control as the Religious Right.

  • For discussion: Why is it important that Offred’s mother was a radical feminist? What would be the impact if she were not? Why do you think Atwood had her die in the Colonies?
  • For discussion: What are the similarities between the Sons of Jacob, who founded the Republic of Gilead, and radical feminists, at least as they are portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale? What is most important to each movement? Cite evidence in the text to support your responses.

The Commodification of Children as Theme: Children are seemingly at the center of everyone’s lives in Gilead. They are rare, valuable commodities—the only commodities that women can produce, provided that they are not impacted by the infertility crisis.

  • For discussion: Why are children treated like commodities in Gilead? Is it only because of the declining birthrate? Why or why not? What would the impact be if Gilead’s rulers focused on addressing infertility through scientific research instead?
  • For discussion: What do you think happened to the children who were taken from their mothers, such as Offred’s daughter? What evidence from the text can you find to support your opinions?
  • For discussion: Though infertility is a major problem in Gilead, children do exist. However, none of the children in Gilead seem to have a voice. Why? What would be the impact if Atwood offered a glimpse of what it is like to be a child in a culture that treats children like commodities?

Significant Influences and References


Ideas for Group Discussions