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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What details about the narrator and setting are revealed in Chapter 1 of The Handmaid's Tale? What details are missing, and what is the effect of this missing information?

The narrator is a woman who is being held captive but has memories of freedom. The setting is a converted high school gymnasium, and the football field, now surrounded by barbed wire, is a guarded fort. The fact that the old army-issue blankets the women use as they sleep on cots "still [say] U.S." suggests that the United States no longer exists. The first-person narrator contrasts the innocence of high school romances of the past that likely took place in the gym with the imagined seduction of the guards in exchange for favors. Yet she withholds her name, how she comes to be held captive, and further setting details. The absence of these details creates suspense, anxiety, and an ominous mood.

In Chapter 2 of The Handmaid's Tale, how is the lack of a word meaning "behave like a sister" reflected in Offred's relationships with Rita and Cora?

There is little sisterly feeling among the women employed in the Commander's household. Cora, the housekeeper, and Rita, the cook, have a grudging working relationship that includes gossip about the Handmaids, babies, and death, but Offred is not welcomed as a member of this superficial relationship. Offred says that the Marthas are not allowed to be friends or even talk with Handmaids beyond prescribed interactions and roles. Due to a fear of government punishment, the Marthas and the Handmaids restrict their conversations to the bare minimum, not even daring to smile at one another. Offred is isolated from her "sisters" in both language and relationship.

In Chapter 3 of The Handmaid's Tale, why does Offred dwell on Serena Joy's knitted scarves? Which aspects of Serena's life do these scarves reflect?

Serena Joy's knitted scarves reveal important aspects of her personality and situation. She creates extremely intricate knitted scarves. Offred says they are "too elaborate." This detail suggests Serena's talents are wasted in her subservient role in society. The scarves show that a small amount of control gives people in this oppressive society the sense, if not the reality, of liberty. Like the garden, which "looks like peace" from a distance, knitting the scarves may give Serena Joy the illusion of control. In fact, Offred speculates that the beautiful scarves knitted by Serena Joy might, somewhere, be unraveled and reused, which suggests that the real purpose of the scarves is not to serve the Angels but to keep Serena Joy busy. Offred also says that the scarves give the Wives "a sense of purpose," which suggests that the Wives who cannot bear children do not have a purpose larger than knitting unwanted scarves.

In Chapter 3 of The Handmaid's Tale, why do Serena Joy's cigarettes give Offred hope?

The fact that Serena Joy buys cigarettes on the black market gives Offred hope for several reasons. First, the idea that someone, somewhere, is breaking the rules by selling items on the black market is refreshing to Offred when her life is so tightly controlled by obedience. Undermining the control of an authoritarian government is a kind of freedom that suggests greater freedom might be possible in the future. Second, that rule-breaking is possible in general means it may be possible for her specifically at some point. Third, that Serena Joy is a person who buys black-market items means that she might, somehow, be bargained with if the right trade could be made.

How do the rules restricting conversation affect Offred's point of view regarding Nick and Oflgen in Chapter 4 of The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred is not allowed to speak to Nick at all or even look at him, so their interaction consists of forbidden eye contact and winking. The interactions between Handmaids are supposed to consist only of ritual exchanges such as "Blessed be the fruit" and minimal conversation regarding their errands. Since all of these interactions are so tightly controlled, Offred is unable to determine the real feelings or beliefs of either character. This limitation causes her to view them with suspicion. She thinks Nick could be an Eye (a government spy), says that she and Ofglen are each other's spies, and wonders whether Ofglen is a "real believer."

Considering the "freedom to" and "freedom from" discussion in The Handmaid's Tale, do the sacrifices made for "freedom from" give the characters more or less liberty?

The word freedom is employed dishonestly in the phrase "freedom from" to mean the opposite of liberty. In the name of freedom, the Gilead government takes away real liberty, telling its citizens that sacrificing certain freedoms will give them other ones. This tradeoff, however, does not bring more liberty, or even an equal amount of liberty, to people. For example, Offred is forced to give up the freedom to walk the streets with Luke to have freedom from unwanted advances by the Angels. However, Offred is forced to endure unwanted advances from the Commander. In reality, she loses everything and gains nothing.

In The Handmaid's Tale, does Offred's observation "When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out" prove true?

Offred's statement that "When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out," made in Chapter 6, suggests that memory, and so personal narrative of the past, is something that can be manipulated. She suggests that people have a tendency to recall the beautiful things of the past and less so the painful things. In some ways, this observation is true in the novel. Offred often chooses to visualize her loved ones in happy circumstances—Luke in warm clothing and Moira with freckles and a laugh. However, tragic memories continue to intrude on her thoughts, showing that even when she chooses to remember beautiful things, the ugly ones, of losing Luke and her daughter, come unbidden.

How is the story The Handmaid's Tale "like a letter," as Offred suggests?

A letter has an audience—an intended recipient. In Chapter 7, Offred says she will start her story "Dear You." Imagining an intended recipient makes her feel less alone, as if someone cares to hear her story. It also suggests that a world outside of Gilead exists. She suggests that this "you" may be personal, perhaps Luke. In addition, she imagines that the "you" to whom she addresses her story may be made up of many people—"thousands." Here the implication is that the readers are the ones to whom this story-letter is addressed. The last section, the "Historical Notes," underscores this simile as her story is transcribed from tapes and shared at an academic conference.

In Chapter 8 of The Handmaid's Tale, how does the tulip imagery relate to Aunt Lydia's outstretched hands, described later in the chapter?

Offred describes the tulips outside the Commander's home that will "turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly" when they are old. As the reproductive parts of plants, flowers wilt and die when their purpose is fulfilled. This image is similar to the image of Aunt Lydia's hands, outstretched as if in invitation, which Offred describes also as "empty." Both images imply that women, like flowers, have only the purpose of reproduction. The Handmaids' hands are to be "full, of the future." Once they become too old to bear children, or become infertile, like Aunt Lydia, they lack purpose, becoming empty.

In Chapter 9 of The Handmaid's Tale, how does Offred's claim that she can "turn" the previous occupant of her room into Moira support the novel's themes?

When Offred says she can "turn" the Commander's previous Handmaid into Moira, she means that she can use her imagination to create a face and personality for this woman she knows nothing about, and she chooses to use her college friend Moira as the basis of this imagined character. This idea develops the themes of language and identity in the novel. Because Offred narrates this story, she wields the creative power of language, which can transform one character into another. Offred uses this power to give an identity to a Handmaid who has lost hers and to revive the identity of a lost friend.

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