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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How is Aunt Lydia both a force of oppression and a victim in The Handmaid's Tale?

Aunt Lydia is one of the women directly in charge of the reeducation of the Handmaids and therefore is part of the system that forces women into sexual slavery and captivity. It is Aunt Lydia's voice that Offred hears again and again in her head, explaining the rules for being a Handmaid and the punishments for breaking these rules. Aunt Lydia uses her words and her body language to manipulate and reprogram the women at the Red Center: "her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile." However, she is clearly unhappy. For example, in Chapter 10 she gives the women at the Red Center a lecture about how terrible the past is, but then she cries and says, "I'm trying to give you the best chance you can have." This plea is a reminder that she is, despite her higher rank, as much a captive of Gilead's social structure as the other women are. She has her own backstory, even though this novel does not reveal it.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred says, "Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance." Which generation of women in the story is ignoring, and which is ignorant?

The Aunts in the Red Center tell the Handmaids that they will suffer and make sacrifices so that the generations of women who come after them will have an easier time. The women who remember the old life, with its many liberties, must ignore—they must decide not to think about the terrible situation they are in and the pain they endure. The next generation of women, who are too young to recall life before Gilead, will be ignorant. Offred understands that by carelessly ignoring the negative parts of the pre-Gilead society, she is complicit in creating the situation in which she lives. Now she must work to ignore the disparities between the two cultures.

Why is the doctor's offer to Offred in Chapter 11 of The Handmaid's Tale important later in the story?

At her appointment, the doctor offers to have sex with Offred to help her get pregnant. He suggests that many of the men who have Handmaids are sterile, so the women will never become pregnant. He knows that there are consequences for her if she does not conceive a child, yet there is a risk if he is found out. This initial offer of help becomes important later in the story, when it is revealed that Janine's child is fathered by a doctor and when Serena Joy offers to help Nick and Offred meet for sex to accomplish the same goal. The doctor's offer does several things for Offred. First, it reinforces for her that appearance and reality are not the same thing in Gilead. Second, it provides her with an option for taking some control of her situation and ensuring some immediate measure of security.

In Chapter 12, why does Offred choose to include the incident in which her daughter is nearly kidnapped from the grocery store in The Handmaid's Tale?

In Offred's mind, the incident in which the woman tries to kidnap her daughter foreshadows the eventual loss of her daughter to the Gilead authorities. In both cases, the person stealing the child believes it is God's will to take her. In both cases, there is a sense that a child can be taken from a mother and be given to a childless woman without consequence. Offred connects these two events when she says, "I thought it was an isolated incident, at the time." She does not know then that taking women's children and giving them to other women in God's name is going to be a widespread phenomenon. However, the connection of the two events illustrates that the seeds of Gilead are growing while the people ignore them.

In Chapter 13 of The Handmaid's Tale, why does Offred perform the childbirth exercises even though no one is around to see her?

Offred's exercise routine parallels the explanation of caged pigs who play with balls and rats who shock themselves "for something to do." Offred, too, is caged by her gender and her role as a Handmaid, and she spends much of her time waiting to ovulate and waiting to become pregnant. Like the pigs and the rats, Offred must find something to do to fill the waiting. The childbirth exercises work toward the goal of becoming pregnant, which would give her something new to do and provide her with some short-term security. However, this thinking and these actions also speak to her indoctrination; she finds it difficult to envision any life other than this one.

Why do the news stations in The Handmaid's Tale show victories but not defeats?

Offred describes the news anchorman as being "false" but "convincing." By controlling the news and only showing Gilead's victories, the government crafts a narrative much different from objective reality. This false narrative presents Gilead as an unstoppable force; Baptists are persecuted, prisoners caught, Quaker spies captured, and people resettled in Detroit. The illusion of Gilead's power reinforces its control over citizens who might be tempted to resist a weaker government. Readers witness this power as Offred struggles to disbelieve the news but finds herself characterizing the news anchor as a nice old man. Controlling the flow of news has been shown to be an essential component of an authoritarian government.

Which details in Chapter 15 of The Handmaid's Tale add to the impression that the Commander is part of a theatrical show?

In Chapter 15 of The Handmaid's Tale, the Commander arrives in a black uniform that seems to Offred like a costume. She describes the Commander as looking like a museum guard, a genial older man, a midwestern bank president, a man in a vodka advertisement, and a "shoemaker in an old fairy-tale book." In addition, the rest of the household watches him. They provide the audience to his theatrics. Offred notes that they watch him carefully and expectantly as he readies himself to read. The detailed description creates a sense that every move the Commander makes is deliberate and for show. In addition, when Serena Joy begins to cry, the household members behave just as they would if a person were crying in a theater. They all notice it, but they don't stare; they pretend to not hear it.

After the Ceremony described in Chapter 16 of The Handmaid's Tale, Offred wonders whether it is worse for her or for Serena Joy. What does this reflection show about Offred?

Offred's thoughts show that she maintains a degree of humanity; despite her own suffering, she still has the ability to feel sympathy for the pain of others. It also shows how she uses her thoughts as a way to escape her present discomfort. Instead of dwelling on the unpleasantness of the ceremony, she considers instead Serena Joy's feelings and the costs and benefits of their separate roles. While Serena Joy is an instrument of the narrator's oppression and sexual slavery, she too plays a humiliating role in a government-prescribed sex act for the purpose of reproduction rather than love, physical attraction, or joy.

Why does Atwood have Offred sit in her chair, look out the window, and eat eggs for breakfast repeatedly throughout The Handmaid's Tale?

The fact that Offred's days are made up of small, repeated actions—such as sitting, looking out the window, getting dressed, and eating breakfast—conveys important information about her circumstances. Because Offred lives for one purpose, her life has very little forward motion. These repetitive actions have the effect of slowing down her narrative, allowing readers to have a sense of time moving in slow motion. After all, it takes Offred several chapters just to walk from her room to the corner to meet Ofglen. In addition, sitting, looking out the window, and eating eggs can be seen as symbolic of Offred's situation. Sitting in her chair shows that she is passive. Looking out the window shows that she watches—that she feels like an observer in her own life. It also suggests that she longs for a larger world than the one in which she is trapped. Eating eggs reminds readers that Offred's primary purpose in this society is to bear a child.

In Chapter 18 of The Handmaid's Tale, why does Offred imagine three possibilities for Luke's fate?

In Chapter 18, Offred says that imagining several possible scenarios will prepare her for the truth. She uses these scenarios to get used to, or come to terms with, the various possibilities, so that when she finally learns the truth, she will be mentally and emotionally prepared. Offred also explores the term disembodied. Without control of her body and Luke's body to touch, she feels like "a missing person." Offred's story and its reconstructions are attempts to hold onto her identity and to keep Luke alive. At the end of the chapter, Offred focuses on the word hope. This focus suggests that imagining a possible scenario where Luke is alive and has escaped gives her hope. Because her imagined scenarios move from less hopeful to more hopeful, the trajectory of her thoughts and the novel tends toward hope.

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