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The Handmaid's Tale | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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In Chapter 19 of The Handmaid's Tale, what does the eggcup that "looks like a woman's torso" wearing a skirt that covers the egg symbolize?

The image of a woman's torso with an egg hidden by the skirt is symbolic of Offred's purpose according to Gilead's social structure. She is needed and valuable only for her womb and her eggs. The ability to bring new life into the world, symbolized by the egg, is the only thing of value about her and thus her only identity. The lack of a face on the partially personified egg completes the image; her true identity is not what matters, only her reproductive potential to bear a child for the Commander and Serena Joy. To maintain her health, Offred is forced to ingest the government's view of her.

In Chapter 20 of The Handmaid's Tale, Offred's mother tells Offred, "You young people don't appreciate things." How do Offred's thoughts show that she has come to appreciate this thinking?

Offred's mother thinks that the younger generation of women take their rights for granted. She and other feminist activists work hard to secure these rights, often making personal sacrifices in the process. She wants the next generation to continue to fight with the same zeal. However, Offred and Luke seem complacent, confirming the fears of Offred's mother; they are benefitting from other people's hard-won victories while neglecting to ensure the longevity of these victories. To Offred's mother, the younger people seem selfish and naïve. In this way, Offred's mother is a kind of feminist prophet, foretelling the future. Offred adopts her mother's thinking too late: "I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting."

What pattern does the narrator use to relate past and present events in The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred alternates between narrating present events and recalling different events from the past. Although these memories are not presented in chronological order—they might be childhood memories, memories of her college days and adult life, or even memories of something that happened yesterday—they follow a style and a pattern that creates unity throughout the novel. In general, events, objects, or sensations in the present trigger memories of the past that have some connection. For example, the smell of soap triggers a memory for Offred of bathing her daughter, kissing Nick brings on recollections of physical intimacy with Luke, and the birth of Janine's baby gives way to a memory of giving birth to her own daughter.

In Chapter 22 of The Handmaid's Tale, why are the women at the Red Center both frightened and excited by Moira's escape?

On the one hand, the women at the Red Center are excited by the fact that someone is able to escape—that escape has been proven possible. This event gives them hope. Also, Offred says that they like the way the "audacity" of Moira's escape makes the powerful authorities look weak. On the other hand, Moira's escape makes them afraid. They are fearful of the possibilities and freedom that Moira's escape represents, as they have become used to being in captivity. Offred says they are already "finding these walls secure." They are also afraid of what might happen to Moira if she is caught.

In The Handmaid's Tale, what does Offred foreshadow with the claim that if she is ever able to set down her story, it will be a reconstruction at "another remove"?

Offred's claim foreshadows the section "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale," in which the story The Handmaid's Tale is revealed to be a historical document studied by fictional future historians. According to these future historians, the narrative readers have encountered as a written text was actually discovered as an unorganized cache of cassette tape recordings. These recordings have been pieced together and placed in order by the researchers, so there is a possibility that some episodes are out of order. This situation speaks to Offred's preoccupation with the nature of narrative. She herself is never able to set down her story. Rather, she vocally records it without any notation regarding sequence. Later, male researchers transcribe and sequence Offred's story for her—"another remove" influenced by time, interpretation, and gender—the implication being that any truth is necessarily bound to the teller.

In Chapter 23 of The Handmaid's Tale, why is Offred so eager to discover what the Commander wants from her?

Offred is aware that the Commander breaks the rules by inviting her to his office, which exposes a vulnerability about him in his desire to gain something from her. She understands that this knowledge grants her a small amount of power over the Commander. She says, "To want is to have a weakness." She wants to determine the exact nature of the Commander's weakness to define its advantage for her. She observes the meeting for its potential as a bargaining session in which items will be traded, and she wants to make sure she gets something good out of the trade.

What are the parallels between Offred and the Nazi man's mistress in Chapter 24 of The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred entertains a dominant memory of the mistress's makeup: "heavy mascara on her eyelashes, rouge on the bones of her cheeks." This observation reinforces Offred's preoccupation with self-preservation. While Offred has no makeup, she uses butter to moisturize her skin in Chapter 17, and she asks the Commander for lotion in Chapter 25. Offred finds the woman's story significant because she has just begun a secret relationship with the Commander. The Commander, like the Nazi, is a highly ranked man who serves an oppressive and evil government. Offred understands that the woman must be able to view the Nazi as a human being rather than a monster to justify the affair. Offred, too, has begun to give the Commander sympathetic characteristics; for example, she describes him as "sheepish" and "sad" at the end of Chapter 23. However, the woman's suicide is cautionary. While she successfully lies to herself about the Nazi's nature for many years, in the end, the lies provide no comfort. Her self-delusion no longer allows for her self-preservation, and she self-destructs, an aspect of the tale Offred might do well to recognize.

In Chapter 25 of The Handmaid's Tale, why is the Commander surprised to learn that Offred's room is regularly searched?

As the bargaining between Offred and the Commander progresses, she works up the courage to ask him for some hand lotion. When he complies, she asks for a place to hide it in his office. She cannot hide it in her room, as someone might find it. The Commander's surprise regarding the fact that Offred's room is regularly searched shows that the Commander, a high-ranking man in Gilead, is very out of touch with the actual effects of his government's policies. Offred notes that this is not the first time he has shown ignorance "of the real conditions under which we lived." His ignorance shields him from his own complicity in the sufferings of others.

How does Offred use a chalice as a metaphor in The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred uses the metaphor of a chalice, which has associations with both the Bible and Arthurian legend, several times in the novel. In Christian tradition, Jesus drinks wine from the holy chalice at the Last Supper. In Arthurian legend, the holy chalice is associated with the quest for the Holy Grail. Both versions are associated with the blood of Christ as a means through which to gain new life. In Chapter 23 Offred says that Handmaids are "ambulatory chalices," implying that they are empty cups waiting to be filled with new life, with children. In this metaphor, the Handmaid has no purpose—is empty—until she is pregnant. This image is a misrepresentation of the religious imagery, which offers salvation and everlasting life through communion with Christ via the blood or wine in the chalice. In Chapter 26 Offred describes the way the Commander views her, even without being pregnant, as "not just ... a chalice with no wine." This use suggests that the chalice can be filled not just with a child or religious transformation but with identity.

In The Handmaid's Tale, mirrors have been mostly removed from places the Handmaids are allowed. How do mirrors develop the theme of identity in the novel?

The removal of the mirrors is, on the surface, simply to make sure that Handmaids cannot break the glass and use the shards to kill themselves or attack others. However, their absence underscores the loss of identity the Handmaids experience by losing their names, being forced to wear the same clothing, and interacting only through ritual phrases. The idea that one's physical image is part of one's identity is noted in Chapter 24, when Offred says that she cannot recall exactly what she used to look like. Therefore, being deprived of her own true image by the removal of the mirrors is part of the loss of her true identity. In addition, the hall mirror into which she can occasionally glance shows her a distorted image, which suggests that Gilead not only removes the old identity from the Handmaid but replaces it with a new, distorted identity. This practice echoes the way that true names are replaced with false ones.

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