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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Chapter 27 of The Handmaid's Tale, why does Offred compare herself to a rat in a maze?

The rat's freedom to move about inside the maze is insignificant compared to the lack of freedom it has to go outside the maze. This situation mirrors Gilead, where citizens, especially women and those of low rank, have very limited freedom. They have choices about how to get from Point A to Point B, but they must get to Point B. For example, Offred can sit in her chair or lie in bed, but she must stay in her room. She can eat her eggs first or her toast, but she must eat breakfast. Serena Joy can craft her garden as she wishes, but she cannot have a job or her own money.

What does Offred's relief when she visits the Wall in The Handmaid's Tale say about her?

Offred does not know what happens to Luke, and she holds out hope that he is still alive. When she sees people hanging on the Wall but does not recognize anyone as Luke, she hopes that Luke's story continues. This situation gives her a feeling of relief, even though the bodies hanging there are horrific. Offred feels no pity or sympathy as she views the bodies of abortion doctors, members of the resistance, or Jews. This reaction shows that some of Offred's old selfishness and indifference still exist; she ignores what does not directly affect her. The horror has become ordinary.

What is the significance of the terms Unbabies and Unwomen in The Handmaid's Tale?

In Gilead, babies with flaws are called Unbabies, and they are killed. Women who refuse to comply with the new rules, or who are failed Handmaids, are called Unwomen and sent to the colonies to work in toxic conditions until they die. Using the prefix Un-, meaning "not" or "opposite of," to describe these people is a way of saying they have no purpose in society. They are useless and therefore disposable. This practice continues the theme of language in the novel as the government uses the construction of language to erase the genders, identities, and existences of those whom they view as unable to serve its purposes.

In The Handmaid's Tale, what is the significance of the tattoo on Offred's ankle?

The tattoo is made up of four numbers and an eye. Each Handmaid has an individual number sequence to identify her and prevent her from being able to run away and blend in elsewhere. Reducing women to a sequence of numbers further removes and replaces their identities. Offred is no longer identified by her name but by a number and as a possession of her Commander: Of Fred. The eye is a reminder that Offred's language and behavior are always being watched by the government. Any disobedience will result in immediate punishment. It is notable that the Nazis tattooed Jewish prisoners in similar ways.

Why is the moon an important symbol in The Handmaid's Tale?

The lunar cycle, or the cycle of moon phases, takes about 28 days. This duration is also the approximate length of a woman's menstrual cycle. The moon becomes symbolic of Offred's fertility and her role in society. In Chapter 31, when she says she tells time by the moon rather than the sun ("lunar, not solar"), she refers to the fact that her menstrual cycle is a more significant aspect of her life than cycles that depend on the sun, such as years or seasons. It is notable that seven of the novel's fifteen sections are titled "Night." The other sections are named for the Handmaids' tasks or activities, illustrating that Offred marks time by the lunar cycle.

In Chapter 32 of The Handmaid's Tale, what does the match symbolize for Offred?

The match, which Serena Joy allows Offred to have to smoke a cigarette as a sort of reward for joining willingly in Serena's conspiracy against the Commander, gives Offred unexpected choices. It could be used to smoke the cigarette, to start a fire, or perhaps even to burn the house down. Because her life is so planned and she has so little control over her future, having the match represents choice, possibility, and a measure of control. Ultimately, however, she chooses to hide the match and remain passive in the present, saving the match for a potential future action that never comes to pass.

In The Handmaid's Tale, how is life in Gilead like the palimpsest Offred mentions in Chapter 1?

A palimpsest is a written text that has been erased to be reused but on which traces of the original text are faintly visible. Offred compares the gymnasium to a palimpsest because even though it is being used as a reeducation center, traces of its original use are still there. The metaphor of the palimpsest extends to all of Gilead. For example, the signs on stores still show traces of words, and Jezebel's still has the same soaps it did as a hotel. Everywhere Offred goes, there are reminders of the city that was once there. The metaphor extends to Offred herself. Although the government works to replace her identity, traces of her original identity remain: her real name and her memories of the past.

In Chapter 34 of The Handmaid's Tale, why does Offred say that making obscene comments about those in power is "like a spell"?

Offred enjoys the obscene comments Moira makes about Aunt Lydia, saying that Aunt Lydia has sex with Janine and makes other women at the center engage in sexual acts with her. Offred tries to object but admits that these comments are "like a spell, of sorts." She feels that making fun of powerful people makes them seem weaker and less frightening. The words are magical because they can transform one thing into another: larger-than-life villains become smaller, deflated ones. The Latin phrase in Offred's bedroom operates in a similar magical way; the words against the powerful bastards connect the dead with the living.

What is the significance of the line Nolite te bastardes carborundorum in The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred finds this Latin phrase scratched into the floor of her bedroom cupboard when she first comes to the Commander's house. Though she doesn't know what it means, it gives her a sense of solidarity with the previous occupant of the room, as if that other woman had meant it just for her. In addition, she finds pleasure in being part of this small rebellious act. Later, she discovers that the phrase comes from the Commander, having been written in the margins of one of his old school books, a connection to language and learning. This clue tells her that the previous Handmaid had an arrangement with the Commander similar to hers. The phrase is supposed to mean "Don't let the bastards grind you down." This sentiment reflects Offred's determination to survive her terrible conditions.

Why does Offred react as she does to the photo of her daughter in Chapter 35 of The Handmaid's Tale?

When Offred sees the photo, she is surprised at how much her daughter has grown. This evidence of the passage of time causes her to feel a flood of despair that she has been effectively erased from her daughter's life. Although she knows she should be glad to have seen evidence of her daughter's health and growth, she actually regrets seeing the photo at all, since it reminds her of all that has been lost. She thinks again of taking her own life, or ending her story, as she recognizes that the part of her identity that is her daughter is gone.

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