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The Handmaid's Tale | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In Chapter 38 of The Handmaid's Tale, is it accurate, as Moira says, that the Commander is on a "crummy power trip" when he brings Offred to Jezebel's?

Although Moira's judgment may be simplistic, she is generally unafraid to face the facts of the situation and is often the voice of brutal truth in the novel. Although Offred begins to defend the Commander in her mind, she recognizes that wanting his motives to be more complex might just be wishful thinking. As much as she wants to view the Commander as a kinder, gentler person, there is plenty of evidence that Moira is likely right: he helps engineer Gilead's social structure, he has the same arrangement with each of his Handmaids, and he is unchanged by the suffering of the women in his life. He takes Offred to Jezebel's to show his status, importance, and power, to take unlawful pleasure in the experience, and to boost his ego.

How does Offred's suitability to be a mother in her old life contrast with the one depicted in The Handmaid's Tale?

When Offred is caught by Gilead's authorities in Chapter 7, she is told she is an unfit mother, and her daughter is taken away: "She's in good hands ... With people who are fit. You are unfit." In the "Historical Notes," readers learn that Gilead refuses to acknowledge second marriages and unmarried relationships. This law makes Offred and Luke adulterers because he is divorced. Ironically, in the new society, Offred is not fit to mother her daughter, but she is fit to bear children for others. In this society, Offred's fitness, like that of an animal, is based on her physical traits rather than her maternal instincts.

How do Offred's relationships with the Commander and with Nick compare and contrast in The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred does not have a relationship with the Commander by choice. She feels she has no alternative, because he has all the power in the relationship. She risks death or worse if she does not do as he wishes, because he could easily have her taken away or killed. Her approach to this relationship is to be as pleasing as possible, in hopes that she will get something in exchange or find some way to work the situation to her advantage. She is careful about what she says to him, wary of saying the wrong thing or giving away too much. Although they have sex, she finds that she has so real sexual desire for him. In contrast, Offred's relationship with Nick is by choice. She is the one who initiates each encounter by going to his room and asking to be let in. She talks more freely in front of him, even telling him her true name. The sexual desire she feels for Nick is authentic. However, there are things these relationships have in common. Both are illegal and therefore carry risk. Both take place in secret, so they involve late nights and stealthy trips through the Commander's house. Both men enjoy watching Offred. In Chapter 25 she notes that the Commander watches her as if he is "looking in through the bars," and in Chapter 29 she says that his "watching is a curiously sexual act." Likewise, Nick watches her. In Chapter 41 she says that he watches her face as she talks.

Is Offred the hero of The Handmaid's Tale in a traditional literary sense?

On one hand, Offred is the hero of the novel. She does what it takes to survive in terrible circumstances, staying wary and always looking for a weakness in her captors. She rebels against the oppressive Gilead system using her creativity, humor, and gift for wordplay. She eventually escapes to tell her story. However, Offred can also be viewed not only as a victim but as a willing participant in the oppressive system that causes her and other women so much suffering. Her will to survive and her small rebellions benefit only her. She never really takes any risks for other women. When Ofglen asks her to take a more active role in Mayday, she finds that she is too content with her relationship with Nick to help the resistance.

How do the quotations at the beginning of the novel relate to the story of The Handmaid's Tale?

The quotation from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is the basis for the Handmaid system in Gilead. In the story, Rachel wants a child of her own, and she tells Jacob to have sex with her maid. Any child conceived in this way will be claimed as Rachel's. This is in accordance with the custom of the time, which features this provision so that a childless couple could still have an heir. However, Rachel and Leah are both Jacob's wives, and Leah has children, so the issue is not one of inheritance. The issue, as the passage says, is that Rachel is jealous of her sister's children. This competition and envy among women is clearly illustrated in the novel as Janine spies on other women, Serena Joy resents Offred, and the Handmaids are jealous of Janine's pregnancy. The second quotation is from Swift's A Modest Proposal. In this satire, Swift proposes that to feed starving people in Ireland, parents should raise their children as livestock to be sold and eaten. This practice, he says, solves the problem of too many children as well as the problem of hunger. In the satire, Swift uses language to make the proposal sound quite reasonable. This reference demonstrates that people can rationalize terrible things using the power of language to make them sound reasonable or even inevitable. When the government of Gilead revises the Bible and uses language to label its citizens by their roles, it uses this strategy of propaganda to ensure its power. The third quotation is a Sufi proverb that suggests that some practices are so ridiculous, such as eating stones in the desert, that they do not need to be recorded. It is ironic that Gilead operates according to ridiculous and recorded laws, such as an adulterous breeding program. The varied collection of sources for the quotations suggests the universality of the story across times and cultures.

How do Moira and Janine reflect aspects of Offred's personality in The Handmaid's Tale?

Moira reflects the rebellious part of Offred: the survivor. She is funny, crude, and active. She uses humor to keep her courage up. Offred's frequent puns, crude mental jokes about Serena Joy, and small acts of rebellion, such as saving the match and stealing the flower, are similar to Moira's traits. Janine reflects Offred's self-shaming and willingness to play along with her captors. Janine has very little courage, and from the start, she is willing to do as she is told. This tendency to comply with the rules is also part of Offred, who considers each action in terms of how much risk it presents and who, more often than not, chooses to avoid risk. Janine also accepts the blame for being raped and for failing to give birth to a healthy baby. Likewise, Offred experiences a great deal of guilt. She believes she was too careless in the past, taking her freedom for granted. She believes that since she chooses to become a Handmaid, the Ceremony is not rape. She feels as if her relationship with Nick is a betrayal of Luke.

How does her affair with Nick affect Offred's goals in The Handmaid's Tale?

At the beginning of the story, Offred's goal is to survive, to simply stay alive. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she is staying alive in hope that she will be reunited with her daughter and Luke. However, her relationship with Nick changes the situation. She risks her survival to meet with him, so the goal of meeting Nick replaces the goal of survival. She gives up on attempts to escape, and instead she wants to stay where she can have access to Nick. She refuses to help Ofglen resist Gilead's regime, noting that she has become complacent because of Nick.

In Chapter 42 of The Handmaid's Tale, what is the effect on Offred of Aunt Lydia's refusal to announce the crimes of the prisoners at the Salvaging?

Although Aunt Lydia says that the intention is to avoid copycat crimes, withholding the nature of the prisoners' crimes has additional effects. Knowing the crimes committed by others gives the women a sense of possibility and empowerment. Offred notes that these criminals, like Moira earlier in the story, show them "what we might be capable of." In addition, withholding the information encourages speculation among the women. Offred wonders whether the crime is reading or attempted murder or adultery or attempted escape. Because she must use her imagination to fill in the gaps in knowledge, she entertains all of the possibilities. This act forces her to recall all the reasons she could be punished, reinforcing the fear of punishment.

Why does Offred decide to go willingly with the Eyes in Chapter 46 of The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred chastises herself for too much waiting, too much inattention, even though she knows better now. She could have struck her hidden match and burned down the house or "stolen a knife ... the world is full of weapons if you're looking for them." It is too late now as she continues to wait while sitting in her bedroom. However, language restores her hope. Nick says her real name, "Mayday," and "trust me." Offred has trusted Nick with her secrets thus far, and she decides to trust him a final time with her life. She goes with the men without a fight.

What does the section "Historical Notes" add to The Handmaid's Tale?

First, the section "Historical Notes," which acts as a frame for the novel along with the epigraph, brings additional distance between the reader of the story and its narrator, Offred. Despite the fact that readers never find out Offred's name, they are privy to her innermost thoughts, fears, hopes, and regrets. This exchange creates a sense of intimacy between narrator and reader. With the addition of "Historical Notes," readers lose this sense. Second, the section clarifies and explains in more detail certain aspects of Gilead that are unclear from the narrative; yet in doing so, it places its citizens and their suffering in the distant past. It offers unemotional analysis, so that readers think more coldly about the events. For example, it offers an analysis of the Particicution, explaining that the accused rapist is used as a scapegoat to allow the Handmaids to vent the pain they have to suppress at all other times. In contrast, Offred's description emphasizes the brutality and bloodlust. In this way, the section becomes a commentary on the nature of studying history: analyzing the causes and effects of historical events strips them of their humanity. Finally, the section gives a possible hopeful ending for Offred. At the end of the narrative, readers are unsure of her fate. With the addition of "Historical Notes," readers know that she is able to record her story and get it out of Gilead. This situation suggests that she, too, may have successfully escaped beyond the recording of her story.

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