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THE HANDMAID’S TALE

 

Chapter 1

 

1.                   Describe the setting.

2.                   Do you understand what’s going on?  Who the narrator is?  Where she is?  What she is doing?  If this chapter is confusing, why would Atwood present the opening in this difficult, perhaps frustrating way?

 

Chapter 2

 

1.                   Describe the setting of chapter 2.

2.                   Why would ‘they’ have removed anything in the room a rope could be tied to?

3.                   Name (by proper name or title) all the people who live in the house.

4.                   Describe what you think the duties of ‘the Marthas’ are.  What race do the Marthas seem to be?  Why might this be so?

 

Chapter 3

 

1.                   Why is the narrator uncomfortable with the Commander’s Wife?

2.                   Who is the narrator?  Why do you think she is at the Commander’s house?

3.                   Does the narrator have her own family, any friends?

4.                   Describe the clothes the narrator wears.

5.                   What was the Commander’s Wife’s real name?  What did she do on TV?

 

Chapter 4

 

1.                   What is the Guardian’s real name?

2.                   What do you think an ‘Eye’ is?  Why would such a thing be necessary?

3.                   What are the duties of the Guardians?

 

Chapter 5

 

1.                   What is the name of the place where the story is taking place?

2.                   What are Econowives?

3.                   What were the dangers that women faced in the time before?

 

Writing Assignment

 

Write a one page response on the conditions women face today.  Can women walk alone at night?  Should they run in parks by themselves?  Should they accept rides or car help from strangers?  Do these dangers also affect men?

 

If we, men and women, are free today, why are there so many dangers for women, so many things women can’t or shouldn’t do?  Include in your response, your understanding of what “Freedom to” and “Freedom from” mean.

 

Chapter 6

 

1.                   What is the function of the Wall?

2.                   Why have the doctors been executed?

3.                   What is significant about the shift to the present tense in “Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t?”

 

Chapter 7

 

1.                   To what time can Offred travel in her imagination that can be called “good?”

2.                   The narrator’s pun on ‘date rape’ depends on the fact that ‘rape’ means ‘grated’ or ‘shredded’ in French; a date is a fruit of course.  Be careful not to leap to the conclusion that Atwood is mocking the concept of date rape; her attitude is far more complex than that.  But why is this reference especially appropriate to the present context?

3.                   What was the narrator’s reaction as a little girl to her mother’s participation in the burning of pornographic magazines?  What relevance does this memory have to her present situation?

4.                   The next passage is too fragmented to make much sense now, though more context will be provided later.  What can you guess about it’s meaning now?  Stories are rarely told in the present tense, as this one is.  If a narrator speaks in the past tense, we can be fairly confident that she knows the end of her own story, and that she has survived to tell it.  Note how much more open-ended and suspenseful Offred’s narrative is.

 

Chapter 8

 

1.                   What is ‘Gender Treachery?’

2.                   If a miscarried fetus may or may not be an ‘Unbaby,’ what would an ‘Unbaby’ seem to be?

3.                   Why is the narrator startled at the end of the chapter when she realizes that she has called the room ‘mine?’

 

Chapter 9

 

1.       What feelings does the narrator have as she looks back on the early days of her affair with Luke?

2.       What does she find in the cupboard in her room?  What do you guess these words could mean?

 

Chapter 10

 

1.                   Why are the words to the hymn Amazing Grace now considered subversive?

2.                   Whom did Aunt Lydia blame for the ‘things’ that used to happen to women?

3.                   What sorts of memories does she keep returning to in this chapter?

 

Chapter 11

 

1.                   What do we learn about the Handmaid system during the scene at the doctor’s office?

2.                   “Give me children, or else I die.” (Genesis 30:1)

3.                   Deuteronomy 17:6 requires that for a couple to be stoned to death on account of adultery there has to be two witnesses to the act.

 

Chapter 12

 

1.                   What does it mean when Offred says: “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely?”

2.                   The old sexist society was said to reduce women to mere physical objects.  Has this changed?  Explain.

3.                   What does Offred suggest by saying of the attempted kidnapping of her daughter,”I thought it was an isolated incident, at the time?”

 

Chapter 13

 

1.                               What do you think about her comments on boredom as erotic?

2.                               Offred lets herself go back in time to when she was in training with Moira.  Do you think anyone blames women for being raped today?  Why/not?

3.                               What do her dreams about her husband and daughter have in common?

4.                               What do you think she means by “Of all the dreams this is the worst?”

 

Chapter 14

 

1.                   What locales seem to be on the edge of Gilead?

2.                   We are finally told the narrator’s name is ‘Offred,’ though it isn’t her real name.  Why do you think we are never told her real name?

3.                   Why was the family warned not to look too happy when they are trying to escape Gilead?

 

Chapter 15

 

  1. Why is the Bible kept locked up?
  2. “One false move and I’m dead.” (100)  What does the narrator mean?
  3. What was Moira’s punishment for trying to escape?  Why the focus on the hands/feet?

 

Chapter 16

 

  1. Why is women’s pleasure in sex no longer valued?
  2. What is the physical arrangement of the participants in the Ceremony supposed to signify?

 

Chapter 17

 

  1. What is her reaction to Nick’s coming to fetch her?
  2. Offred has mentioned at least twice that she would like to steal something (91, 111).  Why do you think this is?  What does this tell us about her state of mind?

 

Chapter 18

 

  1. What hope keeps Offred alive?

 

Chapter 19

 

  1. What are the odds that any baby will be seriously deformed?  What has caused this situation?
  2. Explain the term Jezebel.
  3. What was Agent Orange?

 

Chapter 20

 

1.                   Do you know the real source of the quotation, “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs?”  (It has been slightly but significantly altered.)

2.                   How valid is the use of sadistic porn films by the Aunts to argue against the old society?

3.                   What themes of the women’s movement is Atwood blending together here?  What do you think her attitude toward them is?

4.                   What are the main tensions between Offred and her mother?  Why did she rebel against her mother as a young woman?  How does she feel about her mother now?

 

Chapter 21

 

1.                   What do we learn in this chapter about how an “Unwoman” is defined?

2.                   The reference to a ‘woman’s culture’ at the end of the chapter refers to certain kinds of feminists who have argued that women possess superior values and could build a superior society.  What is Offred’s attitude toward this idea?

 

Chapter 22

 

1.                   In what way is Moira a ‘loose woman?’

 

Chapter 23

 

1.                   How does Offred try to defend herself against her terror when she first enters the study?

2.                   Playing Scrabble seems like an absurdly trivial form of transgression; why is it significant in this setting?

3.                   Why does she lie about her reaction when the Commander asks her to kiss him?

 

Chapter 24

 

1.                   How does Offred interpret Aunt Lydia’s teachings about men?  What do you think of this idea?

2.                   What does the story about the death camp commander’s mistress convey?  In ancient medicine, hysteria was a disease of women, caused by unnatural movements of the womb.  How does Offred describe the sound of her beating heart?

 

Chapter 25

 

1.                   Why does Offred covet Serena Joy’s shears?  What do these occasional dark comments tell us about the state of her mind underneath her usual bitterly sarcastic narrative?

 

Chapter 26

 

1.                   How have her feelings changed toward the Commander?  How have his feelings changed toward her?

 

Chapter 27

 

1.                   What do Ofglen and Offred see immediately after they have revealed their true views to each other?

 

Chapter 28

 

  1. Why did Moira criticize Offred for ‘stealing’ Luke and how did Offred defend herself?
  2. Why would a totalitarian dictatorship prefer computer banking to paper money?
  3. Why did Offred find her mother embarrassing when she was an adolescent?  How has her attitude changed now?
  4. Why was Offred afraid to ask Luke how he really felt about her losing her job?

 

Chapter 29

 

  1. When the Commander says of the previous Handmaid who killed herself “Serena found out,” what does this mean, and what is Offred’s reaction?

 

Chapter 30

 

  1. There is a traditional Jewish prayer for men which thanks God for not having made them women.  This prayer is satirised and parodied in this chapter.

 

Chapter 31

 

  1. What has changed about the holidays the Fourth of July and Labor Day?
  2. Why would Offred like to be able to have a fight with Luke?
  3. How do you imagine Serena Joy’s offer of the picture affects Offred?  Explain.

 

Chapter 32

 

  1. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” is a paraphrase of Napoleon justifying the carnage he caused in attempting to build his empire.  When a character in fiction uses it, it almost always indicates the speaker’s ruthlessness.

 

Chapter 33

 

  1. The Prayvaganza, which is televised – for what purpose? “God is a national resource.”

 

Chapter 34

 

  1. Arranged marriages seem hopelessly exotic to many Americans, but in Western civilization they were the rule rather than the exception until a couple of centuries ago.  Evaluate and respond to the arguments that the Commander at the Prayvaganza makes against the old dating and marriage system.  The ‘quoted’ passages which begin “I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel” are from 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

 

Chapter 35

 

  1. React to Offred’s comments on love.
  2. In the next to last paragraph, what does Offred mean when she says she has been ‘erased?’

 

Chapter 36

 

  1. The trip to Jezebel’s requires the Commander to go to a great deal of trouble, and requires complete trust in Nick.  What might Nick receive as compensation for his complicitness?

 

Chapter 37

 

  1. What is the Commander’s rationale for the existence of places like Jezebel’s?
  2. How does he misunderstand when Offred asks him, “Who are these people?

 

Chapter 38

 

  1. What kind of work do the women in the Colonies do?
  2. What does Moira say the advantages are in working at Jezebel’s over being a Handmaid?

 

Chapter 40

 

  1. Why does Offred she has to make up stories about what happened between herself and Nick?

 

Chapter 41

 

  1. Why does she say on the bottom of pare 309 “I told you it was bad?”

 

Chapter 42

 

  1. Why are the crimes not described at “Salvagings?”

 

Chapter 43

 

  1. Why does Ofglen attack the ‘rapist’ so fiercely?

 

Chapter 44

 

  1. Why does Offred tell her new companion that she met the former Ofglen in May?

 

Chapter 45

 

  1. “She has died that I may live” is of course a parody of “He died that we may live,” a central Christian doctrine referring to Christ’s crucifixion as a source of salvation for believers.

 

Chapter 46

 

  1. How does Nick reassure Offred when the black van comes?

 

Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

 

  1. Given what Professor Pieixoto has to say about the discovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, how drastically would America seem to have changed between the end of the last chapter and now?
  2. What do you think is Atwood’s reaction to this striving for objectivity in the case of Gilead?  How do you feel about it?