Areas of Study

Areas of Study

This is the largest area of study, really; it informs the others, and is an all-pervasive theme in the novel. Some knowledge of the feminist movement, its history and arguments would be useful in approaching the novel and the themes that it explores.

It is only recently that women have been allowed to vote, own property and work on an equal level to men. The status of women in The Handmaid's Tale is not that different from how they were viewed in England during the Victorian era. The novel itself points out the similarities between Gilead and Islam in their treatment of women. Offred has taken her freedom and supposed equality for granted, and now suffers for knowing that.

The (rather lame) justification for dispossessing women again is that it is for their own good - to rescue them from the objectification of their bodies and the potential for unhappiness in life. These reasons are fundamentally oppressive as they deny women the right to choose and live their own lives. Protection becomes oppression very quickly. The subtext of this reasoning is that men felt threatened and redundant as women moved into the public arena. (Think about the reactions to girls achieving slightly better than boys at exams this year.)

As well as this, there seems little sense of unity between women. What chance there is for solidarity is quashed by the regime at the Red Centre and when officially a Handmaid. Also, Offred is friendly with Moira, who betrays her to all intents and purposes when she settles into Jezebel's, and loses Ofglen. This is an echo of how she herself 'stole' Luke off another woman, and how she could be seen to be a traitor to her gender.

How does the Commander justify the events of the last few years to Offred?

Who is blamed for rape? What does this say about men?

What does this say about men?

What does the relationship between Serena Joy and Offred say about the relationships between women?

What is Offred's reaction to Moira when they are at Jezebel's?


Sex is mainly associated in the novel with procreation, and through that, oppression. The male dominant culture insists upon women becoming asexual as entities in themselves, and reduces their bodies to mere breeding machines. Their identities are defined through their biological function. However, at moments through the novel it is clear that the men who do not have women still view them as sexual beings, or objects.

How do men view the Handmaids when they are outside?

How does Offred describe the sexual act?

What is her attitude to bed as a place, and what associations does it have for her?

Offred spends much of her time reminiscing about the past. Often, her memories are started by smells, or by sights that are familiar to her. Sometimes they are linguistically provoked, as a word sets her thinking. It is through these memories that the reader discovers what has happened over the past few years, and how society has changed. The narrative as a whole is also a memory, supposedly told to a tape recorder at a time after the events described.

How reliable a narrator is Offred?

What effects does Atwood create through breaking the narrative with all the memories?

What does Offred feel about the time before Gilead?

While other women retain their names, the Handmaids are renamed and have their identities taken away from them. In Western cultures, a surname denotes which family you belong to, while a Christian name provides you with an individual identity. Handmaids' names are made up of a possessive article and the name of their Commander, thus becoming their property. They are not individuals. Offred equals of-Fred, Ofwarren is of-Warren, and so on. Offred, however, has associations in her name that go beyond this. She is off-Red. This symbolises how she does not fulfil her role as a Handmaid entirely. She is also off(e)red to the Commander, perhaps even by herself and her inaction.

Why do you think that Atwood does not let us know Offred's real name?

Why do the authorities use this renaming?

Look at the names given to each part of society: for example, the Aunts, the Marthas, and the Eye. What images do they conjure up in your mind? Why?

What is the effect of these images when taken in conjunction with their role in Gileadean society?

The Handmaids are ordered to tear apart a man at a 'salvaging', effectively doing the state's dirty business for it. This has the added bonus for the authorities of showing how traitors are dealt with. They use the populace as police, implementing them in the crimes that are committed in the name of law and order.

How does Offred feel at the 'salvaging'?

Why are dead bodies hung up on the wall?

Can Offred really talk to anyone? What stops her talking openly with Ofglen about Mayday?

Offred and the other Handmaids are not allowed to read or write. The suggestion is that no women have access to the written word. This means that they cannot record their experiences for posterity, and have no access to any form of self-expression. Look at how Offred should not be allowed to talk freely around anyone, even though she does. The signs for the shops are icons, not words; they also have Biblical connotations.

Why are reading and writing considered a threat by the authorities?

Look at the moment when Offred discovers the Latin phrase carved in her wardrobe. What is her reaction to this, and why?

What effect will not teaching women to read or write have on them?

The novel is presented as a historical document, and used at the end as the subject of academic debate. Atwood works the conceit further through the academic community naming the book for her; this heightens the sense of unreality around the text, and also makes the reader look back at what has been read, re-evaluating and reappraising. The authenticity of the document is questioned, as the records of the time were destroyed. Atwood's use of the Science Fiction genre is accentuated through her first person narrative technique; the view is that of the small person in a world that they do not understand.

What effect does Offred's partial view of society have on your view of what has supposedly happened in Gilead?

Like the memories, history is presented as personal. Why does Atwood choose this point of view rather than someone who has a larger picture of events and attitudes?

We know it is fiction, but it is presented as fact. Why? What effect does this create?

Is the narrative made more believable, or less, because of this?

The male rulers of Gilead use the Bible to support their views and imposed rules. Often, they change the aphorisms that they use for their own ends. The Bible is kept in a box in the sitting room, locked away from the women in the house. In the past, it was written in Latin or Greek so that the general population could not gain access to it, and see for themselves what was written there.

Why do the authorities change parts of the Bible?

How selective is their quotation?

What cultures in the past have justified their actions through the Bible? Have they also locked up the book, either physically or metaphorically?


The environment

Political power

Conservative versus radical