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Most of the novel can be said to be key, as everything that Margaret Atwood has written is relevant when thinking about Offred's character and the society that she lives in. However, below are three sections that are worth looking at in some depth, as long as you relate them to the rest of the novel and the wider issues that are involved.
It may seem slight, and an obvious starting point, but the language that Offred uses sets the tone for the whole novel. The past tense is used for her situation and for what the gymnasium represented in the past. The past for Offred is now gone, and probably will be forgotten or changed by future generations in time. She is elegiac and wistful about the past, the alternative present that she wants and the futures that can never be.
How does Offred describe and imply what the conditions were like for women at that time?
What is suggested by her use of the word 'yearn'?
How effective is this as the beginning of the novel? How does it relate to Chapter Two?
This is the only moment when Offred is a Handmaid that she can interact more or less freely with others. It is here that she meets Moira for the last time, and learns about what happened to her. It also demonstrates the hypocrisy at the heart of Gileadean government and the corrupt ideology that informs it. The Commander's desire for her outside of the Ceremony makes him look weak; Offred's reaction to sex with him is contrasted sharply with her reaction to sex with Nick.
How does the Commander justify the existence of Jezebel's?
How does Moira justify her working there? What does Offred think about the club?
What does Offred think about the club?
Offred can talk in front of the Commander, but has to be careful in what she says. The simple, everyday actions of playing Scrabble, reading magazines and putting on hand lotion are made to look perverted and almost pornographic. Both she and the reader hear about what has happened from a different point of view. The Commander justifies his group's actions through cliches and half thought out theories. Offred knows that what she is doing will probably end in disaster for her, but she carries on going. This is partly because she cannot refuse, but also because she craves interaction with somebody else.
What effect does seeing the Commander at ease in the evening have on you and your image of those in authority in Gilead?
How does Offred react to the suggestion that they play Scrabble?
How does she feel when the Commander says that his wife does not understand him?
What do these encounters add to the novel as a whole?
When thinking about these passages, remember that they do not happen in isolation. While Offred's narrative is fractured and sometimes oblique, it is more than the sum of its parts. Attitudes to women are more complex than men fearing them or hating them or being jealous of them.
How does Atwood explore this idea?
Think of the novel as an out of focus photograph, and try and see what can be clearly made out from its blurred descriptive lines.
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