The Handmaid’s Tale Independent reading activity

Section I: Night

Chapter 1

Read the first sentence. What can you tell about the period just from this sentence? People generally sleep in gymnasiums only in emergencies, after disasters. But this “had once” been a gymnasium, which implies that it was converted to its present use a long time ago. Some major change has taken place, probably not for the good. A “palimpsest” was created when a medieval scribe tried to scrape clean a parchment in order to reuse it. Sometimes the scraping process was not complete enough to obliterate all traces of the original text, which could be read faintly underneath the new one. What is suggested by the fact that the immediate supervisors of the girls are women but these women are not allowed guns? What is suggested by the fact that the girls have to read lips to learn each others’ names?

Section II Shopping

Chapter 2

The setting has shifted. It is now much later. What is suggested by the fact that the narrator observes “they’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to?” Note the play on the proverb “Waste not, want not.” What is implied by the sentence, “Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep”? “Ladies in reduced circumstances” is a 19th-century expression usually applied to impoverished widows. How does the narrator pun on it? In the gospels, Martha was one of two sisters. She devoted herself to housework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus. The irony here is that Jesus praised Mary, not Martha; but the new patriarchy has chosen Martha as the ideal. What is suggested by the existence of “Colonies” where “Unwomen” live? What are the crimes the Martha’s gossip about in their “private conversations”?

Chapter 3

What evidence is there on the second page of this chapter that the revolution which inaugurated this bizarre society is relatively recent? What evidence to reinforce that idea was presented in the opening chapter? Note that Serena Joy bears more than a passing resemblance to Tammy Fay Bakker.

Chapter 4

The automobile names are all biblical. Can you guess from the context what an “Eye” is? “Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns:” see Mark 4:1-9. We will learn eventually that the narrator’s name is “Offred.” Her partner is named “Ofglen.” How do the names of Handmaids seem to be formed? How are we informed that this society is under attack? The place name “Gilead” features as a sort of ideal land in the Bible, in Numbers 36. It is mentioned many other times in the Bible as one of the twelve traditional divisions of the land of the Hebrews. But Atwood was probably thinking of Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” This verse is famous because of its use in the old Black spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.” In this Christian context, Gilead becomes the source of healing: Jesus Christ. One can imagine a fundamentalist group calling itself Gilead because of these associations; but the original context in Jeremiah (the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians) causes considerable irony. It may even be that Atwood was thinking of that verse when the narrator is not allowed to have hand lotion (“balm”). Baptists have a long-standing tradition of local control and individualism. Can you guess at the function of the black-painted vans? What power does Offred have over men, powerless as she is? How traditional is this kind of power? Has the elimination of pornography stopped women from being regarded as sex objects?

Chapter 5

What is Gilead’s attitude toward higher education? Why is it ominous that the number of widows has diminished? Examine the passage that begins “Women were not protected then.” This is the heart of the ideology that underlies the founding of Gilead. What is its essential rationale? Analyze the narrator’s attitude toward the freedoms of which she speaks. Analyze the play on words in “Habits are hard to break.” The clothing store name “Lilies” is derived from Matthew 6:28. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is a common biblical phrase, often used to describe Canaan, the “Promised Land.” What is the women’s reaction to the pregnant woman? “All flesh” originally means “all of humanity” (see Isaiah 40:5) but here is given a more literal sense as the name for butcher shops. How are the Japanese women different from the women of Gilead? Is Atwood idealizing them? What do you think the point of the contrast is?

Chapter 6

What is the function of the Wall? Why have the doctors been executed? The rule that the evidence of one single woman is not adequate is based on Islamic tradition. What is significant about the shift to the present tense in this passage, “Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t”?

Section III: Night

Chapter 7

To what time can Offred travel in her imagination that can be called “good”? The narrator’s pun on “date rape” depends on the fact that “rapé ” 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? 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? The next passage is too fragmented to make much sense now, though more context will be provided later. What can you guess about its 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.

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