The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Throughout The Handmaid's Tale Offred considers the multiple meanings and connotations of specific words. What might Atwood be suggesting about the flexibility or lack of specificity of language? What does this obsession with words convey about Offred's character or situation?

  2. 2

    How does the Gileadean government use the constant potential of surveillance to keep its citizens in line? Do you think Offred should have taken more risks to better her situation, or was she doing the best she could given the circumstances?

  3. 3

    In an interview, Atwood said that "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many - such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements - women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens."

    How does the world of Gilead contain elements of extremely conservative, religious beliefs, as well as elements of more liberal, feminist beliefs? Do you think Atwood accomplished her goal?

  4. 4

    How is The Handmaid's Tale a novel about the writing process? What issues of storytelling does Offred raise in the Tale, and how does she choose to resolve or sidestep those issues?

  5. 5

    One of the main goals of the Gilead Regime seems to be to control and regulate sex and sexuality. Do you think they succeed? Are sexual relations more ordered and "normalized" under the new regime?

  6. 6

    When the Doctor suggests that he help Offred conceive, she rejects his offer, even though she knows she is unlikely to be caught. When Serena Joy offers to help her, she says yes almost immediately, despite her serious lack of trust for Serena Joy and the immense amount of power Serena Joy has over her. Why do you think she accepts Serena Joy's offer rather than the Doctor's?

  7. 7

    The Handmaid's Tale is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and most of the buildings and landmarks mentioned throughout the novel are parts of Harvard University. Why might Atwood have chosen a major university as the headquarters of this new regime? In your answer, consider the relationship between knowledge and control.

  8. 8

    Explain the meaning of "particicution" within The Handmaid's Tale. Did you find the particicution believable? In other words, can you imagine yourself going along with the "rules" if you were placed in a similar situation? Defend your answer with specific examples from the novel, history, and/or your own experiences.

  9. 9

    Why is the hotel where Moira is kept known as "Jezebel's"? How does this name fit in with the Gileadean's tendency to place the primary responsibility on women for any sexual problems or deviancy?

  10. 10

    In his keynote speech, Professor Pieixoto tells his audience that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans" because "we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific." Do you agree? Explain your critique or defense of the Gileadean rule.