31st March 2017

Handmaid’s Tale questions

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Margaret Atwood


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is full of Allusions.  Research the categories below in order to gain further understanding of their significance.

  • Biblical Allusions:
  • Jezebels


A biblical allusion is a very quick or indirect reference to something in the Bible, such as a particular scripture, character or story. Examples could include comparing a modern place to somewhere in the Bible, like the Garden of Eden or Sodom and Gomorrah, or comparing a person to the Good Samaritan.


Biblical allusions in The Handmaid’s Tale:



  • Gilead, a land mentioned in the Bible
  • Store names that reference the Old Testament: Lilies of the Field, Milk and Honey, All Flesh
  • Luke 23:34 (8.217)
  • The Lord’s Prayer (referenced throughout 11.30)
  • The Whore of Babylon (38.13)



The bible depicted in a ominous way throughout the novel

“Give me children or else I die.” Genesis 30:1-3 (Fundamental idea of the whole novel)

Gilead has become ruled by god, instead of a government, the law coming straight from the bible


Jezebels definition: Phoenician princess and queen of Israel as the wife of Ahab. According to the Bible, she encouraged idolatry and was ultimately killed by Jehu.

Idolatry: The worship of idols.



  • For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women.
  • Referred to as promiscuous, painted women, makeup/skimpy clothing can alter how people look and therefore manipulate how people think about them



Jezebels in The Handmaid’s Tale:


The hotel where the prostitutes are kept is called Jezebel’s.

Making a comment on how they perceive women in Gilead. Illustrates their views on women’s place in society. Not allowed to have ownership of who we are, only exist in possession of men. Women could not be trusted, therefore got kept as handmaids so that they have control, and are able to manipulate them. They are reduced to their fertility, treated as nothing more than a set of ovaries and a womb. In one of the novel’s key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and reflects that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument of her desires; now, she is just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to make her useful. The women have been completley strippped of their rights. Commanders set it up for their own pleasure, secret place, part of the old world that they kept alive, what is Atwood trying to say about men? They believe they are better than everyone else. Demonstrating men’s control over Gilead. Shows that women are used, lower ranked than men. Women aren’t there by choice. Moira had a choice of going to the colonies or living at Jezebels as a prostitute. They previously were lawyers, doctors which meant they were strong, independent. Do not fit the brief for Jezebels. What is Atwood trying to say about women in Gilead? Irony that exists around Jezebels, commanders didn’t like promiscuity but still had a secret place to meet their needs. As a society trying to deny how men operate/function. Deliberate sarcasm she is utilising within the text. Men wanting control, but also taking it away from themselves. Women had no choice, men stating their power. Women are objectified. Models in modern life are thin, blonde, makeup, advertising pushed by men. The idea that women get what they want by doing something for a man. The idea that “you gotta do what you gotta do” to get ahead. Offred can’t shave her legs, moisturize, stripped of her feminity.


Usefel links: http://www.shmoop.com/handmaids-tale/bible-religion-symbol.html


  • Rachel and Jacob (Genesis)


A love story in the bible. Used in the epigraph of the novel, emphasizing an important aspect of the story.


“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3)”


Relationship based primarily on physical attraction, suggests that Jacob should get a maid so that they can have kids and Rachel can claim them as her own, discussion about infertility and marriage, the desire for children seems to set up a kind of sanctioned adultery within marriage as long as the ultimate goal is to make children.


God made one woman for one man (Gen. 2:24, cf. also Lev. 18:18; 1 Tim. 3:2)


‘These things have happened before, so what is to say they couldn’t happen again” The idea of the perfect society.


  • Gilead


Gilead is what used to be the United States, now has become The Republic of Gilead. Based where Harvard University used to be just outside of Boston. According to an interview she gave to the New York Times, “You often hear in North America, “It can’t happen here,” but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn’t agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there. That’s why I set the book in Cambridge.” Atwood made this choice because of the region’s Puritan background and history of intolerance. She has a personal connection to this too, since one of her relatives, to whom The Handmaid’s Tale was partially dedicated, nearly died by hanging at the hands of the Puritans. The Democratic government has been overthrown and replaced by a totalitarian one. No freedom or choice.

“The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (5.2). The idea that there’s no going against the society’s beliefs, they are always with you. All residents act, dress and behave the same, no individuality or personality. No children; children bring life and energy to a place, and without them Gilead seems dark and empty. Throughout the book we meet very few children, even though creating them is the object to which all adults aspire. Inside the city people are safe from the outside forces of death and destruction. In the old testimony Gilead is a very fertile prosperous state, which is ironic as it is now infertile and cold.


  • Freud and his theories – ‘Penis Envy’


The idea that females felt inferior to males due to the lack of having a penis. Sigmund Freud also suggested that “Girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage” (1933). He believes that young girls between 3-5 years old therefore grow closer to their fathers than their mothers.

Pun used “A Pen is Envy” (196,96) in The Handmaid’s Tale. Only men have access to an education, pens and books. Irony because it is set where Harvard University used to be many years before. Shows the male dominance/ empowerment in Gilead. Sexism towards females. Gender discrimination shown throughout. Women are forbidden to use their real names, portraying that their identity is taken away from them. No access to anything that provides them with any knowledge or a voice. Take away freedom and expression. Controlling that limits people rebelling, making changing to power that’s in play. Controlling women and their identities so they have no place to go.


  • Marxism


Marxism is an economic and social system based upon the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism is the system of socialism of which the dominant feature is public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Karl Marx tries to understand how our capitalist society works, and how it works better for some rather than others. He concentrates on the social and economic relations in which people earn their livings. The relationship between the working class and those who own the productive resources. Marxism is a particular type of social and economic system in which the means of production are not owned by the wealthy but by the producers themselves. Everything is equal. Social stance. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In the handmaid’s tale “From each according to HER ability, to each according to his needs.” Women put in a specific place due to their reproductive abilities. Mens desires. Becomes unequal. Highlighting the power that men have over women. Portrayed in the handmaid’s tale from our own world.


  • George Orwell’s ‘1984’


Dystopian novel released 67 years ago in June 1949. The novel tells of a socially stratified post nuclear war world ruled by three superstates- Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. About a never ending war. The battleground is never clear, it’s always someplace far away, but the supposed fighting keeps the country in a permanent wartime economy and creates a common enemy. This idea is similar to what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale as Offred only hears about the war through the television, somewhere far from Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is heavily influenced by this. Both dystopias, a warning of future societies. Both have protagonists who are anti heroes. Both have to communicate in biblical terms. Big brother society in 1984. God in The Handmaid’s Tale. Both use control of sexuality, through fear. Relevancy to the world. Influenced/ inspired by the same time period/ war. One of the first dystopian literatures. Timeless. Atwood was widely researched/ read.


  • Descartes’ theory – “I think, therefore I am”


René Descartes (1596–1650) was a French philosopher and mathematician, credited as a foundational thinker in the development of Western notions of reason and science. His philosophy was built on the idea of radical doubt, in which nothing that is perceived or sensed is necessarily true. The idea is that the brain is easy to fool, and the only way a person knows what he experiences of reality is the truth is by trusting in the sensory inputs of his own brain. The phrase came from the fact that thinking is the one thing he knew could not be artificed. Even if thinking comes from a different place than what is expected, the thoughts still come from the individual and define the individual as real, regardless of any other factors. He believes in his existence, therefore his existence is true.


Identity in The Handmaid’s Tale:


“I am Ofglen,” the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen. I never did know her real name. That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names. It wouldn’t be easy to find her, now. (44.15)


Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”? All this new woman has to do is say, “I am Ofglen” and she is. This transfer of identities echoes the one at the beginning of the book, when the Ofglen the narrator knew replaced another, initial Ofglen. Similarly, the narrator may be called Offred now, but there was another Offred before her and may be another one to follow.


She creates a monologue and directly addresses the reader, we connect with the narrator/ protagonist, she is reaching out to us. Highlights atwood’s purpose. When societies language is controlled you don’t really exist. So if you don’t think, the government is telling you to do, you don’t exist because you are not thinking for yourself, therefore are not yourself. Where is the truth in modern news and media? George bush, 9/11. Twisting of information by the government being payed by big corporations.


  • Puritan New England


A form of church government, the church rules Gilead. Belief in predestination: in theology, is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God, usually with reference to the eventual fate of the individual soul. All features of salvation are determined by God’s sovereignty, including choosing those who will be saved and those who will receive God’s irresistible grace. All maids are female. Serena Joy doesn’t necessarily have a place/ an identity in the novel. Men run the household. Both had ceremonies.


Why has Atwood included Allusions in the text?  What do they tell us about Offred and Gilead?


Many biblical allusions are referred to in the text, which is unusual as it is a dystopia. Commonly the bible is used within texts to uplift characters or in utopias. In Gilead, the bible is used as the law, which as it is continually repeated by Aunt Lydia, becomes creepy and disturbing. Atwood may have used these allusions to portray some of the inadequacies in the bible. Also, she may include the biblical quotations to justify the role of the Handmaid’s in a way.


The allusions relate to real life, still relevant to today. Using it as social commentary. Commenting on our potential future, add a level of sophistication, things have happened before so they can happen again. Wide range of knowledge goes into the novel.


The allusions tell us that Offred wishes that she wasn’t apart of the society, but can’t stand up against the government and the consequences that come with it.


The setting in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is incredibly influential upon its characters. It is suggested that the novel is set early in the 21st Century. The story spans the 3-4 months of summer and flashes back in time often. The flashbacks indicate that Gilead seems to be around five years old. Offred’s daughter was in daycare, “about three or four” when the revolution took place. She is five when they try to escape and “she must be eight” when Offred sees her photo.  As readers we know that Gilead is relatively new, through information such as “blankets that still said the U.S” and through the fact that the Handmaids are told they are pioneers, front-runners of the new system: “You are a transitional generation.”


Work through the points below, giving as much detail as possible and using quotations:

  • Where is the novel set?


Gilead- a city in what used to be in the United States, where Harvard University once was, now is The Republic of Gilead, the 21st century


  • In which contemporary geographical place is Gilead located? Cite evidence.


Cambridge, MA. “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (5.2)


  • What contemporary university is referred to?  Give information about this university.  Why is its inclusion important?


Harvard University of Law. It is the most prestigious university in the world.

“She remembers the former uses of her surroundings, the river, boathouse and student dormitories of the now defunct Harvard University.” Chapter 6

When attending a prayvaganza at the site of the former university she says, ‘From the outside you can’t tell that anything’s changed, except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down.’

The Handmaids-in-training share pared-down barracks — like quarters in a gymnasium surrounded by fences topped by barbed wire of what used to be the university.


Ivy league school established in 1636. Puritans set up Harvard University. Atwood went to Harvard. “women students or cliffies were exiles at harvard, where women were treated as they were somehow less than men.” at uni in the 50’s. Harvard that used to be a place of knowledge, irony of the setting, Gilead stripped of knowledge. Motto means truth when translated from latin. Complete contradiction. We never know the truth, very little truth in their existence, total manipulation. No longer is a place of education. Highlights the irony of the situation.


  • What are we told about the world outside of the house/Gilead?  What is the significance of that?


On television Offred sees/ hears about war but it doesn’t happen in Gilead although most people live in fear. Unwomen are sent to the colonies. They see footage in the red room. Japanese tourists show that there seems to be part of the world that is still ‘normal’. Is there a war? “Who knows if any of it is true?” Pg 92-93. Whole sense of propaganda. No magazines, books. Tokens instead of money for control. Checkpoints, the women have to walk in pairs and speak in biblical terms. People hanging when they walk past the wall, to show consequences. Public execution, controlling them through fear. Perfect world that is full of imperfections.


  • Make notes on the following areas of the Commander’s house, using quotes to support your comments: Offred’s room (Chapter 2 and 9); The garden; The sitting room (Ch. 14), The Commander’s study (Ch. 23)


Offred’s room:


Different objects in the room symbolise Offred’s situation, “on the white ceiling… [there is] a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out” (9) symbolises how Offred is forced by the government to be ‘blind’ to the world, handmaids wear wings over their face to prevent them from being seen or seeing. The chandelier has been ripped out so that they don’t hang themselves. “Don’t let the bastards run you down.” Commander said he learnt it as a schoolboy, immature and childish. Commical that he was one of the instigators. “She also finds that the window only opens partly” (9) Shows that although Offred is able to go outside on scheduled walks, she never will be truly free. “Fattened like a prized pig.” reminiscing, memories in the night, relationships in her life that she is lost. Doesn’t refer to it as her room until halfway through. Offred’s room in comparison to our own. Reminder of what she’s lost. “A place with no love.” Lack of human interaction. Use of symbolism Offred being like a child, adressed as girls. World as barren. Represented in the way in which they live.


The garden:


Even before we see Offred emerge from the house into Serena Joy’s garden, we see her awareness of the natural world as she likens the curved wood of the hat stand to ‘the opening fronds of a fern’. Once she is out in the garden, she instantly notices the tulips, which are ‘opening their cups, spilling out colour’:

These two observations of nature ‘opening’ are in immediate contrast to the restrictiveness of the household in which Offred now finds herself.
The same word, ‘opening’, is used by Offred when, in chapter 27, she feels that she and Ofglen have achieved some real communication, and says that ‘hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree.’
The garden therefore represents an impulse for life that cannot be denied. Offred senses that Commanders’ Wives like to, ‘order and maintain’ their gardens. However as the novel progresses we become aware that the garden cannot be so controlled.


In chapter 2, Offred tells us that her experience of her own garden, before she became a handmaid, was of a different kind from the desire to control nature. Her response to it was sensuous and she remembers:

‘The smell of the turned earth, the plump shades of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers.’
In chapter 2 Offred likens the bright colour of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden to blood, ‘as if they had been cut’
This strikes her again – they are ‘redder than ever’ – as she reaches home after the shopping trip in chapter 8, and their cups seem ‘like chalices, thrusting themselves up’
In chapter 18, as she imagines Luke being hurt and thinks of a wound on his face, she compares it to ‘the colour of tulips, near the stem end’.


The garden is Serena Joy’s domain. Outside of the house. Irony because the garden represents fertility, and Serena is too old to have kids. She trims/ hacks it, keeps it controlled. She hears about her child in the garden. The idea of fertility and what she used to have


  • Make notes on the town and specific settings within it


“The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children. This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. (5.1-2) Offred compares the town of Gilead to a photo in a magazine- lifeless and staged. She uses short sentences when describing the mood of the town to make it gloomy and build suspense. The end of her description makes Gilead sounds as though it is untouchable despite her feeling so unsettled. She relates the town to a doll’s house. Idea of someone controlling them.


Sitting room: Offred refers to it as the kneeling room. She kneels on the floor with the other handmaids Serena Joy’s room, yet the starting of the commanders process of reading passages from the bible. Has many things that she wants to steal. Few interactions with Nick in the room, his foot touches her. Living room in the modern day, television, family operations. She sees it as uncomfortable, no life, colour. Home as a homely place, she is completely isolated. She has no sense of place. Makes her feel purposeless.


  • Make notes on Jezebel’s.  Focus upon the contrast with the rest of the Gilead settings (Ch. 37)


Jezebels are significant in the novel, as it provides different views as to the importance of women, their roles in society. Before the commander introduces us/ Offred to Jezebels women are presented to us as only used for their reproductive organs, at the beginning she describes herself as a “cloud congealed around a central object”, women who are sterile are considered as ‘unwoman” and therefore are classified by the government as “inhuman”, the idea of repressed identity. Significant difference between Handmaid’s uniforms and the prostitutes attire.


  • Research a Totalitarian regime, either one that is contemporary or historical.  How does Gilead echo this setting?


In a totalitarian society, all control of public and private life are government run. Within totalitarian regimes, the leadership controls nearly all aspects of the state from economic to political to social and cultural. Totalitarian regimes control science, education, art and private lives of residents to the degree of dictation proper morality. The reach of the government is limitless.


Adolf Hitler is notorious for his reign in German, Hitler employed totalitarianism as a means to attempt to achieve an obedient nation that was his personal vision for the country. The government that rules Gilead resembles Hitler as they are trying to control the society by enforcing strict rules and stripping women’s identities.


Gilead echoes totalitarian regimes by brainwashing citizens with propaganda, and control through fear. Atwood set it up like world war ll, and made it relatable, so that we would be ignorant to think it couldn’t happen again. “It’s happened before, so there’s nothing to say it couldn’t happen again”


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Margaret Atwood



Control is the overriding theme presented within the novel, but there are subsets of this theme.  Using the subsets below, find three examples (using quotations and list the page reference) that highlight each idea.


  • Control of thought


The control of what the handmaid’s think is predominantly depicted to us through the Aunt’s characters. “Its Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion.”

“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson” “It was my fault, I led them on. I deserved the pain.” This is an example of how they tried to control how the handmaid’s thought about how women should be treated, to know their place in society; just be used for their reproductive organs and to stay unheard and unseen. Aunt Helena has done this by forcing the women to repeat what she says in order for it to be something they no longer question, and therefore controlling the way they think.


“This may not seem ordinary, but over time it will, it will become ordinary.”


“Sometimes the movie she showed would be an old porno film from the seventies or eighties. Sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained up with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed. Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut into pieces, her fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open and her intestines pulled out.” By Aunt Lydia selectively only showing these kinds of movies to the handmaid’s she is sending the message to both them and to us as the audience that women deserve to be treated like animals. Although after she says, “you see what things used to be like?” we can see how hypocritical she is being, as that is not dissimilar to how they are being treated at the Commander’s house, in a less violent way.


Controlled by the bible.


  • Control of women


“My nakedness is already strange to me. Did I really wear bathing suits at the beach?” no freedom, ownership of their bodies.

No longer any female role models, authority figures.

Any account with an f on it instead of an m. all they needed to do was push a few buttons. Were cut off.” When offred got stripped of her money, when buying cigarettes in her past life. Pg 187

“At neck level there is another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only.”

Symbolism women being childlike.

“We are not each others anymore. Instead I am his.”

“I don’t want to be telling this story.” “I remain alive, I am I am I still am.” If she doesn’t it could happen to her. Kills the man convicted of rape, the salvaging.


  • Control of movement


“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays in the maze.”

“I cannot avoid seeing now, the small tattoo on my ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse.” doesn’t allow her to travel anywhere, but identifies her.

Checkpoints, walking in pairs

“The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers.”

“If something happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.”

“The republic of Gilead said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.”


  • Control of sexuality


“The commander’s wife looks down at the baby like it’s a bouquet of flowers, something she’s won, a tribute.” This quote is taken from when Janine is in labour and has her baby taken straight from her and given to the commander’s wife straight out of the womb. It shows how the wifes have full control over the Handmaid’s sexuality, as it is just used in order to get them pregnant and claim the baby as their own. It no longer belongs to her, but essentially to the government.


“Modesty is invisibility. Never forget it. To be seen is to be penetrated. What you must be girls, is in treadable.


“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest, but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”


“Maybe we have one soon,” she says shyly. By we she means me. Its up to me to repay the team, justify my food and keep, like a queen ant with eggs.” This conversation between Cora and Offred shows that Gilead views pregnancy and having a baby as a group effort and the mother does not receive ownership or get to be proud of it. Her sexuality does not belong to her but to all of the people depending on her to have a baby.


“I can’t help staring, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women… nearly naked. We are fascinated but also repelled, they seem undressed. That was freedom, westernised they used to call it.”


Red centre, Aunt Lydia “The spectacles women used to make of themselves, oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit.”


How it affects men “They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little feeling the red skirt around me. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind the fence, or teasing a dog with a bone. I enjoy the power. I hope they get hard at the sight of us” pg 32 (last paragraph).


“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away. They’ve starved themselves thin, or pumped their breasts full of silicon, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.”


  • Control through fear


“Sometimes if you ask to go to the bathroom at the wrong moment, they say no. If you really need to go that can be crucial. Yesterday Dolores wet the floor. Two Aunts hauled her away, a hand under each armpit. She wasn’t there for the afternoon walk, but at night she was back in her usual bed. All night we could hear her moaning off and on. We didn’t know what they did to her, and not knowing made it worse.”


“It’s a risk I say, more than that. It’s my life on the line, but that’s where it will be, one way or another, whether I do or don’t, we both notice.”


Hanging ceremonies.

“Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, their hands tied in front of them, their heads in white bags.”


Doctor offers to have sex with her, she refuses “The penalty is death.” “think about it, I’ve seen your chart, you don’t have a lot of time left, but it’s your life.” “he could fake the tests, report me for cancer, for infertility, have me shipped off to the colonies.” “It’s the choice that terrifies me.” Pg 71.


With the commander in his study “this lack of fear is dangerous.”


Commander to Offred “Better never means better for everyone, it always means worse for some.” Pg 222.


Closely analyse one section of the text that shows ONE theme and discuss how it encapsulates the theme (photocopy and annotate this)




  1. Major Characters


Offred: The narrator and protagonist of the novel. Is taken by the government when herself and her family attempt to illegally cross the border. She becomes a handmaid at one of the many commanders houses with other women like her. She is stripped of all of her rights, sexuality and essentially herself until her identity is gone. Offred is forced to take part in a ceremony with the commander and Serena Joy once a month in which they have sex only as a purpose for Offred to become pregnant, because Serena Joy is too old and therefore unable to conceive. 33 years old. Capitulates to the regime, because she is afraid of her family suffering. Distances herself from the new society, tries to convince herself that her new name is separate from her identity. “I am 33 years old. I have brown eyes…”. Goes against the rules in small ways. Educated, had a good job in the library in her past life. “I tell myself it doesn’t matter, my name is like a telephone number…”. Readers could be quick to judge her passive attitude, but she shares her genuine emotion, pov. Forces us to question what we would do in her situation. How much Offred values her life because of her child. As teenagers we put ourselves first, parents put their children first/ are subconsciously selfless. Fifth year separated from her child. When she frustrates the reader we can appreciate the complexity of parenthood, motherhood and sympathising with Offred’s character.

The Commander: The commander is depicted to be the most superior of the house, and is in control of all the women within it. He invites Offred to come to his office once a week, and can sometimes be illustrated as childish when he makes jokes about himself as a schoolboy and asks Offred to play monopoly and scrabble with him. He is also portrayed to be ashamed of the society he has created, and to be extremely naive, ignorant and sexist. Shows the idea that you have to be naive/ignorant to succeed, or be of high power in Gilead. The commander comes across to us as an eager little boy, even though “he looks like a midwestern bank president” (15.2). Offred guesses that he “want[s] [her] life to be bearable to [her]” (29.54). Atwood has used irony here to show how he could not begin to understand the state she is living in, and the way she feels being stripped of absolutely everything she cares about. Only someone who hasn’t been deprived of his freedoms would imagine he could create a “bearable” state for someone who has. “If my life is bearable, maybe what they’re doing is alright after all” (29.54). Goes against rules by having Offred in his office. “Plays games with her”. Offers her a false sense of hope. Puts Offred in dangerous situations. Irony of his character, puts rules in place and can’t adhere to them himself. Puts regime in place mostly to benefit the rich, upper class.


Serena Joy: The irony used in Serena Joy’s character begins with her name. She is illustrated as unkind and constantly bitter. Serena Joy has led a past life as a Gospel star and homemaking advocate. Offred mentions how she can remember a time when Serena Joy was young and beautiful, she sang and cried on cue on her Gospel television show. Later she becomes a motivational speaker: Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all. (8.21) Although she seems to be well off, Serena Joy is portrayed as miserable and insecure. This shows that even wealthy or women of a high status in Gilead are still seen, treated and made to feel less superior to men. It also shows that although they have tried to create a perfect society, the people that live there are unsatisfied and sad in their lives which is ironic. Anti-feminist activist, her beliefs have been implemented and now she is miserable, she has no place in society. Top of the social ladder, yet society still doesn’t satisfy her. Women living a shelf life. Influential in her own bitterness/ part of the problem. Self inflicted.


Moira: Moira is Offred’s best friend, who is a strong independent feminist who seems like she could never be broken down. Tamed by the terrifying society of Gilead. Embodies strong female character. Defiant nature contrasts the other women nature. Disappointing journey. Offred stays true to her beliefs the entirety of the novel, yet Moira becomes someone else, loses the essence of who she is. Contrasts with Offred’s mother. Offred’s mother body as a sanctuary, no one touches. Two different ways of feminism being presented. Moira was cynical about Gilead from the beginning. This was removed from her at the end of the novel.


Nick: Guardian of the house, works as gardener and a chauffeur, the messenger. Had a sexual affair with Offred. Keeps himself safe. We wonder the validity of what Offred tells us, when she tells many different versions of the first time they sleep together. Offred becomes infatuated by him.


Janine: Is a handmaid and assigned to commander warren. Breaks the rules and she is impregnated by a doctor. Is a conformist. If comparing, Offred is the one who maintains her sanity. Lets herself go, and is eventually ruined. Atwood includes Janine to show the other end of the spectrum, possible scenarios, spectrums of women and the breakdown of their characters.


Luke: Been married before, had a child with Offred, attempted to escape to Canada. She feels slightly resentful towards him when her money gets stripped off of her. “He doesn’t mind this. He doesn’t mind this at all. We are not each others anymore. Instead I am his.” We can assume that he has moved on. Get the feeling that Offred’s mother wasn’t his biggest fan. Offred so blinded by her attraction for him, his dominance over him.


Offred’s mother: very strong feminist and women’s rights activists, Offred remembers her mother in flashbacks, now working in the colonies, Moira sees a video of her, she is pro women which is the opposite of what Gilead is about, shows that women can do it on their own, Attwood put her in the novel to show the different levels of feminism/ Moira, female personalities and their representation of women, wasn’t fond of the fact her daughter relied on a man, stereotypical feminist, burning bras, pornography.


Aunt Lydia: represents the older generations pov, not pro women, should be seen and not heard, there for men, works in red centre, appears only in flashbacks but affects Offred daily life, feels for the commanders wives, not against punishment, believes in negative reinforcement, humiliation, diminishing women and their identity, making them childlike, manipulates situations, there to serve the purpose of the commanders and the society they have created, traditional names utilised, also have their femininity stripped from them, nunlike, shapeless beings.



  • Facts, for example – Offred is 33 years old, has had a daughter…
  • Actions, for example – Offred capitulates to the regime because she is too afraid for her daughter to protest
  • Adjectives/Phrases – Offred is educated (university graduate; good job in the library)
  • Conclusions/overall description – for example; The whole story is told from Offred’s p.o.v…she is not a hero…she is passive


  1. Minor Characters



Offred’s mother

Aunt Lydia


  • Overall description, as well as discussing their significance


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Margaret Atwood


Narrative Structure

The structure of this novel is discontinuous, fragmentary, revelatory and episodic.  There is a considerable use of interior monologue.  Rather than following a straightforward chronological narrative, the story is gradually revealed to the reader through some narrative and dialogue, combined with interior dialogue that includes a great deal of flashbacks, hint and allusion.  It gradually builds a cumulative picture of the setting, the characters, the themes and events of the story.  The story needs to be pieced together, like a jigsaw puzzle, with the final picture revealed only as the last pieces are put in.


  • What do you notice about the use of present and past tense?  Of speech marks?  Of capital letters?


Past is used- flashbacks, intertwined with present tense, affected from her emotional state, her zoning out, humanistic, as if we as an audience is on a journey, humanises Offred, Offred has no future and present is traumatic therefore lives in the past, what gave her joy and meaning


Sometimes when she goes back in time there is rarely speech marks as if she wasn’t trying to remember all of her past life memories, very much subjective, removes formality, her own recollections, her personalising it, a monologue, pg 279 she talks directly to us, intimate, more conversational, she apologises.


She uses capital letters unusually commonly, doesn’t stick to the normal conventions of capital letters, “Or, Stabbed with a knitting needle”.


  • Very little actually happens in Offred’s story. Why is this appropriate to the themes of the novel?


She is trying to protect her daughter, a reflection of her state of mind, dystopian literature, antihero, passive, we are shown a completely different reality, their lives are static, routine, no interpersonal relationship, normality has been stripped, she is merely existing, they have so much control of her life and therefore not much happens in her story, her ovaries define her, no excitement/ sexuality, sexuailty makes you able to manipulate men


  • What is the strength of this type of narrative structure?  Why is it appropriate and more effective than a straightforward narrative would be?


Personal, relatable, drawn into it, we empathise with Offred as she shows us her emotion

  • What is the point of view of this novel?  What is the effect of this POV on the story?  How reliable is the narrator?


Offred’s POV, she is reliable as she catches herself on her own lies, we have no other POV’s, she sometimes fabricates stories, caught up in the past, overanalysis and her thoughts get tangled


  • What is the dominant overall tone of the writing?


Sombre, sad tone, passionate, descriptive of how she sees things, her detail fills the book, paints the picture, gives Offred something to focus on, Offred also narrates the novel in a certain way that make


The most challenging ideas in the text are found in the detail

Control as character oppression

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