English Professor and One Book Faculty Chair, Helen Thompson, created a guide for groups interested in discussing Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The guide explores the book's themes and presents questions to facilitate deeper thinking about the topics and ideas Atwood presents.
We have provided the reading guide for anyone in the community—including residence halls, residence colleges, and academic and professional departments—to use when leading discussion groups. Click here for a printable copy of the reading guide.
If you would like a One Book fellow to facilitate a discussion group for you, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 847-467-2294, and we will set up a date and time for your book group discussion.
The Handmaid’s Tale: A Reading Guide
Composed by Helen Thompson, Professor, Department of English
Faculty Chair, One Book One Northwestern 2018 – 19
- In the introduction to our edition, Margaret Atwood mentions “the repurposed buildings” (xiii) she encounters in “several countries behind the Iron Curtain” (xiii) in 1984. Re-read the opening paragraph of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s narrator describes the smells, clothes, music, and decorations in an
American school gym. What details in her descriptions strike you? How might these details relate to the fact that the gym has now been “repurposed” to serve as a training center for handmaids in Gilead?
- In conversation with her college friend Moira while they are undergraduates in the 1980s, the narrator makes a joke about an essay Moira has written on date rape. “You’re so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date rapé” (38). (In French, “rapé” means grated or shredded.) Why is it important Atwood includes this joke among the memories recalled by the handmaid Offred? Is Atwood
commenting on the suggestion, made in the 1980s, that America is “post-feminist?”
- When Offred reflects on her daughter’s age in the present tense, we learn that the Gileadean regime has been in place for three years. Based on your sense of the narrator’s adjustment to her situation, does three years seem like a long or a short time? Why is it significant that we are given this information?
- While recounting her experience in the Ceremony, Offred states: “One detaches oneself. One describes” (95). How does Offred detach herself from the Ceremony in the act of describing it? Does her detachment give her any critical purchase on the Ceremony? Where else in the novel would you locate description that might also detach the self who describes?
- As she walks down the street in Gilead, Offred recalls an ice cream store near Harvard Square and struggles to remember that the name of chocolate sprinkles used to be “Jimmies” (165, emphasis in source). Why, do you think, is language—its use, its re-use, its remembering, its forgetting—so central to Offred’s experience as a member of the “transitional generation” (117) of handmaids?
- After the Birth Day event, the narrator mentally addresses her mother to say, “You wanted a woman’s culture. Well, now there is one” (127). Based on the situation Offred has just left, this notion of “women’s culture” seems difficult or dangerous. What is problematic about the women’s culture to which Offred refers? Is there any other kind of women’s culture that might not pose these problems?
- During the Women’s Salvaging, Offred writes that she “placed my hand on my heart to show my unity with the Salvagers and my consent” (276). What do you make of the term “consent” in this context (as Offred writes, “Context is all,” 144). Does Offred’s context impede her ability freely to consent? In what other situations in Gilead does Offred consent (or not)?
- Gilead is installed in a violent usurpation of power. Before Gilead, the narrator lives in 1980s America, a democracy. Is a violent coup necessary to deprive women of their rights, as with Gilead, or do you think that such a deprivation could occur under the democratic system in America today?
- Atwood’s closing “Historical Notes” take place at an academic conference about two hundred years after the time when Offred writes. Is the keynote speaker, a historian, interested in Offred’s experience as a handmaid? What might Atwood’s representation of his talk at the conference tell us about the academic discipline of history in relation to a regime like Gilead?
- Atwood’s narrator cuts back and forth between 1980s America and Gilead three years after the coup. What is the effect of this temporal back-and-forth? Why doesn’t the narrative focus only on Gilead?
- Today feminists protesting the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, as well as actual or potential restrictions of women’s reproductive rights in the USA and elsewhere, wear handmaid outfits like Offred’s. Do you think that the handmaid outfit is a good symbol of feminist resistance? What are its advantages and disadvantages?
- In her new introduction to the novel, Atwood discusses the “slut-shaming” of Janine at the Red Center and remarks, “Yes, women will gang up on other women” (xv – xvi). Which women in the Gileadean system—Econowives, Marthas, Aunts, Wives, daughters, handmaids—dominate other women? Does Atwood offer any hope of solidarity within or across groups of women? How robust or how frail is that hope?