Study Help Essay Questions


1. Compare the dystopia of Gilead with the Oceania of George Orwell's 1984, the futuristic London of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the California setting of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and the imprisoning world of Ayn Rand's Anthem. Enumerate characteristics and restrictions that repress, embitter, disenfranchise, and dishearten residents. Explain how Atwood builds on realities, such as funerals for fetuses, endangered whales, Islamic fanaticism, group therapy, IRA terrorism, surrogate motherhood, and other items from current events as well as product names such as Wordperfect, Joy, and Lydia Pinkham, in the creation of a satiric fantasy.

2. Compare Offred to other traumatized, demoralized women in modern literature, especially Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Olivia Rivers in Ruth Prawar Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, young Jeanne in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's autobiographical Farewell to Manzanar, Janie in Zora Neale Hurson's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Yoko and Ko in Yoko Kawashima Watkins' So Far from the Bamboo Grove, the title character in William Styron's Sophie's Choice, and young Maya in Maya Angelou's autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

3. Discuss Margaret Atwood's distancing technique, which allows her to examine the dystopian microcosm of Gilead from the perspective of two centuries. Account for the time span between Offred's incarceration at the Commander's house and the Twelfth Symposium's study in 2195.

4. Contrast Robert Duvall's role as the Commander in the 1990 film version of The Handmaid's Tale with his title role in THX-1138, a 1970 dystopian cult classic. How does the capricious distribution of power affect both characters? Extend this study of power and subjugation to other dystopian films, especially Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Lord of the Flies, and A Clockwork Orange.

5. Using The Handmaid's Tale as a model, compose extended definitions of dystopia, speculative or cautionary fiction, misogyny, feminism, repression, pun, parody, allusion, aphorism, euphemism, polemics, fundamentalism, zealotry, brainwashing, irony, wit, satire, thriller, science fiction, and the futuristic novel.

6. Create a background study of Atwood's allusions to issues and events of the 1980s, especially anti-feminism, punk culture, jogging suits and fluorescent running shoes, rape prevention, feminist networking, the underground press, slogans and slang, pollution, anti-abortion violence, fetus burials, and Moral Majority politics.

7. Study the stratification of female society in Gilead. Note the duties and significance of Unwomen, Wives, Daughters, Econowives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Aunts. Contrast the system's rigidity to the demands of Canadian and U.S. women in the 1980s. Apply terms such as sexual politics, postfeminism, conservative backlash, Mommy TYack, Glass Ceiling, and pink-collar jobs.

8. Compare the speaker's depiction of wartime upheaval with similar themes in films, novels, and autobiographies such as The Morning After, The Hiding Place, The Endless Steppe, Plenty, Playing for Time, Farewell to Manzanar, and Lord of the Flies. Emphasize the emotional and spiritual accommodations to trauma and repression that enable victims to survive.

9. Discuss the role of underground support groups like Mayday. Contrast the coping mechanisms of Moira and Offred, particularly defiance, rebellion, escape, assertiveness, sexual indulgence, smoking, drugs, networking, and withdrawal.

10. Apply to the well-ordered society Aunt Lydia's dictum: "There is more than one kind of freedom . . . freedom to and freedom from." In Gilead, what dividing lines separate freedom from fascism, patriotism from zealotry, duty from subservience, godliness from fanaticism?

11. Discuss the use of ambiguity as an adjunct to irony and satire. How does Atwood balance ambiguity with epiphany, as in the discovery of a Latin inscription scratched in the closet wall or in Offred's departure in the van?

12. Work out a section-by-section explanation of headings, especially "Household," "Birth Day," and "Soul Scrolls." Account for the repetition of "Night."

13. Contrast the birth experience of Ofwarren with that of the central character in Atwood's 1977 short story, "Giving Birth," which is anthologized in Wendy Martin's short fiction collection, We Are the Stories We Tell (New York: Pantheon, 1990).

14. Compare Atwood's bland, hypnotic tonelessness and claustrophobic tunnel vision with the control of the speaker in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. What do the two speakers gain by appearing to examine inhumanity from a dispassionate point of view?

15. In an interview with Lindsy Van Gelder for Ms. in January 1987, Atwood called for an end to intolerant authoritarian groups — Puritans, Communists, Concerned Women of America — and the beginning of inclusive thinking. Debate Atwood's summary statement: "You have to draw lines; otherwise you're a total jellyfish. But please, let's start drawing human lines."