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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1 : Extratextual References in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
There are three epigraphs that precede The Handmaid’s Tale. The first is a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, in which the story of the failure of a woman to bear children is mentioned. The second epigraph is from an essay by Jonathan Swift that tackles the issue of poor families raising multiple children. The third epigraph is an Islamic proverb. Together, these three epigraphs establish the tone and allude the thematic direction of the novel. By drawing from three distinct cultural and literary traditions with which the reader is probably familiar, Atwood effectively prepares the reader for entrance into a world that is wholly unfamiliar. The epigraphs serve not only as orienting and grounding references, but as guideposts to which the reader can return in order to discern and derive meaning in the text.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2 The Importance of Names in The Handmaid’s Tale
Much that confronts the reader in Atwood’s science fiction tale of a dystopic future is likely to be unfamiliar. The reader has entered into a time and place where normal institutions, relationships, and social structures have been rendered strange and unrecognizable. One of the ways in which Atwood helps the reader establish himself or herself in this foreign territory is by paying close attention to the way in which she names the characters, their respective roles, and the places that they inhabit. By examining some of the names and the significance that they have, the reader can begin to understand how the characters represent certain desired and undesired social traits.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3 : Creating a Sense of Place in The Handmaid’s Tale
One of Atwood’s strengths as a writer is creating a strong sense of place through vivid imagery. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood pays particular attention to conveying the sensory elements of the artificial and natural environments that the characters inhabit. Focusing on two of these environments—one wholly artificial and one natural—the reader recognizes how the thoughtful creation of physical place can reflect and convey important information about the theme and message of a text.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 : Complicity and Conformity in The Handmaid’s Tale
One of the many sad aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the women who are subjected to abuse and oppression soon comply with the roles that have been assigned to them, both permitting and perpetuating abuse against and amongst themselves. Atwood is not particularly hopeful about women and power and agency as a means of changing the conditions in which they are trapped. Even Offred’s eventual escape from the strange and perverted system is more a function of luck than determined will. Paying particular attention to the ending of the novel, this essay will argue that Atwood wants to call the reader’s attention to the problems that women suffer, but that she offers no solution or hope for change.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5 : Religious References in The Handmaid’s Tale
Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes frequent references to religious images and religious imagery. Names of characters and other uses of language allude to religious figures and ideas in The Handmaid’s Tale. The names of society’s institutions reflect religious images and religious symbols, too. Atwood’s constant attention to the power of religious imagery and symbolism is used not only to provide a familiar reference point for the reader, but to critique the society in which there is little or no separation between church and state.
For a comparison of other novels by Margaret Atwood, be sure to look at the PaperStarter entry for “Alias, Grace” by the same author and with many common themes
This list of important quotations from “The Handmaid’s Tale” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
“There was old sex in the room, and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name.” (3)
“We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?” (3-4)
“The Angels…were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well.” (4)
“In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Delores. Moira. June.” (4)
“Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish…. Waste not, want not. Why do I want?” (5)
“There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass…and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s the other escapes….” (6)
“I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege….” (6)
“She’s in her usual Martha dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape… but…without the white wings and the veil.” (7)
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure….” (22)
“Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead?….” (86)
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006.