Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Themes

  • Identity

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    In The Handmaid's Tale, nearly everyone's identity has been stripped away. Although the most powerful have more privileges than some of the others, everyone has been renamed and repositioned. Women are grouped into classes (Handmaid, Wife, Martha, Econowife). The body and its functions—especially the fertile female body—have become more important than personality, education, or mind. This theme is highlighted by the fact that no character is represented by his or her real name. (For more, see "Character Clues.")

    Questions About Identity

    1. Are there any clues in the text that point to the narrator's real name?
    2. Do names matter? How do they determine identity?
    3. How does class standing and societal position define someone in this book?

    Chew on This

    The narrator's voice is so clear and absolute that, even though she doesn't reveal her real name, by the book's end readers feel they know her.

    In a society like that of Gilead, it would be impossible for any individual, male or female, to hold onto his or her identity for long.

  • Children

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    Children are precious, rare commodities in the world of The Handmaid's Tale. The production of children has become the Republic of Gilead's overarching goal, governing nearly every aspect of life. Yet while the goal of creating the next generation is overwhelming and seemingly necessary, traditional ideas about parenting and family are turned inside-out. Birth mothers must produce babies or they essentially get a death sentence, but they don't get to keep their children. Chances for fertility are parceled out to men (and their "households") according to how much power or status they have.

    Questions About Children

    1. Why do you think the narrator didn't get pregnant at her first two Handmaid postings?
    2. What do you think really happened to the narrator's daughter?
    3. Is there any other way to handle the growing problem of not enough children being born? Are there ways in which the Republic of Gilead's plan makes any kind of sense?
    4. Why do you think people in this novel are so determined to continue having children?
    5. If the narrator ends up pregnant by Nick, will this be enough to save her?

    Chew on This

     Ultimately, the Republic of Gilead's whole focus on Handmaids as vessels for childbearing is fruitless, because it undermines ideas of parenting and creating real families.

  • Marriage

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    The society outlined in The Handmaid's Tale honors and privileges first marriages to the extreme. Second wives with children are rounded up as the likeliest candidates to become Handmaids. Everyone acts like it's perfectly normal to have a Handmaid (a surrogate child bearer) as part of an otherwise monogamous marriage.

    But even though marriage is treated as a sacred state, standard problems between husbands and wives—lack of understanding, communication, and sexual desire—are as persistent as they ever were. While marriage is officially honored, it seems somewhat like a joke, with husbands and their wives always segregated within society.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How would you describe the Commander and Serena Joy's marriage? What about the narrator and Luke's?
    2. Do you think the Handmaid arrangement is supported by the Biblical evidence people cite throughout the book? Why or why not?
    3. How would our world work if only first marriages were legal? What changes would we see?
    4. In what ways did these changes to marriages not solve the Gileadeans' problems?

    Chew on This

    The troubling ways in which Gileadean society easily uses Biblical evidence to support a state-sanctioned version of three-person marriage show how easily scripture can be manipulated to nefarious ends.

    The Handmaid's Tale reveals the ways in which marriage has been separated from love and can be used as a tool for the state. Because of this, we should seriously reconsider the notion of marriage in the 21st century.

  • Passivity

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    In a sense, everyone is required to be passive in The Handmaid's Tale, but women have it worse because they no longer have any financial or social power. (The Aunts at the Center are an exception, but even they are subject to limits.)

    In order to survive in the Republic of Gilead, characters have to be blank slates. They have to be willing to take on new names and go where they're told. They can't complain if their children are taken from them or cry over their loved ones' sad fates. Acting out—even by doing something as seemingly harmless as reading—results in brutal punishment or even death.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Who is the most passive character in this text? What makes you think so?
    2. Is female passivity supposed to be attractive to male characters? Is it?
    3. How does boredom work as an element of passivity in this book?
    4. Is the narrator passive? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The narrator is able to live vicariously through Moira, which allows the narrator to tolerate her life and even encourages her own passivity.

    Acting passive is the only way to achieve freedom or temporary escape from circumstances in this novel.

  • Love

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    Love is more remembered than practiced in The Handmaid's Tale. Even when the characters have feelings for each other, they try to fight them off because strong emotions are dangerous. There's nothing from the past to hold onto, and many people's connections and relationships have been completely severed.

    Love exists only as a memory (a child's scent at bath time, a rendezvous with a lover at a hotel) or in secret (the touch of two fingers through a bathroom wall, a filched cigarette, or the gift of being called by one's own real name).

    Questions About Love

    1. How would you characterize the narrator's feelings for Luke versus her feelings for Nick? What about her feelings for Moira?
    2. Do you think the Commander loves the narrator? Does Nick?
    3. Does Selena Joy love the Commander?
    4. Is it even possible to feel love in the Republic of Gilead?
    5. How does this book challenge notions of love, sex, and marriage being interconnected?

    Chew on This

    Through her experiences in Gilead, the narrator realizes the nature of the love she had for her husband and child only in retrospect.

    The greatest bond in the novel is that of friendship between two women, the narrator and Moira.

  • Women and Femininity

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    Women aren't supposed to use their minds in the world of The Handmaid's Tale. They're forbidden from reading, working outside the home, or even spending money. The small minority who are fertile are forced to become de-eroticized baby-making machines, or, as the narrator thinks of it, empty childbearing vessels.

    Their bodies are hidden and their brains are denied. Acknowledgment of the body as more than a vessel, and the mind as still productive, comes only in hidden moments, like when the narrator steals butter to use as moisturizer or speeds through a black-market copy of Charles Dickens' Hard Times.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What stereotypes are typically applied to women? How does the book alter, reinforce, or play with those stereotypes?
    2. The narrator says, "There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law" (11.18). Why does this society set up sterility as a female-only problem?
    3. How can femininity be defined apart from fertility? Is it possible to make that kind of distinction within the book?
    4. Do you think the narrator manages to retain her femininity in Gilead? What does being a woman even mean?

    Chew on This

    By reducing women to their fertility, Gileadean society not only robs them of using their minds and celebrating other aspects of their bodies, it also changes the kinds of people they can be.

    The narrator struggles to retain her knowledge of femininity, if not her femininity itself, through flashbacks and memories.

  • The Home

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    There is a clear distinction between house and home in The Handmaid's Tale. Handmaids are placed in other people's homes, which to them are just houses. There's no reason for them to feel at home there. Strangely, one of the most home-like places in the restricted Republic of Gilead is a brothel, which used to be a hotel. It's full of references to the time before, like unchanged wallpaper and tiny soaps, which give it a feeling of familiarity and timelessness that's missing from the houses in which the Handmaids and Marthas work.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Where would you say the narrator feels most at home? Why do you think that is?
    2. Why is the narrator so reluctant to call her quarters at the Commander's house "my room"? What makes her change her mind?
    3. In a world where women can't read, buy things, or otherwise exercise their agency, can they still consider themselves to have homes? How is the idea of home connected to those other concepts?

    Chew on This

    Once the narrator arrives at the Women's Center, the idea of ever having a place she could call "home" again is closed to her.

  • Freedom and Confinement

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    In the society of The Handmaid's Tale, even the powerful live very restricted lives, but the Handmaids, confined to their bedrooms except for sanctioned outings to grocery stores, childbearing Ceremonies, and executions, are worse off than most. Doubly trapped by their low social statuses and their fertile bodies, Handmaids barely get to do anything. Their bodies' fertility both enforces their confinement and paradoxically promises them a kind of freedom.

    If Handmaids become pregnant by their Commanders (this is their sole purpose in this society) their reward is not being sent off to die. If they do get pregnant, they're confined to their bodies in a different way, forced to give birth to children they don't get to keep, fathered by men they don't love.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. If you had to select the most trapped character in the text, who would it be? Why?
    2. What do you think freedom would really mean for the narrator?
    3. What kinds of confinement are present in the novel? How are they similar and how do they differ?

    Chew on This

    Because so many events have conspired against the narrator, it's impossible for her to really achieve freedom at the end of the book.

    While the narrator remains confined to her position as Handmaid for the majority of the novel, her determination to keep reliving her many flashbacks and memories helps keep her intellectually free.

  • Reading, Writing, and Storytelling

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    We never quite know what's true in The Handmaid's Tale; even when people state their names, they're lying. Throughout the book we're reminded that this is a story and that the narrator is altering some of the details. The narrator wishes she could change the events that happened to her through retelling them, or what she calls "reconstruction." Even the epilogue, with its "Historical Notes," reinforces the idea that this is a tale, a story, and that the manner of the telling is as important as what the narrator reveals through it.

    Questions About Reading, Writing, and Storytelling

    1. In what ways does the book connect reading with masculinity?
    2. At the Center the narrator frequently heard the phrase, "Pen is Envy" (29.33). This can be seen as a pun on the phrase "penis envy." How do people at the Center manipulate this idea? Are the two phrases really interchangeable?
    3. Why aren't women supposed to read? Why do you think books are outlawed and the Bible is kept locked up?
    4. What is the effect of the book's epilogue? What purpose does it serve?

    Chew on This

    By focusing on reading as a forbidden activity, Atwood underscores the vital importance of the narrator's efforts to tell her story, no matter what the cost.

    Because the narrator so frequently admits that she's rearranged facts, wishes she could tell different stories, and lies to other characters, nothing she says can be trusted.