A challenging read, Atwood's novel will prompt students to pause and wonder about what it would be like to live in a bleak future world that oppresses females to an extreme level. The Handmaid's Tale is a good book to use to explore dystopian and speculative fiction and to compare the fictional world to current and past societies. Its feminist twist is also helpful for introducing students to other stories that strongly incorporate women and feminism.

In teaching this novel, it is useful to provide a background on the 1980's debates about feminist attitudes, specifically toward sexuality and pornography, in order to contextualize Atwood's concerns. Basically, feminists protesting against the demeaning nature of pornography were unnerved by religious groups seeking to ban pornography in order to "protect women." This idea of religious zealots restricting women's freedom for "protective" reasons is quite prominent in Atwood's work. The novel also examines the manipulation of power within a theocratic dictatorship and illustrates how people manage to seize their own power even under a totalitarian regime. When teaching The Handmaid's Tale, it is important to let students know that Atwood's unique vision of a depressing future was inspired by actual social issues that she then portrayed in an extreme way.

1. Summarize The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian feminist novel set in the repressive Republic of Gilead, a theocracy run by religious fundamentalists. Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have rendered most of the women infertile; therefore, the women who have been proven fertile are trained to be "handmaids" to bear children for wealthy and powerful men in order to restore the human race.

Content Warning: The Handmaid's Tale contains some sexual content, language, violence, and adult themes.

2. Identify Objectives for Teaching The Handmaid's Tale:

  • Define and discuss the concept of dystopian literature and speculative fiction.
  • Explain how Atwood uses the development of literary elements, such as point of view, character, and setting, to propel the plot and reveal its themes.
  • Analyze the social stratification of women, explaining specifically the roles, duties, and significance of each of the various "types" of women.
  • Evaluate the impact of historic feminism on the novel.
  • Examine Atwood's use of ambiguity, particularly as it relates to language, the narrator's identity, and the narrator's acceptance of her role in the Gilead regime.
  • Discuss how people find interesting, subtle ways to exert power over themselves and others in this seemingly powerless society.
  • Connect the society portrayed in the novel with repressive regimes in the real world.

3. Pinpoint Key Facts and Literary Elements

Key Facts

  • Length: 309 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 750
  • Publication Date: 1986
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction (1985)
  • Governor General's Award (1985)
  • Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Award (1986)

Literary Elements

  • Allusion
  • Ambiguity
  • Dystopia
  • Feminism
  • Foreshadowing
  • Parallel Construction
  • Paradox
  • Parody
  • Symbolism

4. Understand Themes and Motifs

  • Identity — No one is referred to by their real name in The Handmaid's Tale, but their identities have been stripped in many other ways as well. Women are grouped into classes, and the body, especially a fertile female's body, is more important than one's personality and mind are.
  • Femininity — Women are repressed and forbidden from working outside the home, reading, and spending money. Their minds are denied, their bodies concealed, and the few fertile women are used as empty childbearing vessels.
  • Love — Many of the characters' past connections and relationships have been cut off; strong emotions, such as love, have become just memories that are recalled in fleeting moments. Even when characters do have feelings for each other, they try to repress these emotions.
  • Freedom and Confinement — Pretty much everyone in the novel leads a restricted life, but the handmaids are the most confined —rarely permitted to leave their bedrooms and trapped by both their low social status and their fertility. If they do get pregnant, likely by men they do not love, they become trapped in a different way as they are forced to give birth to children they are not allowed to keep.

5. Explore Related Works

Theme of Identity

Theme of Femininity

Theme of Love

Theme of Freedom and Confinement

6. Employ Films and Other External Resources

7. Consider What Your Students Will Love

  • The idea of a dystopian future
  • Contemplating what this world would be like in a Fundamentalist regime

8. Anticipate What Your Students May Struggle With

  • Grasping that Offred's telling of the story may be distorted and not completely accurate
  • The scenes depicting sex and how the women are treated in general
  • Names of characters; even when the characters are referred to by their pre-Gilead names, a reader cannot tell if those are actually their real names.

9. Order The Handmaid's Tale Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
The Handmaid's Tale Paperback Student Edition
The Handmaid's Tale Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable
The Handmaid's Tale Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Handmaid's Tale AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Handmaid's Tale Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Handmaid's Tale Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

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