EN 4241  Utopias and Dystopias

2009-10, Semester 2

Rajeev S. Patke



Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)


Topics for seminar discussion

  • Paul Brians’s study guide: Link: http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~brians/science_fiction/handmaid.html
  • Wikipedia entry on the novel: Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Handmaid%27s_Tale
  • Literature Annotations Database: Link: http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Annotation?action=view&annid=157
Cast of characters
                Victims                                 Victimizers                                                          Neutrals
                Handmaids                         Commanders/Wives/servants                   Others
  • Are the characters flat or round? Especially the victimizers?
Topics for discussion
  • Environment issues & the influence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962)
Link: http://www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/hcarson.asp
            “The most important legacy of Silent Spring ... was a new public awareness that nature was vulnerable to human intervention. Rachel Carson had made a radical proposal: that, at times, technological progress is so fundamentally at odds with natural processes that it must be curtailed. Conservation had never raised much broad public interest, for few people really worried about the disappearance of wilderness. But the threats Carson had outlined -- the contamination of the food chain, cancer, genetic damage, the deaths of entire species -- were too frightening to ignore. For the first time, the need to regulate industry in order to protect the environment became widely accepted, and environmentalism was born.”
  • What are the different ways in which the Bible plays a prominent role in the novel, both as alleged confirmation for Gilead ideology, and as ironic reference by the author?
  • Comment on the various doublings (e.g. between wife and handmaid) that are represented throughout the novel.
  • What is the gender politics that affects Offred’s relations present and past with men?
  • What is the scope for humor and irony in the novel? To what ends are these effects deployed?
  • How does God play a role in the novel (e.g. 204-5, 221?
  • How do you react to the novel’s handling of issues concerning sexuality as related to pleasure and as related to the procreative function? What are the larger effects on human relations and on individual consciousness of the transformations in sexual mores as represented in the novel?
  • The careful, slow, minimalist style of close-up first-person narration
  • The surrounding apparatus and its fictional claims
  • “I have control over the ending.” (49). Comment on the moments in the novel where the narrator is self-reflexive about narrativity.
  • The underlying premise for the situation or state-of-affairs:
             Pollution       Sterility       need for Handmaids
  • Stages of resistance: Luke; Moira; Commander; Offglen.
  • Special terms: Angels, Aunts, Birthmobiles, Ceremony, Commanders, Compubite, Eye, Guardian, Handmaid, Holy Rollers, Particicution, Prayvaganza, Salvagings, Soul Scrolls, Testify, Underwhore, Unwoman, Unbaby, Wife...
  • We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (35)
  • There is more than one kind of freedom, said Autn Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. (34)
  • What happens to the institution of marriage in the future imagined/invented by the novelist?
  • Comment on the relation of the protagonist/narrator to her former husband, her child, and her mother.
  • How does the novel treat the mother’s feminism?

(1990): Link
  • Does the narrative move as slowly in the film as in the novel? What do you think is the result of the differences?
  • What does the movie “explain” quickly which it takes a good deal longer to realize while reading the book?
  • Which aspects of the book are handled well or adequately by the film? And which are not?





Last Updated  1 February 2010