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The Handmaid’s Tale

 List of Pre-Readings, Readings, and Post-Readings (in sequential order)




  • Complete all journal assignments on a separate sheet of paper and mark them clearly as to which assignments they are.  (You will be completing 12 journal assignments.)
  • Complete bookmarks on index cards.  (The minimum number of bookmarks you will be turning in is 19—5 for Moira, 4 for Serena Joy, 4 for the Commander, 4 for Nick, and 2 for either Janine or Aunt Lydia.)
  • Complete book marking (i.e., marking up the pages of your book) actually in your book using highlighters or colored pens.


All assignments must be completed by January 6, 2003.  Journals will be collected on that day.  Your book and bookmarks will be collected on Friday, January 10.


Also note:  A  indicates that you should NOT read past a certain point in the book before completing a certain assignment.


Further note:  Although you’ll be journaling and making up book marks as you go, you should also be marking in your book!  While some assignments ask you to do this, this should not prevent you from doing even more marking.  There is a lot going on in this novel.  Mark connections between passages.  Mark patterns that catch your eye.  Write questions in the margins.  Etc., etc., etc.



When to Do the Assignment in Your Reading


Type of Assignment

Collection Date


Before starting the story of the novel

Journal A—Anticipation Guide


January 6


Before starting the story of the novel

Journal B—Epigraphs


January 6



Complete this assignment immediately after Chapter 1

Journal C—Chapter 1 Predictions


January 6


Begin with Chapter 2

Motif Marking

Book Marking

January 10



Complete this assignment immediately after Chapter 5

Journal D—

Chapters 4-5


January 6


Around Chapter 5

Character Passage Marking

Book Marking

January 10



Complete this assignment immediately after Chapter 7

Journal E—Chapter 7


January 6



Complete this assignment immediately after Chapter 10

Moira Bookmarks


January 10



Complete this assignment immediately after Chapter 11

Journal F—Chapter 11


January 6


Start after Chapter 11

Journal G—

Questions/Impressions List


January 6


After Chapter 13

Moira Bookmarks


January 10


Complete this assignment after Chapter 16 (You may actually want to come back to this Chapter and re-read it several times after you’ve read farther or finished the book.)

Journal H—

Chapter 16


January 6


Any time after Chapter 16

More Bookmarks (4-5 per main character; 2-3 minor)


January 10


Any time after Chapter 25

Journal I—Summing up Offred


January 6


Complete this assignment after reading pages 238-250.

Moira Bookmarks


January 10


Any time after page 263

Journal J—Revision of the Narrative


January 6



Complete this assignment immediately after reading Chapter 46 and before reading the “Historical Notes”

Journal K—The Ending and Novel Reflection


January 6



Complete this assignment before and during the “Historical Notes”

Journal L—Pre-Reading and Questions/ Impressions List


January 6



ASSIGNMENT #1: Journal A—Anticipation Guide

            The Handmaid’s Tale presents a futuristic view of a Western society.  The following issues will be important in this book.  Agree or disagree with the following statements and list a couple reasons why your opinion is your opinion.

·        Women are not safe in modern society.

·        Men objectify women and that makes them responsible for the oppression of women.

·        Women are responsible for their own oppression.



ASSIGNMENT #2: Journal B—Epigraphs

Read the epigraphs (the quotes at the very beginning of the book).  Then read/complete (as needed) the following.

  • The first epigraph Atwood chose to include in The Handmaid’s Tale comes from Genesis 30:1-3.  It is one of several passages that make clear that in patriarchal Hebrew times it was perfectly legitimate for a man to have sex and even beget children by his servants (slaves), particularly if his wife was infertile. It is unknown how widespread was the custom described here, of having the infertile wife embrace the fertile maidservant as she gave birth to symbolize that the baby is legally hers.
  • The second epigraph Atwood includes is from Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal.  In that essay, Swift highlighted the hard-heartedness of the English in allowing the Irish masses to starve by satirically proposing that they Irish should be encouraged to eat their own children for food. Do some research and, in your own words, define “satire” as completely as possible.  Then make a prediction about why Atwood would reference one of the most famous satirical pieces in the Western world in the epigraph of this novel.
  • Decipher the third epigraph to the best of your ability.  What possible meanings could it have?  Discuss two or more.




ASSIGNMENT #3: Journal C—Chapter 1

  1. Re-read the first sentence of this chapter. What can you tell about the time period of the novel just from this sentence? (People generally sleep in gymnasiums only in emergencies, after disasters. But this "had once" been a gymnasium, which implies that it was converted to its present use a long time ago. Some major change has taken place.)
  2. What is suggested by the fact that the immediate supervisors of the girls are women but these women are not allowed guns?
  3. What is suggested by the fact that the girls have to read lips to learn each others' names?
  4. Look up “utopia” and “dystopia.”  Define both terms in your own words and make a prediction.  Is Atwood writing about a utopia or a dystopia?  Why do you think so right now?




ASSIGNMENT #4:  Motif Marking

As you start to read Chapter 2, choose at least one of the following motifs to trace for the rest of the novel: “eye,” “red,” “blue.”  OR  Trace the themes of “freedom” and “choice” or the theme of “storytelling” through the rest of the novel.




ASSIGNMENT #5:  Journal D—Chapters 4 and 5

  1. We will learn eventually that the narrator's name is "Offred." Her partner is named "Ofglen." How do the names of Handmaids seem to be formed?
  2. What power does Offred have over men, powerless as she is? How traditional is this kind of power? Has the elimination of pornography stopped women from being regarded as sex objects?

Some information:  The clothing store name "Lilies" is derived from Matthew 6:28. "A land flowing with milk and honey" is a common Biblical phrase, often used to describe Canaan, the "Promised Land."  "All flesh" originally means "all of humanity" (see Isaiah 40:5) but here is given a more literal sense as the name for butcher shops.

3.      What is the women's reaction to the pregnant woman?

4.      How are the Japanese women different from the women of Gilead? Is Atwood idealizing them? What do you think the point of the contrast is?



ASSIGNMENT #6:  Character Passage Marking

Start looking for significant moments/passages (no more than a page in length) about the following characters:  Serena Joy, the Commander, and Nick.  Also, pick either Aunt Lydia or Janine.  Highlight these significant passages and mark which character they are significant for in the margin of your book.  Do this periodically as you read through the entire book.




ASSIGNMENT #7:  Journal E—Chapter 7

  1. What was the narrator's reaction as a little girl to her mother's participation in the burning of pornographic magazines? What relevance does this memory have to her present situation?
  2. The next passage is too fragmented to make much sense now, though more context will be provided later. What can you guess about its meaning now?
  3. Stories are rarely told in the present tense, but Handmaid’s is. If a narrator speaks in the past tense, we can be fairly confident that she knows the end of her own story, and that she has survived to tell it. What effect(s) does the present tense narration have in this novel?




ASSIGNMENT #8—Moira Bookmarks (You must have 5 or more by the end of the novel.)

Starting with Chapter 10, start making bookmarks on Moira’s character.  Isolate significant moments in the novel where Moira appears or is referred to.  Write up a brief statement summarizing which moment you chose.  Then reflect on the following:  What do these moments tell us about who Moira is?  What do you notice about the way the narrator speaks about Moira?  How/why is Moira significant to the narrator?  (Note:  “Moira” means “fate.”)




ASSIGNMENT #9—Journal F, Chapter 11

What do we learn about the Handmaid system during the scene at the doctor's office?  (Remember: "Give me children, or else I die." (Genesis 30:1).)

Some information:  Deuteronomy 17:6 requires that for a couple to be stoned to death on account of adultery there has to be two witnesses to the act.




ASSIGNMENT #10—Journal G, Reactions, Questions, and Impressions List

If you haven’t done so already, start making a list of questions, reactions, and impressions you are having about the book so far.




ASSIGNMENT #11—Moira Bookmarks (You must have 5 or more by the end of the novel.)

*ahem* *cough* *cough* Chapter 13… good place to stop for Moira (Note:  “Moira” means “fate.”)




ASSIGNMENT #12—Journal H, Chapter 16

Break this chapter down into a complete list of techniques and themes.  If you notice a pattern in this passage, also make note of what that pattern is associated with in the text (i.e., “Red,” from early on in the book is associated with “blood” and “life” and “womb,” etc.).  (You may actually want to come back to this Chapter and re-read it several times after you’ve read farther or finished the book.)




ASSIGNMENT #13—More Bookmarks

Go back to passages you’ve highlighted and continue to highlight as you go forward on all of the main characters (excluding the narrator): Serena Joy, the Commander, Nick, and one minor character: Aunt Lydia or Janine.  Start making up 4-5 bookmarks on each main character; 2-3 on ONE minor character.  Just like the Moira bookmarks, include a blurb about the context of the moment you picked.  Then, however, write a reflection about your understanding of the character at that moment  (What is s/he really like and why?), and the effect they have on the narrator.  (The minimum number of bookmarks you will be turning in is 19—5 for Moira, 4 for Serena Joy, 4 for the Commander, 4 for Nick, and 2 for either Janine or Aunt Lydia.)




ASSIGNMENT #14—Journal I, Summing up Offred

            Write up a summary of the following as regards Offred, our narrator:

·        Offred’s relationship/remembrances of Moira and what they tell us about Offred

·        Offred’s relationship/remembrances of her mother and what they tell us about Offred

·        Offred’s relationship/remembrances of Luke and what they tell us about Offred




ASSIGNMENT #15—Moira Bookmarks (You must have 5 or more by the end of the novel.)

On page 233, Offred writes:

What I want is a mirror, to see if my lipstick is all right, whether the feathers are too ridiculous, too frowsy.  In this light I must look lurid.  Though it’s too late now.

            Idiot, says Moira.


*ahem* *cough* *cough* Pages 238-250… good place to stop for Moira ESPECIALLY to reflect on the contrast between the passage quoted above and Moira at Jezebel’s. (Note:  “Moira” means “fate.”)




ASSIGNMENT #16—Journal J, Revision of the Narrative

Go back and re-read pages 104-106.  Then re-read pages 260-263.  The narrator of this book in these places and in others has a habit of revising herself as she tells her story.  Discuss two or more effects that this seems to have in the novel and explain why you think those are the effects (particularly in light of other things happening in the novel).




ASSIGNMENT #17—Journal K, The End and Novel Reflection

  1. Take a moment to discuss/reflecton on the last two paragraphs of the novel on page 295, particularly the last line.  Discuss reasons why Atwood would have chosen to end this narrator’s story in this way.
  2. Now that you’ve (more or less) reached the end of Handmaid’s, take a moment to reflect on the novel as a whole.  Did you like it?  Why or why not?    Which characters stand out to you and why?  What themes do you see operating in this book?  Any judgments so far?




ASSIGNMENT #18—Journal L, Pre-Reading and Questions/Impressions List on the “Historical Notes”

            Now you need to read the “Historical Notes” at the end of the novel.  (Yes, this is actually part of the book.)

1.      PRE-READING:

Read the italicized lines on page 299.  Here we are told that the “Notes” are a “partial transcript” from a “Symposium on Gileadean Studies.”  The date of this symposium is June 25, 2195, approximately 200 years after the time period of Offred’s narrative.


Given the information in these italicized lines, what has happened to the society of Gilead?  What do you make of the names of the chair and the speaker?



    1. Make a questions, impressions, and reactions list to the “Historical Notes.”  Look up words you don’t know.
    2. What do we find out about Offred’s narrative in this speech, particularly in terms of how it was created, preserved, and ultimately presented “for us” to “read?”