The Handmaid’s Tale

by Margaret Atwood

 Winter Break Reading Assignments


  • Read the novel from the epigraphs through page 295 by January 12.  DO NOT read “The Historical Notes.”
  • Complete all journal assignments marked with an .  These are required journals.
  • Complete at least 2 other journals.  You have a choice with these remaining three journals, but you must choose one journal marked B and one M (for beginning and middle).
  • Complete all journal assignments on a separate sheet of paper and mark them clearly as to which assignments they are.  (You will be completing at least 5 journal assignments.)
  • Book marking is not required but highly recommended.  You’re welcome to track patterns as you go (set up a color code at the beginning if you choose to do this).  Tracking patterns is a good idea, but don’t over-do it—there’s a lot going on in this book and we’ll be doing more formal color-marking of various passages after break.  If you choose not to mark patterns, you should at least be writing questions and connections in the margins. 


These journal assignments must be completed by January 12, 2003.



  Complete the following assignments BEFORE you start reading on page 3

B  JOURNAL #1: 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.

·        The most ideal society is based on people having set roles and doing their best to fulfill them.

·        Ignorance is bliss.

·        Women are responsible for their own oppression.

B  JOURNAL #2: Utopia/Dystopia

A “utopia” is an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.  A “dystopia” is a place in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.

·       Pick either the concept of “utopia” or “dystopia.”  Write a description of what you would consider to be the best sort of utopia or the worst sort of dystopia.  In your description touch on the social customs, the political set-up, and the basic moral principles that would form the basis of your utopia/dystopia.  Then explain why you think those ideas are ideal or the anti-ideal.

 JOURNAL #3: Epigraphs

Read the epigraphs (the three quotes at the very beginning of the book).  Then read and complete 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 the 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.


  Complete the following assignment immediately after Chapter 1

B  JOURNAL #4: 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” or refer to Journal #2.  Is Atwood writing about a utopia or a dystopia?  Why do you think so right now?


  Complete the following assignment immediately after Chapter 5

M  JOURNAL #5:  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?


  Complete the following assignment any time after Chapter 25

M  JOURNAL #6: 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


  Complete the following assignment immediately after reading pages 238-250

M  JOURNAL #7: Thoughts on Moira

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.

Reflect on the character of Moira in the novel (Note: “Moira” means “fate.”)  Compare and contrast the narrator’s perceptions of Moira in the passage quoted above and in the way Moira is described at Jezebel’s (pp. 238-250).  Discuss the significance of the similarities and/or differences in the audience’s understanding of Moira between earlier in the novel and now.


  Complete the following assignment any time after page 263

M  JOURNAL #8: 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).


  Complete the following assignments after finishing the novel (p. 295)

  JOURNAL #9: The End and Novel Reflection

  1. Take a moment to discuss/reflect 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?

  JOURNAL #10: Pick-a-Passage

  1. Go back to ONE passage that you found most intriguing, troubling, puzzling, etc.  Briefly summarize the passage/scene (in 2-3 sentences) and note the page number(s) it appears on.
  2. Freely discuss/reflect on this passage, including your initial reaction to it and how you react to it now (in light of the rest of the book).  If you found the passage intriguing, explain why.  Troubling?  Explain why.  Puzzling? Explain why.  Etc.  Spend about a page thinking on paper about this passage.