For your banned book club: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for political, religious and parental authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including rape, violence, death and cruelty. Several members of our group said this was the most memorable and interesting book we read, though the 1990 film cut out far too many of our favorite parts.

“I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.”– Margaret Atwood

Who is this Margaret Atwood?
• Born November 18, 1939, daughter of forest entomologist.
• Traveled much of childhood between Northern Ontario wilderness and capital, Ottawa.
• Attended high school in Toronto, majoring in home economics, but at sixteen determined to become a writer.
• Received undergraduate degree from University of Toronto, graduate degree from Radcliffe College.
• 1966, Atwood’s first published collection of poetry, The Circle Game, praised critically.
• 1969, first novel published, The Edible Woman. Made into film soon after, leading to sudden literary successes in Canada.
• 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale published and became bestseller. Written during anti-feminist backlash of 1980s.
• Received numerous awards and honorary degrees, author of over 23 books of fiction and nonfiction, published in more than 25 countries.
• Currently lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter.

What do you think about The Handmaid’s Tale?
1. In fictional Gilead, women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts. What do you think about characters who accept their assigned roles, without rebellion? Is there morality in simple survival? Is it more moral to rebel and risk death? Why or why not? How does this relate to your role in the real world?
2. What do the rulers of Gilead hope to achieve with their new social order? Could this sort of society be created outside of fiction? Why or why not?
3. Referring to his “cheating” the system in his affair with Offred, the Commander says “you can’t cheat nature”. How do characters in the novel find ways to follow their natural instinct? Do you see this happening in the real world?
4. Why is access to the Bible so guarded in Gilead? What might happen if it were not so guarded? Have you witnessed anything like this in the real world?
5. In the book, we are reminded that “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” What do you think about freedom to and from? Why?
6. Two disturbing scenes in the novel involve the handmaids turning against handmaid Janine and also whipping themselves into a frenzy at a “particicution”. Why would oppressed people lash out and attack others oppressed like them? What do they gain? What do they lose? Have you witnessed anything like this phenomenon in high school life?
7. What is the role of the historical notes at the book’s end? What does the book’s last line mean?
8. Do characters or themes of this book remind you of any other books or films you are familiar with? Any banned books or films?
9. Do you know of women in the real world who experience anything like the kinds of things described here?
10. The Handmaid’s Tale is frequently challenged; it is sexually explicit, including offensive language, disrespect for religious and political authority, emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including rape, mob violence and the loss of a child. What do you think about teenagers reading this book? Why?

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