Discussion Questions for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
1. In Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years, Robert M. Collins suggests that one of the predominant structuring forces for the 1980s was “postmodernism,” which he characterizes as follows:
[P]ostmodernism referred to a new phase of cultural development that was, in the shadow of the millennium, spawning a distinctive sensibility, artistic manner, and vernacular way of life. Basic to this conception of postmodernism was an incredulity toward all the old “metanarratives,” such universal explanatory schemes as religion, Marxism, the upward march of science, the progressive triumph of reason or liberty, or a belief in progress of any sort. (148)
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 at the height of the postmodern moment and is widely regarded as a brilliant example of postmodern fiction. If, indeed, the critics who classify Atwood’s novel as such are correct, then toward what “metanarratives” does the novel evidence an incredulity? In what ways does Atwood attack, critique, and/or dismantle these “metanarratives” and to what end? In other words, what purpose does such incredulity serve?
2. Sociologist James Davison Hunter regards the culture wars of the 1980s as less about a clash between right and left wing politics than as a clash between what he terms the “orthodox” and the “progressive” impulses. In Transforming America, Robert Collins summarizes Hunter’s view as follows: “The orthodox impulse, although it took many shapes, at bottom entailed commitment to ‘an external, definable, and transcendent authority.’ Such external authority was located variously in cultural tradition, religion, or conceptions of natural law. The progressive impulse, on the other hand, denied such authority and relied instead on subjective values derived from the contemporary zeitgeist” (172-173). What type of view of the culture wars does The Handmaid’s Tale seem to espouse? In what ways do (Do?) you see this clash between the orthodox and the progressive impulses? And where ultimately does Atwood come down on this clash?
3. Reverand Jerry Falwell, a right-wing televangelist who rose to prominence in the 1980s, is often described as someone who “engaged in a politics of cultural nostalgia, attempting to recapture a cultural order that he feared was slipping away” (Collins 175). In his creation of the Moral Majority in 1979, he sought to “combine his religious beliefs with collective political action,” specifically seeking to replace human reason with Christian doctrine as “the society’s ultimate moral guide and authority” (175). What kinds of parallels can (Can?) you draw between Falwell’s “politics of cultural nostalgia” and figures like the Commander or Serena Joy in Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead? What do you think Atwood is trying to say about such nostalgia?
4. Historian Robert M. Collins suggests that one of the legacies of the 1980s was a “cultural reorientation away from the traditional middle-class moral order that had long dominated American culture” (243). As Collins explains, “The bourgeois ethos exalted the values and habits of work, thrift, delayed gratification, temperance, fidelity, reticence, self-reliance, and self-discipline; rested upon such fundamental institutions as the traditional family (two heterosexual parents, with offspring) and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition; and acknowledged the existence of moral authority and standards external to the self” (245-246). In what ways does (Does?) The Handmaid’s Tale reflect this “cultural reorientation” away from what Collins terms the “bourgeois ethos”? Are there any ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale reaffirms the “bourgeois ethos”? If so, then what do you think Atwood might be saying about the “bourgeois ethos” as well as about the “cultural reorientation” that Collins observes?
5. Dystopian fiction typically is characterized by some (if not all) of the following generic attributes:
An apparent Utopian society, free of poverty, disease, conflict, and even unhappiness. Scratching the surface of the society, however, reveals exactly the opposite. The exact problem, the way the problem is suppressed, and the chronology of the problem forms the central conflict of the story
Social stratification, where social class is strictly defined and enforced, and social mobility is non-existent
A nation-state ruled by an upper class with few democratic ideals
State propaganda programs and educational systems that coerce most citizens into worshipping the state and its government, in an attempt to convince them into thinking that life under the regime is good and just
Strict conformity among citizens and the general assumption that dissent and individuality are bad
A state figurehead that people worship fanatically through a vast personality cult, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four's Big Brother, We's The Benefactor, or Equilibrium's Father
A fear or disgust of the world outside the state
A common view of traditional life, particularly organized religion, as primitive and nonsensical
Complete domination by a state religion
The "memory" of institutions overriding or taking precedence over human memory
A penal system that lacks due process laws and often employs psychological or physical torture
A lack of the key essentials of life for many citizens, like food shortages
Constant surveillance by government or other agencies
Absence or else total co-option of an educated middle class (i.e. teachers, journalists, scientists) who might criticize the regime's leadership
Militarized police forces and private security forces
The banishment of the natural world from daily life
Construction of fictional views of reality that the populace are coerced into believing
Corruption, impotence or other usurpation of democratic institutions
Fictional rivalries between groups that actually operate as a cartel
Insistence by the forces of the establishment that: 1) It provides the best of all possible worlds; 2) That all problems are due to the action of its enemies and their dupes
An overall slow decay of all systems (political, economic, religion, infrastructure. . .) resulting from people being alienated from nature, the State, society, family, and themselves. Yesterday was better, tomorrow will be worse
In what ways does The Handmaid’s Tale fulfill the generic expectations of “dystopian fiction”? In what ways does The Handmaid’s Tale deviate from the generic expectations of “dystopian fiction” and what do you make of those deviations? In other words, what do you think Atwood might be saying (about the genre of dystopian fiction, about her characters, about her setting, about the real world personages and places and events to which her fiction alludes, about various political ideologies, etc.) by working against readerly expectations of the genre?
6. Postmodern fiction typically is characterized by some (if not all) of the following generic attributes:
Questioning Definitions Postmodern fiction tends to question our ideas of what fiction "is." A postmodernist will question our definition of literature and what literature should be like. A postmodernist will use nontraditional techniques that break long held rules about how to write a novel, story, or poem. University of Virginia's Electronic Labyrinth has explained it thus: "the radical disruption of linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof."
Questioning Truths Postmodernists try to poke holes in ideas we feel are so obviously true that we cease to question them. Here is further explanation from PBS: "Postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal."
Self-Consciousness Postmodern fiction is often "self-reflexive." In other words, instead of letting us slip into the fictional world of the text, it makes it obvious that this is a novel, just a novel, and does not allow us to feel that it is real. A postmodern text points out that it is just a product, just an object, not a reality.
Fractured Narrative Postmodern authors often break the rules by using fractured, jumbled narratives and/or multiple perspectives. There may be more than one narrator or more than one point-of-view. The narrative might seem more like a chaotic collage than a clear photograph.
End of Originality Postmodernists often believe in this world of mass media and mass production, nothing is original. Everything is copied from somewhere else, and our culture has lost its ability to do anything new.
"Subjective" narrative style Narrators often use a style called "stream-of-consciousness," where the narrative follows the course of a person's thoughts, not a structured timeline of events. As Mary Klages describes it, there is "an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived."
In what ways does The Handmaid’s Tale fulfill the generic expectations of “postmodern fiction”? In what ways does The Handmaid’s Tale deviate from the generic expectations of “postmodern fiction” and what do you make of those deviations? In other words, what do you think Atwood might be saying (about the genre of postmodern fiction, about her characters, about her setting, about the real world personages and places and events to which her fiction alludes, about various political ideologies, etc.) by working against readerly expectations of the genre?
7. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What is the purpose of each epigraph?
8. Why is the Bible under lock and key in the Republic of Gilead?
9. Atwood’s title brings to mind titles from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted readers to make such a connection?
10. What do you think the Historical Notes at the book’s close add to the novel? What does the book’s last line mean to you? What does it suggest about Atwood’s purpose in writing The Handmaid’s Tale? About what Atwood might have wanted you (as a reader) to take away from the experience? About how Atwood views the practice and process of fiction writing and the role of fiction in a democratic society?
11. Of fiction, Atwood has said, “The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.” What kinds of questions do you pose about The Handmaid’s Tale? Why do you think you are inclined to pose these questions? And what kinds of answers do you arrive at to the questions that you have posed?
12. In what ways do (Do?) you think The Handmaid’s Tale reflects and/or comments on the following statements that Atwood is credited with making:
“War is what happens when language fails.”
“A word after a word after a word is power.”
“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.”