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How to Read

Handmaid’s Tale
Like a Professor
Catherine Coveney, Madison
Gilbert, Ryan Sprumont, McKenna
Offred is a “handmaid” in a totalitarian theocracy that was formerly the United
States. Women have been stripped of all rights and enslaved, and handmaids
including Offred are forced breeders for the upper classes due to widespread
infertility. Offred’s freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely
restricted. As Offred tells the story of her daily life, she frequently slips into
flashbacks, from which the reader can reconstruct the events leading up to
the beginning of the novel.
Sex That Isn't Sex Catherine Coveney

In Fosters chapter titled “Sex That Isn’t Sex” it is explained that a sex scene in a novel will never only
mean that the characters are merely having sex, if it did that would be a little strange. But, it means
something more to the characters, it can symbolize a courtship, passion, or even something deeper.
There are numerous vivid scenes of sexual encounters between the Handmaid, Offred, and the
Commander, the main male figure in the household, in the novel A Handmaid's Tale. In this novel,
since the United States became the Republic of Gilead, sex doesn’t mean sex-ever. Sex, in this
instance is a way for a man to feel superior and a way to belittle women. This intimate exchange
between young girls and much older men was a norm in society and not questioned by anyone
because the country wants to maintain their population. No consent s given by the young girls, but if
they refuse they will be exiled to the Colonies, so the girls went with it and agreed to be treated as
less than human.
Offred and Serena- Chapter 16
“I lie on my back…. , and this is what I choose ” (Atwood 93-94 )

In this graphic scene the Wife of the Commander, Serena, is displayed as sitting behind Offred and holding her so
tight that she left fingernail marks in Offred's arms. Serena was in a position on the floor that Offred's head laid
directly on her pubic bone. This already shows that not only the commander, but also his wife think very poorly of
Offred; that all she is good for is to have sex with and hopefully produce offspring. Serena and Offred's potion also
indicates that Offred is merely used as a uterus, that is all she is good for in the eyes of the household. Offred is being
belittled so much a woman and as a human that she is truly thought of as no more than an organ, just a uterus, used
for one thing then shoved to the side when not in use. None of Offred's humanity was taken into account at any point
of the handmaid's presence in the house, she served a sole pleasure and reproductive purpose. With the wife being
so present at this ceremony, which is what sexual encounters with handmaids were called, it is reasonable to say she
also felt resentment towards Offred, that Offred was their only hope at having a child and that her, the commander's
wife, couldn't even provide that motherly service. As explained in HTRLLAP, this sex didn't mean sex, it meant the
belittlement of women and the handmaid's being treated as an organ with extremities.
Offred and Nick- Chapter
“Come on he says…, if it should come to that” (Atwood 262)

In this passage Offred meets Nick, the protector of their house, for a scheduled sex exchange; scheduled by the Wife
of the house Serena. Offred had feelings for Nick but felt that if she enjoyed the encounter that she would be
betraying her late husband Luke. Although this encounter had the potential to be romantic and enjoyable, something
that hadn't occurred since the country became Gilead. But, the meeting was not intimate or passionate, Nick stated
initially that it was strictly for his pleasure and not to be romantic. In today's society that would mean that no strings
were attached, but in this society it is yet another way to dehumanize women, and treat them as solely sex-slaves.
The women had no say in their relationships with men, and in this society sex, with anyone, was for the sole pleasure
of the man, and NEVER meant anything romantic. Sex, in this instance, was a time that Offred could potentially have
control, but she didn't want it; showing how defeated as a woman Offred had become. This excerpt relates to
HTRLLAP because it explains that even when women are given a taste of sexual freedom, in the case of Offred, they
don't take it; after being degraded and brain washed for years they are afraid of freedom.
Is That a Symbol? Ryan Sprumont

● The color red: “I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save
the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands,
finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The
skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white
wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good
in red, it’s not my color. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm” (Atwood 8).
● The color red can symbolize many things from energy, strength and power to passion, desire, and love. In the case of The
Handmaid’s Tale, the color red symbolizes many things. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas Foster mentions
that a symbol would not be a symbol if it did not have multiple meanings and interpretations. This is most definitely true
of the color red in The Handmaid’s Tale as it symbolizes fertility but also power and shame. Handmaids are required to
wear red and concealing dresses. They symbolize fertility which is the handmaid's only purpose in this future society.
They also symbolize shame as the handmaid's have to conceal most of their body and must only fulfill their purpose to
reproduce or they may be sent to the “Colonies.” Red usually represents power in some way but in this case the only
power that exists is the handmaid's’ ability to bear children. In this passage, Offred also uses the color red to describe
blood, stating that blood defines them. As handmaids are only good for their fertility, their menstrual blood then
essentially does define them. Overall, this symbol of the color red is prevalent throughout the novel and contributes to
the theme of using women as political tools. As women are forced to wear red, concealing dresses and reproduce, they
are stripped of their identities as they are truly defined by the color red.
Is That a Symbol? Ryan Sprumont

● The Eyes: “Useless, as it turned out. I wonder who told them. It could have been a neighbor, watching our car
pull out from the driveway in the morning, acting on a hunch, tipping them off for a gold star on someone’s list.
It could even have been the man who got us the passports; why not get paid twice? Like them, even, to plant
the passport forgers themselves, a net for the unwary. The Eyes of God run over all the earth” (“Atwood 193).
● Much like the color red, eyes have several meanings and appear frequently throughout the entire novel. Eyes
are used for seeing and watching and they reflect that in The Handmaid’s Tale as they symbolize surveillance,
paranoia, and Gilead’s presence. The “Eyes” are secret police and spies that are hidden throughout Gilead.
Offred feels their presence around her as she feels like she’s being watched all the time. Offred states that “The
Eyes of God run over all the earth,” meaning that the eyes of God are the same as the eyes of the state. They
are everywhere, constantly watching Gilead and its inhabitants. This creates a sense of paranoia amongst
Offred and the people of Gilead. It’s interesting that watching and observing is the emphasis of the eyes while
handmaids are restricted from watching or being watched. Handmaids must conceal themselves from the gaze
of men and must only focus on reproducing. This contributes to the overall idea that the dystopian
government enforces which is that women must follow the strict rules of Gilead as they are what God wants
and are directly from the Bible.
Never Stand Next to the Hero Madison Gilbert

“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead” (Atwood,


As the hero, Offred is indispensable. Every other character in the

book is there for the sole purpose of defining and sculpting Offred’s
story. Therefore, they are more likely to undergo tragic events, even
death, in order for the plot to showcase Offred. If the hero dies, then
the story is over, so other characters have to die in their place.
Never Stand Next to the Hero (Moira)
“She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it
to her then, taken away something - what? - that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with
my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?” (Atwood 249)

Moira, Offred’s lifelong friend, ends up escaping from the Red Center fairly early on in the book. For a time, Offred
finds comfort in the fact that she may have been successful. However, the two end up reconnecting at the “club”
(Jezebel’s), a government-run prostitution ring, serviced by a multitude of women; some of whom prefer the club to
life in Gilead, and others who are sent there instead of death at the Colonies. Moira seems more resigned and
complacent than usual, making a comment to Offred about having a good three or four years left before she’s no
longer fit for work as the club. She suggests that Offred, too, could be satisfied at the club, but Offred ultimately
declined the offer in favor of her life as a Handmaid.

Moira is one of the strongest voices of rebellion throughout the book, and her spirit is often what drives Offred to
remain hopeful, and if not that, at least find the small things to keep living for. Moira’s important, but her importance
lies in what she reveals about Offred’s personality and motivations.
Never Stand Next to the Hero (Ofglen)
“ “Under His Eye,” says the new, treacherous Ofglen.”...“She hanged herself,” she says. “After the Salvaging. She saw
the van coming for her. It was better.” Then she’s walking away from me down the street.” (Atwood 285)

Ofglen is the first person from the resistance (Mayday) that reveals herself to Offred. She gives Offred a new sense of
hope and camaraderie. Towards the end of the book, Ofglen is discovered by the Eye, a secret service in charge of
finding and punishing those against societal ideals. Rather than experience the torture that the Eye would inflict on
her, Ofglen chooses to commit suicide instead.

Although her death was tragic, the real significance comes not from her death, but its effect on Offred. Upon
realizing that Ofglen is dead, the power of the government begins to dawn on Offred for the first time. She no longer
sees herself as a person, but as an object under the government’s control. At this point, she has been reduced to the
same indifference as Moira.
It’s All Political McKenna Welch

In this chapter, Foster argues that all writing can be in some way political. He says, ‘Writers tend to be men and women who are
interested in the world around them. That world contains many things, and on the level of society, part of what it contains the
political reality of the time--power structures, relations among classes, issues of justice and rights, interactions between sexes
and among various racial and ethnic constituencies (Foster 115).

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. During this time, there was a growing fear about declining birth rates,
pollution, and infertility.

-revivals started by religious groups who criticized the sexual revolution of the times

-fear that this religious fervor would cause a removal of women’s rights in order to return to traditional gender roles

“I put nothing into (the book) that has not been done in history at some time, in some place,” Atwood says, “I didn’t intend it to
be prescient, I intended it to be a (warning).”(Lawler 2017)
It’s All Political Rape Culture
The moment that unleashes the horrid effects of this brainwashing is during a routine event called, “Testifying.” A woman
named Janine tells the girls that she was raped at fourteen; instead of offering her sympathy, the girls are roused by Aunt
Helena to chant atrocities at Janine:

“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.”(Atwood 72)

Atwood intentionally includes scenes like these to evoke feelings of uncomfort and disgust. Throughout the entire text, Atwood’s
political warnings are exemplified through powerful scenes that make readers self reflect on underlying issues that can find
relevance today. Foster supports this tactic as he explains the boreiness of an explicit political agenda and the effectiveness of
engaging scenes that address the more important matter.
It’s All Political Human Rights
The epilogue is a transcript of a symposium held in 2195, in a university in the Arctic. Gilead is long gone, and Offred’s
story has been published as a manuscript titled ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.The main part of the epilogue is a speech by an
expert on Gilead named Professor Pieixoto.

He begins his analysis of Offred’s story with,

“Allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gildeadeans. Surely
we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a
good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily
more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand” (Atwood 302)

Before reaching the epilogue, readers developed a personal relationship with a victim of the society and have already
developed judgement upon the oppressive and unjust Republic of Gilead. Atwood strategically stages a future
political conference to expose society’s treatment of historical tragedies as spectacles rather than learning tools that
can only be used when past wrongs are rightfully condemned.
Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret Eleanor. The Handmaid's Tale. New York : Anchor Books, 1998, c1986. Print.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York:

Quill, 2003. Print.

Lawler, Kelly. “Series takes on new meaning.” PressReader, PressReader, 26 Apr. 2017.

“The Soviet delegation of the Potsdam Conference.” World War 2: High Resolution Photos, 2017.