A coup by religious extremists helps to establish the sexually oppressive, dystopian Republic of Gilead. Offred, a Handmaid, struggles with her role as a reproductive servant to the elite.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
Gloria Steinem (1934-present) is an American feminist, journalist, author, and social-political activist. She gained national recognition as a leader of the “Second Wave” feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. On May 6th, 1970, Gloria Steinem stood before the Senate and delivered this speech, advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and seeking to dispel myths about women.
Have students read this text before beginning the novel as background and historical context on women’s rights. Pair “Testimony before the Senate Hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to consider American attitudes towards women in the 1970s and 80s that inspired Atwood to write her cautionary speculative fiction.
In “Puritan Laws and Character,” historian Henry William Elson discusses the Puritans, their laws, and the impact they made on early America.
Have students read this text before beginning the novel (and review it again after finishing the novel) as a historical comparison of strict religious societies. Pair “Puritan Laws and Character” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to compare the Puritans with the Sons of Jacob (the group that created the Republic of Gilead) — in what ways did these two religious societies differ or resemble each other?
This piece, written anonymously—though it is suspected that John L. O’Sullivan (1813–1895) may have authored this text—was submitted to The Democratic Review in 1852. It was designed as a rebuttal to Dr. Dewey, who, in defense of women’s rights, denied Biblical justification for the subjugation of women to their husbands.
Introduce this text after reading Chapters 12-15 of the novel as an example of historical reasoning against women’s rights. Pair “Opposition to the Women’s Rights Movement” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to analyze the reasoning behind the article’s argument, comparing it to the Biblical rationale of the Republic of Gilead. How do both the opposition movement and the Gilead establishment use their interpretations of religious texts to justify their treatment of women?
In Linda Pastan’s poem “Accidents,” a woman loses her child and contemplates the nature of tragic accidents.
Introduce this poem after reading Chapters 18-21 as a connection to the theme of loss, specifically the loss of a child. Pair “Accidents” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to discuss the importance placed on childbirth in the novel, as well as various characters’ experiences with loss. For example, how does Offred’s separation from her daughter compare to the threat of having an “unbaby”? How does the tone toward the loss of a child compare/differ in the novel and the poem?
Written anonymously, by a young female poet if the title is accurate, this poem laments the position of women as was then believed to be natural: subservient to men.
Introduce this poem after Chapter 24 as a connection to the theme of oppression, specifically targeted at women. Pair “Verses Written by a Young Lady, On Women Born to be Controll’d!” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to discuss how the poem may or may not work as a potential insight into Offred’s state of mind — is she willing to take on a “slavish mind”?
In “Learning to Read,” a former slave describes what it was like to be prevented from obtaining an education and learning to read as an adult.
Have students read this text as a pairing for Chapters 23-28 for its related themes on reading and freedom. Pair “Learning to Read” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to discuss how the prohibition of certain rights and activities — like being allowed to read — can be used to wield control over and oppress others. How does the Republic of Gilead justify forbidding women from reading?
We is a work of dystopian fiction set in a future police state by Russian writer Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937). In 1921, We became the first work banned by the Soviet Union’s censorship board; Zamyatin managed to have his work smuggled to the West and later lived out the rest of his life in exile. This novel is thought to have inspired Brave New World and 1984.
Introduce this text after finishing the epilogue (or as the chapter is labeled, “Historical Notes”) as a literary comparison of dystopian, epistolary fiction: in this case, between a journal and a set of recordings. Pair “Excerpts from We” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to compare the narrative structures and any shared themes (such as oppression, dehumanization, etc.). How does the final chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale contribute to the novel’s overall meaning?
In this document by British philosopher John Locke, Locke argues for individual sacrifice so that people can live peacefully in a political society. Locke’s philosophical works heavily influenced American revolutionaries and the formation of democracy.
Introduce this text after finishing the novel as political-philosophical insight into freedom and the structure of society. Pair “Political Society” with The Handmaid’s Tale and ask students to consider how society creates order and what citizens should sacrifice to maintain it. Consider Aunt Lydia’s distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from” in Chapter 5, which plays throughout the novel.