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Reading The Handmaid’s Tale: A Teacher’s Perspective on Bringing a New Text to Seniors

Claire Cywes, Copy Editor

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“It said something about the signs in the market having pictures instead of words because women weren’t allowed to read.  I had to investigate that.  I thought it was going to be a book about oppression of women,” said Mrs. Robinson, a grade 12 English teacher.

She was exactly right.  The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, deals largely with the issue of sexual inequality, specifically the oppression of women.

Set in a futuristic totalitarian “republic” called the Republic of Gilead, Atwood’s book addresses sexism by creating an American dystopia that is the opposite of relationship and sexual equality.

Atwood created a piece of fiction in which women were so oppressed, they were not even allowed to read the signs on store windows.  Atwood wrote her book this way to call to attention the drastic difference in freedom that she felt in our society in 1985.

Despite the beliefs of most Americans, the popularity of the Hulu series based on the novel suggests it is possible for our society to develop into the Republic of Gilead. Robinson said, “I think the loss of freedom is insidious.  One day, you are free; the next you are willing to live with a little discomfort; and the next thing you know, you are Offred.” The main character Offred’s name is actually the name of her Commander, Fred, with the conjunction “of” added in front to indicate that she belongs to Fred.

This loss of identity seems drastic, but it happens to Offred. She starts a free women, taking classes and living a normal life. Then the new government freezes all assets belonging to females. Then come more rules: women can’t drive; they can’t go out alone; they can’t talk to or touch any men unless he was their Commander.

Before Offred knew it, she was living in the Republic of Gilead, being vigorously trained to become a coveted handmaid. “I love the way the author crafted the society,” stated Robinson.  Atwood managed to create a society in which women are both oppressed and put on a pedestal.  They are used as sex slaves, but at the same time, are praised and coddled when pregnant because of the lack of healthy pregnancies in the society.

For many reasons such as the themes of “gender roles, the importance of memory, rebellion, and acceptance”, Robinson decided to teach The Handmaid’s Tale during the second semester of the school year, when students will read modern literature. However, another motive exists behind the general themes of the novel.  Robinson wants to make students “think about how easily our freedom can be taken away.”  She believes that the subjects discussed are “relevant in our times”.

While many people are now more interested in the TV show based on the book, Robinson wishes to keep the discussions in her class focused solely on the book because she doesn’t want “someone else’s interpretation in my head.”  She does, however wish to see the TV show eventually.

The Handmaid’s Tale ends in what can be considered a cliffhanger.  While most would be dissatisfied with this kind of ending and no sequel, Robinson said, “Here’s the problem with sequels-they never live up to the original.”  In every totalitarian society, parts of the Republic of Gilead can be discovered.

This is what makes Atwood’s book so appealing to people of all ages and all times.  The Handmaid’s Tale gives the reader an opportunity to experience the severe oppression without making it their life.  Thus, when people return to reality, they can put into perspective their level of freedom and possibly make a change to avoid an Atwood future.

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Reading The Handmaid’s Tale: A Teacher’s Perspective on Bringing a New Text to Seniors