Handmaids Tale

This essay is supposed to be an essay of critical analysis of a work of literature, in this case The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Critical analysis involves an attempt to explain a work of literature by analyzing elements such as dominant themes, repeated symbols, or significant techniques. A critical analysis should NOT be an evaluation of whether you liked or didn’t like the book. A critical analysis should also NOT be merely a summary of the plot of the book. In your essay, you should concentrate on analyzing one or more significant aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Your essay must make specific references to elements of the story from the book, including some direct quotations from the book to support the points you make. Your essay should summarize some of what occurs in the story, but your essay should not be simply a summary of the story. Your essay also should not just be a string of quotations from The Handmaid’s Tale. You should use summaries and quotations in order to explain what the story means or how it means what it means. You should summarize some parts of the story and follow the summary with an explanation of what you take that part of the story to mean.

Your essay will consist of three main elements: summary, explanation, and quotation. Begin your essay with an overall summary of the book, indicating the overall situation of the book, the kind of society it depicts and the underlying ideology of this society. End your introduction with your thesis about the theme of the book that you will discuss throughout your essay. Make sure that the summary that begins your book leads to your explanation of the theme. That is, if you are going to focus on the theme of theocracy, your summary should focus primarily on the theocratic elements of the society depicted in the novel. Follow your introduction with a more in-depth analysis of the occurrence of this theme in the story.

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Focus, in your body paragraphs, several key events that occur in the story. Summarize these key events of the story that apply to your overall analysis of the dominant theme of the book, explaining how those parts of the story develop the theme or symbolism you are discussing, and support some of your explanations with appropriate quotations. Keep quotations fairly short, no more than a couple of lines per quotation. Cite your quotations with the page numbers on which the quotations are found. You can also use other material to support or further explain your ideas on The Handmaid’s Tale, but if you use additional sources, make sure that you cite the sources for all material you use, using the MLA format for documentation.

End your essay with a general explanation of the theme you are covering, explaining how that theme is resolved in the ending of the story and indicating how this aspect of the story can apply in some way to our society. Follow the specific explanation of developing a theme and ending your essay indicated in the Topics below.

You can write your essay on any one of the significant themes discussed in the Topics below. You can discuss more than one of these themes in your essay, but your essay must be unified, so that if you do discuss more than one, you must show how the different themes work together for an overall understanding of the book.

Topic 1

Explain the idea of a theocracy as it applies to the country of Gilead, where the novel is set. Explain what a theocracy is generally and how the structure of the society and the apparent rules and laws that the people live under in Gilead correspond to the principles that underlie a theocratic form of government. Use details to elaborate on how religion forms the basis for the way that the people in Gilead live and the restrictions that are put on them. Support your analysis of the theocratic functions of the society with details such as the role of the handmaids in the story, as well as the restrictions put on other women in the society; the ways that people greet each other; the judgments that they place on each other’s actions; the attitudes about sex and gender; and the male domination of the society. Where possible, indicate the specific scriptural sources that the rulers in Gilead use to justify their domination. Include also a discussion of the problems inherent in societies in general when the power of government is tied too closely to the dictates of one particular religious sect.

Topic 2

Consider the idea of freedom as it is understood by the people of Gilead. Offred points out that Aunt Lydia has told her of the difference between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” Aunt Lydia intends that people such as Offred should prefer life in a society such as Gilead because it changes freedom to do as one pleases to freedom from the potential dangers that other people may pose. Explain in your essay this kind of difference between freedom to and freedom from. How do these types of freedom differ? How do the aspects of Offred’s life in Gilead illustrate the idea of “freedom from,” and how do some aspects of her memories of the life she lived before the establishment of Gilead illustrate some of the dangers associated with freedom in the sense of “freedom to?” Explain how people such as Aunt Lydia, the Commander and his Wife, and other people who impose the restrictions of life in Gilead on Offred convey to her that she – and others like her – are better off in the life they have in Gilead than they were in their former lives. Consider generally the difference between liberty (“freedom to”) and security (“freedom from”) in a society and how much liberty you think people should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of security.

Topic 3

In the introduction to her book, Atwood poses the question, which she is often asked, of whether this book is feminist. She answers by saying that “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings – with all the variety of character and behavior that implies – and are also interesting and important and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure, and plot of the book, then yes.” Explain what Atwood’s idea of feminism is and how this idea of feminism is portrayed in the novel. Explain how this concept of feminism depends on the idea that women are complex and various and that their actions and motivations may not be the same for all women. Consider the plight of all women in the fictional Gilead of the novel, which involves their control by men through the process of eliminating their individuality. Discuss the different types of women in Gilead and how their identity is supposed to be subsumed by their assigned roles and how Offred and one or more of the other women – such as Moira, Ofglen, or even Serena Joy, the Commander’s Wife – attempt not to be completely limited by their assigned roles.Focus on particular ways that women in the story are intended to be denied individuality through the castes to which they are assigned, the clothes they are required to wear, the names they are given, etc., and how they achieve some degree of individuality by pursuing their own individual interests, in some cases at the expense of other women in the story.

Topic 4

Focus on the inherently totalitarian nature of Gilead by examining the control that is exerted over all the people through the caste system in place in Gilead. Explain what the different castes are in Gilead, such as Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives, Unwomen, Guardians, Eyes, Angels, Commanders, Wives, etc., and what role is reserved for each of these castes. Include details such as how the different castes dress, what privileges are given to and restrictions imposed on each caste, and how they interact with members of their own caste and with members of other castes. Explain how these castes result in antagonisms within and among members of different castes and how such antagonisms result in greater control over the people assigned to these castes by the ruling class. Generalize from the effect of dividing people among castes as occurs in Gilead to a more general commentary on how people in a repressive society can be more effectively controlled not just through the laws and the enforcement of laws but also through the antagonisms that result from this type of social stratification.

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