Instructors’ Teaching Experience

I greatly enjoyed the experience of teaching this book, and found that overall my students responded with interest to both the story and the way it was told. We spent equal time analyzing both, and I found that they generally ‘got’ the book quite well, with a number of different interpretations of what happens as well as how it is presented. I would definitely recommend teaching this book, especially if you are teaching other texts that deal with feminist concerns, questions of birth and creation, or questions of power and authority. All of these were useful threads for me as I taught Atwood’s novel. [Jacob Horn,]

I loved teaching The Handmaid’s Tale. I found that the students were really engaged (even the guys, who I thought might resist a text that they perceived to be about women’s issues). The novel prompts lively discussions about many different themes: religion, power, freedom, identity, and gender (among others). I taught the novel after poetry, which worked well in helping students to pay attention to formal elements of the text (particularly symbolism, imagery, and structure). On the last day, I showed the beginning and ending of the film adaptation, which I would highly recommend. Although the film is awful, and diverges considerably from the text, it was a wonderful teaching moment: I found my students making sophisticated cases about why certain elements of the novel are so critical to its larger themes and message, which were erased by the film. The novel also works particularly well in thinking about the “world” element of Interpretation of Literature’s “Reader, Text, World” emphasis. As a dystopian novel, it’s trying to warn us about modern trends. The students enjoyed considering what those trends might include. I also showed clips from Bill Moyers’s interview with Margaret Atwood for his Faith and Reason series, which is free online here. [Joanne Janssen,]

Classroom Strategies

Clip Viewing

There is a film version of Atwood’s novel, using the same title, but with a vastly different storyline. While it retains many of the main elements, it fails to keep all of the details the same. For instance, in the scene where Moira breaks out of the Red Center, Offred is shown to have helped her – very different from the book. That scene (‘Call for Aunt Lydia,’ scene 8 in the selection menu), as well as the scene where Offred first comes to the house and participates in the ceremony (‘The Ceremony,’ scene 5 in the selection menu) and the scene where she and the Commander first have their secret meeting—as well as a kiss with Nick (‘An Unofficial Visit,’ scene 6 in the selection menu)—are all great for examining specific interpretations of the text.

After showing each of these scenes, I ask what the differences between them and the novel’s version of events is, and what each one provides that the other does not. Students sometimes wish for more information, enjoying these scenes since they provide a much more active and inquisitive Offred, but even this is a good opportunity to discuss why Atwood doesn’t want to include these details. [Jacob Horn,]

Reading the Value of The Handmaid’s Tale

At the end of every text, I ask my students whether reading whatever we finished was valuable to them in any way, and why they think the text is or is not particularly useful. I try to get them to state their feelings plainly, but they often are not interested in doing so, thinking that I want them to like everything we read or that they have to agree with me. To help avoid that, I have found a very interesting argument for why The Handmaid’s Tale should not be taught to high-school students, and while potentially divisive, it has some very useful arguments that can provoke discussion if read straight. If you use this, I recommend that you work hard to avoid bias here–treat this as a reasonable attempt to engage the text. [Jacob Horn,]

Significance of Language in The Handmaid’s Tale (An Exercise)

This was adapted from the more extensive exercise outlined on The exercise can be done in class, or you can have each student address one chapter and make it a take-home assignment. I broke my class into groups and focused on just a few chapters so we could talk in more depth about the examples and the broader theme of language as a tool of manipulation and power. I had students look for examples of neologisms, biblical language (specifically the appropriation of this language to serve the regime’s agenda), and Offred’s language musings, where she examines the meaning of words or phrases. This is the handout I made for them. This is a list (unfortunately incomplete, covering only 5 chapters) of some of the examples in the book that the folks at came up with, so that you can help students who are struggling identify them. This exercise is really effective in helping open up a discussion about the power of language. The class talked about parallels between the appropriation and manipulation of language in Gilead to further a political agenda, and the manipulation of language used in contemporary society for the same purpose. In particular, we talked about neologism. Examples we came up with from our own culture: “Capital Punishment,” “Collateral Damage,” “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Others you could consider: “Adult Entertainment,” “Breast Augmentation,” “Relocation,” “Corporate Restructuring,” “Death Tax,” etc. This is a really great exercise to get them thinking about how this book is not as fantastical as it may seem to them. It demonstrates how word choice is important in how we psychologically conceive of things and is therefore used by those in power to manipulate the conversation in favor of their agenda. [Mieke Eerkens,]

Gilead Debate

File Debate template

Additional Resources

Lauren Abunassar’s In-Class Activity: File Handmaid’s Tale Student-Generated Newspaper

Joanne Janssen’s Assignment: focusing on a specific article File comparing current events to the events of the book

A pair of quizzes for The Handmaid’s TalePDF icon Quiz 1, PDF icon Quiz 2

A PowerPoint featuring images and references to spur discussion: File HT References & Connections

Margaret Atwood interviewed by Bill Moyer for Faith and Reason series found here.