Joined in Progress: *The Handmaid’s Tale* Group Read

We’re just about halfway through the designated time frame for the group read of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Today, participants have been asked to weigh in with some sort of “progress post” – non-spoilery discussion, response to a particular theme, thoughts on Atwood’s writing, etc. – on their reading.

I’m hosting this read, but I was probably one of the last to actually start the book. We kicked off on August 21, which was the beginning of a week off from work for me – I’d been called for jury duty, but despite that, I expected to have a generous amount of reading time. Things didn’t exactly turn that way, and as a result, I didn’t get started on The Handmaid’s Tale until this past weekend.

Fortunately, this is a re-read for me; and even more fortunately, I have been quickly pulled in. If I weren’t juggling a couple of other books at the same time I’m reading this one, I’d probably be well over halfway through it already, despite my late start.

It’s been a long time since I last read The Handmaid’s Tale, and while I’ve discovered that I didn’t remember a lot of the details, what has stuck with me is the mood of the novel – oppressive and unsettling. Having just finished reading a nonfiction book about life in the former East Germany before starting this read, I’m struck by similarities in the seemingly arbitrary rules of daily life and the need for guarded action, because one can’t ever be sure one isn’t being watched. Granted, The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1986, was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and takes place in a not-too-distant future in which America is the fallen country, but it’s interesting to me to note the similarities between some elements of dystopian speculative fiction and a real-life police state.

I’m also reminded that I don’t read Margaret Atwood nearly often enough – the woman can write.

I’ve asked the reading group not to post full reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale until September 12, but I do hope you’ll share some of your impressions of the book today. I’m particularly interested in knowing whether you’re reading it for the first time or as a re-read, and how you think that might be impacting the way you’re experiencing the novel. I’d also love to hear thoughts from those who have read the novel before but are not reading with us.

These discussion questions come from the publisher’s Readers’ Guide – they may help get you thinking, but answering them is completely up to you. (I’m not sure they do all that much for me, to be honest, but I may feel differently when I finish the book!)

1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?
In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or
Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like
an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy, she was their fantasy.
Trace Moira’s role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.
Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred’s mother also represent more than
themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style
and color of their clothes symbolize?
4. At one level, The
Handmaid’s Tale
is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves
this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as “Context
is all,” and “I’ve filled it out for her…,” “I made that up,” and “I
wish this story were different.” Does Offred’s habit of talking about
the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to
suspend disbelief?
5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that
scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable
to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of
Gilead’s social order often resemble a palimpsest?
6. The commander in the novel says you can’t cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instinct?
7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?
8. Babies are referred to as “a keeper,” “unbabies,” “shredders.” What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?
Atwood’s title brings to mind titles from Chaucer’s The Canterbury
. Why might Atwood have wanted you to make that connection?
What do you feel the historical notes at the book’s end add to the
reading of this novel? What does the book’s last line mean to you?

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