Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1 : Extratextual References in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
There are three epigraphs that precede The Handmaid’s Tale. The first is a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, in which the story of the failure of a woman to bear children is mentioned. The second epigraph is from an essay by Jonathan Swift that tackles the issue of poor families raising multiple children. The third epigraph is an Islamic proverb. Together, these three epigraphs establish the tone and allude the thematic direction of the novel. By drawing from three distinct cultural and literary traditions with which the reader is probably familiar, Atwood effectively prepares the reader for entrance into a world that is wholly unfamiliar. The epigraphs serve not only as orienting and grounding references, but as guideposts to which the reader can return in order to discern and derive meaning in the text.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2 The Importance of Names in The Handmaid’s Tale
Much that confronts the reader in Atwood’s science fiction tale of a dystopic future is likely to be unfamiliar. The reader has entered into a time and place where normal institutions, relationships, and social structures have been rendered strange and unrecognizable. One of the ways in which Atwood helps the reader establish himself or herself in this foreign territory is by paying close attention to the way in which she names the characters, their respective roles, and the places that they inhabit. By examining some of the names and the significance that they have, the reader can begin to understand how the characters represent certain desired and undesired social traits.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3 : Creating a Sense of Place in The Handmaid’s Tale
One of Atwood’s strengths as a writer is creating a strong sense of place through vivid imagery. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood pays particular attention to conveying the sensory elements of the artificial and natural environments that the characters inhabit. Focusing on two of these environments—one wholly artificial and one natural—the reader recognizes how the thoughtful creation of physical place can reflect and convey important information about the theme and message of a text.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 : Complicity and Conformity in The Handmaid’s Tale
One of the many sad aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the women who are subjected to abuse and oppression soon comply with the roles that have been assigned to them, both permitting and perpetuating abuse against and amongst themselves. Atwood is not particularly hopeful about women and power and agency as a means of changing the conditions in which they are trapped. Even Offred’s eventual escape from the strange and perverted system is more a function of luck than determined will. Paying particular attention to the ending of the novel, this essay will argue that Atwood wants to call the reader’s attention to the problems that women suffer, but that she offers no solution or hope for change.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5 : Religious References in The Handmaid’s Tale
Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes frequent references to religious images and religious imagery. Names of characters and other uses of language allude to religious figures and ideas in The Handmaid’s Tale. The names of society’s institutions reflect religious images and religious symbols, too. Atwood’s constant attention to the power of religious imagery and symbolism is used not only to provide a familiar reference point for the reader, but to critique the society in which there is little or no separation between church and state.
For a comparison of other novels by Margaret Atwood, be sure to look at the PaperStarter entry for “Alias, Grace” by the same author and with many common themes
This list of important quotations from “The Handmaid’s Tale” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
“There was old sex in the room, and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name." (3)
“We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?" (3-4)
“The Angels…were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well." (4)
“In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Delores. Moira. June." (4)
“Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish…. Waste not, want not. Why do I want?" (5)
“There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass…and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s the other escapes…." (6)
“I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege…." (6)
“She’s in her usual Martha dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape… but…without the white wings and the veil." (7)
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure…." (22)
“Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead?…." (86)
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006.
In the novel the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. (In today’s real world, studies are now showing a sharp fertility decline in Chinese men.) Under totalitarianisms — or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society — the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, 12 sons — but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.
And so the tale unfolds.
When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.
Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.
At some time during the writing, the novel’s name changed to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” partly in honor of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” but partly also in reference to fairy tales and folk tales: The story told by the central character partakes — for later or remote listeners — of the unbelievable, the fantastic, as do the stories told by those who have survived earth-shattering events.
Over the years, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has taken many forms. It has been translated into 40 or more languages. It was made into a film in 1990. It has been an opera, and it has also been a ballet. It is being turned into a graphic novel. And in April 2017 it will become an MGM/Hulu television series.
In this series I have a small cameo. The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.
The Handmaids sit in a circle, with the Taser-equipped Aunts forcing them to join in what is now called (but was not, in 1984) the “slut-shaming” of one of their number, Jeanine, who is being made to recount how she was gang-raped as a teenager. Her fault, she led them on — that is the chant of the other Handmaids.
Although it was “only a television show” and these were actresses who would be giggling at coffee break, and I myself was “just pretending,” I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life.
Which brings me to three questions I am often asked.
First, is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. 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. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”
Why interesting and important? Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from them for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet. Napoleon and his “cannon fodder,” slavery and its ever-renewed human merchandise — they both fit in here. Of those promoting enforced childbirth, it should be asked: Cui bono? Who profits by it? Sometimes this sector, sometimes that. Never no one.
The second question that comes up frequently: Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” antireligion? Again, it depends what you may mean by that. True, a group of authoritarian men seize control and attempt to restore an extreme version of the patriarchy, in which women (like 19th-century American slaves) are forbidden to read. Further, they can’t control money or have jobs outside the home, unlike some women in the Bible. The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.
The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene. Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing. The wives of men lower in the social scale are called Econowives, and wear stripes. I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.
In the book, the dominant “religion” is moving to seize doctrinal control, and religious denominations familiar to us are being annihilated. Just as the Bolsheviks destroyed the Mensheviks in order to eliminate political competition and Red Guard factions fought to the death against one another, the Catholics and the Baptists are being targeted and eliminated. The Quakers have gone underground, and are running an escape route to Canada, as — I suspect — they would. Offred herself has a private version of the Lord’s Prayer and refuses to believe that this regime has been mandated by a just and merciful God. In the real world today, some religious groups are leading movements for the protection of vulnerable groups, including women.
So the book is not “antireligion.” It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.
Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.
So many different strands fed into “The Handmaid’s Tale” — group executions, sumptuary laws, book burnings, the Lebensborn program of the SS and the child-stealing of the Argentine generals, the history of slavery, the history of American polygamy . . . the list is long.
But there’s a literary form I haven’t mentioned yet: the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope: Every recorded story implies a future reader. Robinson Crusoe keeps a journal. So did Samuel Pepys, in which he chronicled the Great Fire of London. So did many who lived during the Black Death, although their accounts often stop abruptly. So did Roméo Dallaire, who chronicled both the Rwandan genocide and the world’s indifference to it. So did Anne Frank, hidden in her secret annex.
There are two reading audiences for Offred’s account: the one at the end of the book, at an academic conference in the future, who are free to read but who are not always as empathetic as one might wish; and the individual reader of the book at any given time. That is the “real” reader, the Dear Reader for whom every writer writes. And many Dear Readers will become writers in their turn. That is how we writers all started: by reading. We heard the voice of a book speaking to us.
In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.Continue reading the main story
An essay last Sunday about Margaret Atwood’s Novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” misspelled the surname of the Canadian general who was the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide in that country who later wrote a book about the episode. He is Romeo Dallaire, not Daillaire.