Engaging with The Handmaid's Tale

Working with a literary text, whether it be a novel, play or poem, requires more than simply reading it and knowing ‘what happens' or what it is ‘about'. If you are to write good essays and be successful in examinations, it is important that you should engage with the text – in this case, The Handmaid's Tale – as deeply as possible.

Reading and working with The Handmaid's Tale

  • Remember the kind of novel that The Handmaid's Tale represents – speculative, dystopian fiction
  • Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption
  • Make notes as you read: this is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active – note down such things as the relationships between people, perhaps in a diagram form, and the locations of various parts of the story
  • Make links with other books, films or TV programmes with similar themes.

Get to know the text

  • Read The Handmaid's Tale at least twice: this is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to the novel
  • Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in other material
  • But DON'T rely on plot summaries
    • they tell you nothing about language and style
    • they don't identify themes and motifs in the text
    • however detailed, they are intended as reminders not substitutes
  • Read the text in different ways; once you have a firm grasp of the overall narrative, you may wish to
    • re-read a particular section, such as Offred's visit to Jezebel's or her encounters with Serena Joy
    • concentrate on a theme or motif
    • trace the development of a character or a relationship between characters.

Know the complete text

This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the beginning of a play or novel very well, but are less familiar with the later parts of the text. Classroom study often emphasises the beginning of a book or play, where the author introduces characters, themes and imagery, and is then less detailed about the remainder of the text. So:

  • Do not ignore the impact of significant scenes or episodes in the later chapters of The Handmaid's Tale
  • Remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the book goes on
  • Remember that characters change and develop and that the reader's attitude towards them may also change.

Keep a record of your reading

  • Make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
  • For major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages
  • Use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.

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