Teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

PALS Note: We are pleased to have a guest post from Carli Sinclair. Sinclair is a graduate student studying American Literature at the University of Missouri. In this post, she writes about dystopian fiction and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Read on for Sinclair’s take on the novel. 

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Dystopias are hot right now. If the popularity of television shows like Black Mirror and The Walking Dead isn’t enough to convince you, consider that a television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ever-popular 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be coming to Hulu in 2017.

I was thinking about Margaret Atwood and the relatively recent cultural fascination with dystopias when I themed my Writing About Literature course “Utopias and Dystopias.” I’ve always wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, and this course, which focuses on learning to write about literature with the aid of criticism and theory, seemed like the perfect opportunity. I first read and loved Atwood’s novel when I was eighteen and I imagined it would appeal to my students, many of whom have expressed an increasing interest in dystopian texts over the last few semesters. Moreover, as a story that imagines a future in which women’s rights are completely erased and women are instead largely used for reproductive purposes, it pairs naturally with feminist theory, which we would be discussing during the semester. And so it went on the syllabus, alongside Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which we would discuss as a utopian text, and away we went.

I was right in that Atwood did appeal to my students: they appreciated her writing style (especially after reading the lengthy sentences of Thoreau) and were fascinated by the plot. As with teaching any book for the first time, however, there were some challenges that I hadn’t anticipated, and these were often related to the sheer size and scope of the Republic of Gilead, the dystopian world that Atwood creates. Students sometimes struggled to keep characters organized or situate the world against our own, especially as Atwood often reveals Gilead’s development in a nonlinear fashion. In response to these challenges, I introduced a few activities that would not only help us to organize Atwood’s world and characters, but also pick up on how many of Atwood’s concerns are still relevant today.

Define, define, define

One of our questions of the semester naturally became: “What makes Gilead dystopian?” I quickly discovered that it would be useful to give students some key terms to use when defining a dystopian world; this would ensure that everyone was on common ground. We could refer to these terms over and over again regardless of the text we were considering, and it gave students some concrete language to use when writing about utopian/dystopian spaces in their own papers. And so starting the first week of class, I gave students five distinct terms that we would use to think about different facets of a utopian or dystopian community: 1) political, 2) environmental, 3) socio-cultural, 4) religious, and 5) economic.

Approaching Atwood’s Gilead in this way was incredibly useful—rather than getting bogged down trying to consider each of these aspects in one discussion, focusing on one aspect at a time gave our conversations more direction and helped students get more out of the novel. This approach also lent itself to group work very well, which was an added bonus. For instance, after reading the first section of The Handmaid’s Tale, I broke students into five groups and assigned each group one of these categories. Each group was tasked with finding instances of their particular category in the section we had read: the “political” group considered what made Gilead a political dystopia; the “environmental” group looked for moments where the environment was discussed, and so on. Once students had combed the chapters for examples, they came up to the board and listed what they had found, including page numbers to give everyone a specific place to mark in the text. Mapping Gilead on the board like this was not only a way to engage closely at the text, but it also helped students to visualize connections between the categories (political decisions would naturally impact socio-cultural conditions, for example), which led to a discussion about the many ways that those in charge of Gilead worked to keep characters like Offred, the novel’s protagonist, in place.

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What are the rules?

Once we had established some guidelines for how we would talk about Gilead as a dystopia, we moved on to considering the laws of the land and how they impact characters, especially Offred, who narrates the story. Atwood’s Gilead is a complicated place with unsettling rules that are revealed throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Offred’s reflections jump back and forth between her present position as a handmaid and her very different experiences before Gilead was established. This was something that students often remarked upon, noting that they struggled with keeping track of what exactly Gilead required of its citizens and what specific behavior was forbidden or punishable, as well as Offred’s trajectory as a character—where she had been, and how she had got to where she was.

To help students keep track of how Gilead operates and Offred’s arc throughout the novel, I would often begin class discussion by asking students what rules they had noticed in the latest chunk of reading. These often started very simple: “Women must walk to the market in pairs,” for instance. These became more complicated as the novel went on often building on the rules we had discussed in our previous class: “While walking to the market, women are only allowed to speak about certain topics” and so on. Devoting just ten minutes or so to establishing the rules that students had discovered in the latest reading assignment was another way to map Gilead, as well as a way to keep tabs on Offred and what she was up against as the novel unfolded. (This could also easily be done as a free write in the beginning of class to get students focused on the day’s discussion or kept as a running log of sorts—perhaps on a class Blackboard or Canvas page for easy access.)

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Connections To The Present

After students felt as though they had a good handle on how to discuss Gilead as a place as well as Offred’s trajectory, I wanted us to use our understanding of Gilead to consider the popularity of Atwood’s novel and why it might still resonate with readers so strongly. One way we went about this was to spend a day considering what issues or questions from The Handmaid’s Tale students would consider relevant to their lives.

To help guide this discussion, I divided the class into small groups and had them brainstorm at least three questions or topics they noticed Atwood raising that they considered relevant in 2016. These had to be backed up with specific instances from the text, which meant students were again diving into the novel. They were quick to come up with examples that they considered significant to their own lives: environmental concerns (Atwood imagines a world in which chemicals and toxins have rendered the natural landscape irreparably damaged), questions about birth control (nonexistent in Gilead) and birth rates (birth rates are drastically and dangerously dropping in Atwood’s novel), issues surrounding the prison system (Atwood presents a world in which punishment is cruel and unusual, to say the least), women’s safety and questions of power (in Gilead, women are used as reproductive objects), and many more.

This activity resulted in a lot of discussion from the group, perhaps because they found concrete, direct ways to place a novel from 1985 squarely in 2016. The complicated links they were making also meant that they had to spend time unpacking the novel, getting into the nitty-gritty details of Gilead and thinking critically about the sorts of questions Atwood wanted to raise. Our discussion could have easily spanned several class days, or certainly a longer writing project in which students make these connections with real world examples linked up to the novel.

What I discovered in using each of these activities is that they not only gave students some specific ways to organize their thoughts on Gilead and the detailed dystopian society that Atwood creates, but they also helped everyone to engage with the text very closely—which is always something I’m trying to get students to do. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale tackles some challenging and provocative questions, but with some careful unpacking—and a nod to Hulu—it can provoke some powerful classroom discussions.

Contributor’s Bio:

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Carli Sinclair is a PhD candidate in the English at at the University of Missouri. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the role of landscape in nineteenth-century American women’s nonfiction. Other research interests include depictions of women’s work and Civil War poetry. She teaches American literature and Composition, as well as the occasional professional writing course.

Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature – Part One: Oral Cultures

Given the present clashes at Standing Rock and the irony of those voices telling Native Americans to “go home,” I’d venture to say the time is ripe for teachers of American literature to revisit the ways in which our classes construct—both explicitly and implicitly—Americanness.

I’m interested in how we begin the survey course, odd beast that it is, and how strategically that beginning can frame the course as a whole. This semester, I’ve bookended my Intro to American Lit class with Native American literature, and in this post I’ll report on teaching traditional oral literature at the beginning of a survey-style, intro-level course.

My priority in introducing students to American literature is to frame America as a place of literary continuity, or as a place always already literary: specifically, I do not want students to see the our literature as something that started with the Pilgrims. …When we do get to the Pilgrims, I want them to appreciate the enormity of interconnected social, cultural, and aesthetic transformations spurred by colonial contact. But in order for students to perceive the literary contours of this particular upheaval, they need a grounding in oral traditions.

Of course, teaching students about ancient oral literary traditions comes with challenges. What do they need to know in order to get their historic and cultural bearings? What are the related discourses, and what are the major questions driving those discourses? What analytic tools will give students traction to participate in said discourses? And how do we use existing textual literature to teach ancient oral literature, anyway? Furthermore… given that academic engagement with this content, like so much that we present for only one or two class periods in a survey course, comprises entire graduate degrees and by extension, entire careers—how do we retain any degree of nuance in our approach?

I lean heavily on the independent scholar, Robert Bringhurst: his writing is clear, Robert Bringhurst image.jpgaccessible, and full of provocative cross-cultural comparisons. A poet, translator, linguist, typographer, and critic, he has devoted a substantial portion of his career to studying Haida poets Skaay and Ghandl and John Swanton’s transcriptions of their works. Ultimately, Bringhurst understands the oral literature of the Haida to be one of the world’s great classical traditions (comparable to that of the Greeks, for example), and his translations and scholarship work toward establishing classical Haida literature as such for a contemporary, westernized audience.

Image result for haida gwaii mapAs political boundaries currently stand, Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and designated by the yellow/pink circle on the map to the right) is part of Canada, not the native-languages-mapUnited States. But there is also a strong Haida presence in Alaska, meaning some contemporary Haida are Canadian and some are American. Beginning an American literature class with a Canadian translation puts the logic of borders and the colonial scissoring of the Americas on the table for discussion; I encourage students to contrast current political boundaries with basic culture and linguistic maps.

Actual Class Material: First, Topics

In his 2014 interview with Guernica Magazine, Bringhurst lays out a spunky and rich introduction to oral culture, unpacks his claim that “a myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and suggests ways of reading—and reasons to read—translations of ancient works. This interview is a great place to start because it combines basic information on oral tradition with issues of live performance, transcription, and translation, and it’s grounded in a specific place (Haida Gwaii) and its culture. Before tackling a textual record of ancient oral literature, students need time to think about the great many wedges falling between what we will be able to access on the page, and what we won’t.

Bringhurst also offers tools by which to gain analytic traction. As students begin to see how much richness of traditional oral literature is ultimately inaccessible to us (because we simply can’t go back in time), students also need recognizable landmarks that are accessible, that can be found and followed on the page, and that do demand critical analysis. In my class, we focus on Bringhurst’s argument about the more-than-human world, for example, and how his idea of “mythtime” (in which rules of reality are malleable) interacts with “realtime” (reflecting things as they are now).

Actual Class Material: Second, Textual Analysis

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The next reading I give students is the prologue and first chapter from Bringhurst’s book,
A Story as Sharp as a Knife. This chapter, “Goose Food,” is part essay and part poem, combining a historic discussion and textual analysis with an excerpt in Haida from Ghandl’s telling of the Goose Woman story and Bringhurst’s translation of it. We do two main things with this chapter: (1) we discuss Bringhurst’s arguments, and (2) we close read his translation of the Goose Woman story.

Perhaps most challenging for students was the word “mythology.” Bringhurst demonstrates that all humans in all cultures make myths: these are our oldest stories, “ones endlessly available for retellings.” In “Goose Food,” Bringhurst develops a comparison between Haida mythology and Christian mythology, discussing a painting by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (“The Kitchen Maid,” roughly 1620-1622) in which mythtime is framed by realtime: the painting foregrounds a kitchen maid (realtime); behind her, Jesus, resurrected, is at the table (mythtime).

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“The Kitchen Maid” (1620-1622), Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

It’s a provocative comparison to bring into the classroom, because some students aren’t ready to apply a literary term (“mythology”) to their own traditions. On the other hand, some embrace it. Bringhurst’s emphasis on truth—for he argues vehemently that mythologies are fundamentally about reality—helps complicate the debate.

The Big Picture

Survey courses are characterized in no small part by the massive omissions we’re forced to make. But they’re also characterized by rather grand connections: large-scale thematic arcs emerge in survey courses, as do long-term formal developments. Big picture through-lines are, from this perspective, the bread and butter of the survey approach.

Beginning a survey of American Literature with ancient oral tradition puts several touchstones in place for the semester as a whole:

  1. Discussion of mythology entails discussion of creation. This makes for a profoundly spiritual literary backdrop to the remainder of the course, one that resonates with subsequent discussions of America’s religious/literary intersections.
  2. The politics of colonialism, westward expansion, othering, assimilating, and resistance all converge in discussion of why and how we have the records we do.
  3. Bioregional specificity of oral tradition both links to—and contrasts with—place-based priorities of, for example, 19th-century American Regionalism (and its future iterations and offshoots).

I’ll be following up in a future post with thoughts on returning to Native American literature at the end of a survey course, reading that literature as a contemporary call for sovereignty, and considering sovereignty—the freedom of people to flourish by governing themselves with their own ambitions at heart—as one of the lenses available for students looking back over a course in American literature as a whole.