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.

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Teaching the Long Short Story: Alice Munro’s “Vandals” in the Literature Classroom

munroA few years ago I was talking to a friend about one of my favorite writers, Alice Munro, when she said that reading a Munro story was like wandering through a house where you start in the upstairs bedroom and then at the end of the story finally arrive at the front door. I realize now that my friend hadn’t made up this metaphor, but had borrowed and altered it from Munro herself, who talks about stories this way in her essay “What is Real.” Either way, it is a useful metaphor, as Munro’s stories are narrative mazes that move backwards and forwards chronologically and can often run 30-40 pages long. I had one student call Munro’s stories a slow burn, and another explain that they shouldn’t be printed in a standard book format, but instead a map that pulls out and mimics the process of unfolding that occurs within them.

To say the least, Munro’s stories are dense, and as a teacher it can be challenging to figure out where to even start in-class discussion about a story that is so nuanced and complex. Additionally, her stories relay subtle psychological shifts of character, which can leave first year literature students wondering why nothing much happens in the plot. This isn’t like teaching Hawthorne or Poe where symbolism and plot are obvious places to start. But there are benefits to teaching Munro, and specifically to teaching her longer stories. Spending an entire week on a Munro story can yield the same kind of in-depth discussions you can have when reading a novel together. Her stories can also fill in awkward pockets of scheduling time where you don’t have the space for a novel and also don’t want to start over with a new short story every day.

Another reason to teach Munro is that she’s one of a kind. She’s the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (2013) and is the only Nobel winner who exclusively sticks to the short story form. Lucky for her readers, Munro is a master at form and her stories offer a great opportunity for students to learn about subtext, metaphor, and character.

14286When I was a final candidate for my current job, I was assigned to teach Munro’s short story, “Vandals” for my teaching demo. “Vandals” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1993 and in Munro’s story collection Open Secrets in 1994. The story takes place in the rural town of Dismal at the property of Ladner, a hermetic taxidermist who has built a private nature preserve on his wild land. Eventually Bea Doud, a woman ruled by her relationships with men, moves in with Ladner and the story begins many years later when Ladner is in the hospital in Toronto and Bea calls upon Liza, their previous neighbor who lived next to them as a child, to look in on their old house during a snow storm. Liza, a Christian convert and married, returns to the property with her husband, Warren, and the couple vandalize the place together. That, at least, is what happens on the surface of the story. Underneath the text is where the real story happens, and it’s one of Ladner’s pedophilia and abuse of Liza and her brother, and Bea’s ignorance of the abuses happening around her. I was tasked to teach the story to an Intro to Literature class full of students I’d never met as well as the entire English Department faculty, which brings with it its own obstacles. And when preparing for that teaching demo I did what I usually do when thinking about how to teach something new — I Googled it. Much to my dismay there is very little on “Vandals” available online or in any teaching companions I’m aware of, so I spent days thinking through approaches, making lesson plans and changing them, then changing them again. What’s to follow in this post is a framework for what I ended up with, and in hindsight I realize this is an approach I take a lot when I’m baffled about how to start talking about a dense text. It’s a way to break the text down into component parts without reducing or trivializing its complexity.

  1. What happened? First and foremost, it’s important the class understands the subtext of the story. Part of what makes Munro so masterful is that she never comes out and says what Ladner’s done to Liza and her brother, but this abuse is inferred through description and connotation. To accomplish this, I take students to a very telling moment in the story when the narrator says, “Here are scenes…and places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.” The words “tickling” “bruise” and “shame” give us the idea of sexual abuse, and from here we can surmise what has happened in this place to Liza and her brother on Ladner’s property.
  2. Something to hold onto. Next, I give students something to hold onto. Oftentimes this is an image, a metaphor, a motif, or some idea that is compelling but is also perhaps something I can’t quite make sense of. This is our way into the text, and I have students take a solid 5 minutes at the beginning of the class to write their impressions of it. In “Vandals,” Munro does a lot of work with the spaces her characters occupy. Ladner tries to control and maintain the wild, outside world, yet he brings the outside into his home when working as a taxidermist. There is also a poignant moment when the narrator describes Bea Doud: “What she did think was that some women, women like herself, might be always on the lookout for an insanity that could contain them. For what was living with a man if it wasn’t living inside his insanity?” Here, Munro is talking about a metaphorical space, and I am particularly interested in talking with the students about what it means to “live inside” of something. After 5 minutes of writing on this idea and talking through the differences between what it means to live inside and outside of something, we have the necessary framework to continue talking about space in a more detailed way.
  3. Close reading. Now that we have our framework, or our something to hold onto, we go through the story and parse out what kinds of spaces are represented and what we can make of them.
    • Inside. We look at Ladner’s house. Typically, houses represent comfort, rest, safety and protection, but Ladner’s house is filled with wild animals, old history books, turpentine, and wood shavings. Ladner performs banal domestic tasks inside like making tea and reading, but he also relegates where Bea can and cannot keep her belongings. Also, Liza and Warren destroy the inside of Ladner’s house, or inside space, at the end of the story.
    • Outside. Typically the outdoors are thought of as wild, natural, and free. However, Ladner’s nature preserve takes on “inside” characteristics because he tries to control and contain it. He puts his taxidermy animals inside of glass displays and labels them as if they’re in a museum. He also posts signs such as “no trespassing” and “no hunting,” which control who occupies this outside space. Others often get lost or feel confused in this space and Liza thinks of Ladner’s outside land as “a different world.”
    • Vandalism. We talk about what it means to vandalize a space, since this is the title of the story and the story’s climactic event. Vandalism marks or mars something, and we spend time looking at descriptions of how Liza vandalizes Ladner’s home and why her husband helps her do this. We also spend some time talking about why Liza chooses to vandalize the inside space in the story if the sexual abuse took place outside on Ladner’s nature preserve.
  4. Return to framework. Finally, we return to the framework, which is in this case “living inside” of something. The return to the framework helps connect close reading to the major idea of space. As one final complication in our reading story I ask students to think about why Bea lives inside of someone else insanity. Then, I have them define Liza’s husband’s name, Warren, which can mean protector, gamekeeper, or an enclosed piece of land, oftentimes for rabbits. If Liza is trying to escape control and confinement by destroying Ladner’s house, what might it mean that she has married a man whose name conveys such similar qualities? This is a lingering question, and one we may start with at the beginning of the next class to see what answers students have come up with or to segue into the next text.

This is only one way to approach layered long short stories, and while “Vandals” does teach well I’ve also had success teaching Munro stories such as “The Progress of Love,” “The Beggar Maid,” and “The Moons of Jupiter.” This method does privilege depth over breadth and it’s a strategy that can also work for other texts when you’re looking for that preliminary way in to a particularly dense text.