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The Handmaid's Tale is a very complex novel - not only because of its highly fragmented plot but also because of the high amount of different topics and the vast variety of historical, cultural, religious and literary allusions. In class, the novel can therefore be used not only as an independent text but also as a central work within the discussion of topics that are closely linked to the plot, such as feminism or right-wing radicalism. The following paper focuses on biblical influences in The Handmaid's Tale and gives suggestions for a discussion of this topic in class.

Biblical Influences in The Handmaid's Tale in Class:
a Lesson Plan for a Double Period

Anja Breuer

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Reasons for choosing the topic

III. Background Information

A. The writer
B. The plot
C. Biblical Influences

IV. The lesson itself

A. The lesson in context
B. Overview of the lesson
C. Detailed lesson plan (including methods and media)

V. Selected Bibliography

VI. Appendix

I. Introduction

In this paper, a lesson plan for a double lesson on the topic "Biblical influences in The Handmaid's Tale for form 13 is presented. Preliminary remarks and considerations will be: the reasons for choosing this topic, background information on the writer and the novel, and information on the topic "biblical influences" itself.

II. Reasons for choosing the topic

Novels of the genre utopian and dystopian fiction are often chosen for classroom discussion in form 13 of the German Gymnasium. Novels of that type are very suitable for this purpose because of various reasons. Apart from the usual linguistic learning processes that are initiated by dealing with literary texts in general, utopian and dystopian novels are especially motivating for students as the issues presented in those novels are closely linked with topics of the students lives and surroundings. The preference of novels of this type can also be seen in the German Richtlinien, where utopian novels are suggested as a topic for form 13. (1) In the recent edition of the Richtlinien (published in 1999), the novel The Handmaid's Tale, which this paper will focus on, is even mentioned as a suggestion for a novel that could be read in this context. (2)

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel. In this kind of novel, the reader is confronted with a negative vision of a future society whose characteristics are a result of several trends and affairs that were relevant at the time when the novel was written. In contrast to other utopian and dystopian novels that are usually chosen for classroom discussion, such as George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale deals with additional current issues of the last 20 years like AIDS, racism, anti-homosexuality or dropping birth rates. (3) Especially nowadays where issues like attacks on synagogues or right-wing radicalism are in our newspapers and on the news regularly, The Handmaid's Tale presents issues of high topicality. Therefore, it is especially motivating for students and encourages them to reflect upon their own everyday lives, their society and the future of their society. Thus, The Handmaid's Tale as a fairly recent work (published in 1985) presents a good alternative to other utopian and dystopian novels usually discussed in class. When reading the novel, the students are confronted with difficult tasks concerning language, style and a highly fragmented plot. However, these specific problems are not too demanding for students on the level of a Leistungskurs in form 13.

All in all, discussing The Handmaid's Tale in class combines the abstract teaching of literature and language with aspects of the students' every-day lives and the society they live in, and therefore it is very motivating and encourages the students to reflect upon certain issues of today's world.

III. Background information

A. The writer

Margaret Atwood, the writer of The Handmaid's Tale, was born November 18, 1939 in Ottawa. During her childhood, she and her family moved around Ontario and Quebec. At the age of seven, her family went to Toronto, where she went to school and later attended university. Although she started being interested in writing a lot earlier, she published her first book in 1961, which is also the year of her graduation. After that, she moved to the United States to study American Literature at Harvard University. During her time there, she learned a lot about New England and Puritanism, which is reflected in some of the works she has written since. She also witnessed the beginnings of the feminist movement in the 1960s. In 1967, she married James Polk, but their marriage ended in 1973 when she moved to Ontario with her colleague Graeme Gibson. Atwood has taught writing and literature at various universities, and she has done a lot of travelling, especially in 1970, when she took a year off to tour Italy, France and England. (4)

Her extensive travelling, her relationship to nature and her attitude towards feminism are reflected in her writings. Her works range from poetry, short stories and novels to children's books and literary criticism. Among the themes that she focuses on in her works are gender politics, “exploitation and victimization”. (5) In her more recent writings, she puts more and more emphasis on human rights issues. The issues she writes about are also of importance in her everyday life. She is active in women's and human rights issues and a member of Amnesty International and various literary circles.

With her writings, Atwood has won many literary awards, and she can be seen as Canada's most famous novelist. (6) With The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood has written a highly topical novel in the tradition of dystopian fiction. Her success with this novel can be seen in the millions of copies that were sold of it, the many languages it was translated into and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, which Atwood won with this book. (7)

B. The plot

The Handmaid's Tale is a story that is set in the near future. After a military coup and the assassination of the President, a group of right-wing fundamentalists takes over and establishes the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic state of absolute control. The rules of this state are very rigid, and every aspect of society is controlled by religious fanatics. The main goal of the new government is the increasing of the white population as pollution and war have resulted in a graphic drop of the birth-rate. Victims of this main goal are the women in Gilead, who are deprived of their legal rights and pushed back into their traditional roles as mothers or servants. According to age, fertility and background, they are divided into several classes (Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives and Unwomen). Young and fertile women are the Handmaids in this new state. They have to live in the households of former high-ranking officials or other influential members of society (the Commanders and their Wives) and are deprived of their real name, which is replaced by a patronymic consisting of the syllable (Of-) and their Commanders' first name. Once a month, the Handmaids have to undergo an impregnation ceremony with their Commanders in order to become a surrogate mother and have a child for the Commander and his Wife.

One of these Handmaids is Offred, the narrator of the story, who, in this fictitious autobiography, gives an account of her life in Gilead and her life before Gilead came into existence. Her descriptions show how women in the new theocracy are controlled and oppressed and how she copes with the radical change of her role in society and this extreme conservative backlash concerning the role of women in general.

She also gives an account of general practices and rules in Gilead and shows how other groups apart from women are oppressed by the new regime. The new state is a patriarchal, conservative state, whose ideology is based on a certain religion. All other religious groups (such as Quakers, Baptists, Catholics or Jews) and other minorities such as homosexuals or Blacks are not only treated in an intolerant way but they are also persecuted. Everyone else has a certain role in society and has to pretend to believe in the state if they want to survive.

A very significant characteristic of the state that Offred describes is that the new ideology is based upon biblical ideas from the Old Testament. The new regime uses the literal interpretation of the Bible as a pretext to suppress the population. Therefore, biblical influences in The Handmaid's Tale as the ideological basis of the Republic of Gilead are a recurrent theme throughout the book that deserves further attention.

C. Biblical influences

In the Republic of Gilead, biblical references, mostly from the books Jeremiah, Genesis, and Job, run through every aspect of daily life. In order to find out why the regime uses and even abuses the Bible in this way, it is necessary to first take a closer look at it.

On the most obvious and superficial level, the Bible plays an important role in the naming of objects and people in the Republic of Gilead. The men, according to their role in society, are called “Commanders of the Faithful”, “Guardians of the Faith”, who are the members of the police force, “Angels” or “Eyes of the Lord”. The “Angels” are the soldiers of the army, and they have names like “Angels of the Apocalypse” or “Angels of Light”. Whereas the word “angel” suggests something innocent or holy, the “Angels” in Gilead fight in wars. The names seem to suggest that it is a religious war they fight. The “Eyes” are the secret police who are supposed to spy on the people in Gilead. The name is also taken from the Bible. (8)

Almost all the names of the women in Gilead occur in the Bible, too. The different classes that women are subdivided into are called “Wives”, "Marthas”, “Handmaids”, “Econowives” and “Unwomen”. The name “Martha” refers to the sister of Mary who served Jesus rather than listened to his teachings. (9) In Gilead, the Marthas work in the household. The name “Handmaid” refers to the Old Testament, namely to Genesis 30:1-3:

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die! […] Then she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.
Rachel insists that her husband Jacob bed his handmaid because Rachel herself has failed to conceive. It is exactly this function that the Handmaids in Gilead have and that is justified by biblical statements. The fact that almost all the names given to the people in Gilead refer to the Bible suggests that the regime justifies the roles these people have in society with certain events in the Bible. By doing this, the citizens' roles are given biblical significance.

However, it is not only the names of the citizens that refer to the Bible but also the names of objects and institutions. The place where the Handmaids are trained and re-educated is called the “Rachel and Leah Centre” after the two sisters Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob who both use their maids as surrogate mothers. (10) Even the names of brands, for example, of cars, refer to words in the Bible: “Whirlwind” (11), “Behemoth” (12) or “Chariot”. (13) Biblical names even filter through other aspects of the commercial world. Names like bakery or butchers have been replaced by biblical names such as "Loaves and Fishes, "All Flesh" (14), "Lilies of the Field" (15) or “Milk and Honey”. (16) By renaming even food and clothes shops like this, the state manages to establish references to the Bible in every aspect of daily life in Gilead. The new names are also meant to abandon old names for food shops that supposedly are “too much temptation” (17) for the citizens. However, these names are highly ironical as they suggest abundance, although food is in short supply because of pollution.

The most important name, namely that of the state itself, is an allusion to the Bible as well. In the Old Testament, Gilead is a very fertile and therefore very desirable region in ancient Palestine. (18) Ironically, the Republic of Gilead in Atwood's novel is exactly the opposite of fertile and desirable, which shows how the state tries to appear clean and pure, although it is not. It is a waste land that has been devastated by pollution and war and whose citizens are oppressed. (19) Significantly enough, the regime only uses statements from the Bible that present the beauty and godliness of Gilead and leaves out passages that imply negative things about the biblical model. One example for the choosing of biblical passages for the purposes of the regime is a passage in Hosea that Gilead chose not to use: (20) “Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood”. (21)

The fact that the state uses passages from the Bible and prayers on purpose and chooses the ones that help promote the ideology of the regime can be seen in many other passages in the novel. In Gilead, all forms of personal conversation are prohibited and replaced by standardized phrases, “universal truths, maxims or slogans”. (22) The greeting ritual between the Handmaids consists of set phrases such as “Blessed be the fruit” or “May the Lord open”. (23) This type of conversation not only has a biblical connotation but also shows the role and function that these women have in society, which is pretended to be of religious nature. It also represents the passivity of their situation. They are not allowed to lead a private conversation and express their thoughts. Instead, they are passive recipients of the ideology and the law of the Republic of Gilead, which is shown by another example of the conversation between the two handmaids Offred and Ofglen: (24)

“The war is going well, I hear,” she says.
“Praise be,” I reply.
“We've been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy.” (25)
Apart from biblical names and biblical phrases, whole passages from the Bible are used to manipulate the population. In the Rachel and Leah Centre, Offred and the other Handmaids have to listen to the Beatitudes. However, the words are changed in order to perpetuate the role of the Handmaids:

Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disc, the voice was a man's. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking. (26)
Offred knows that this is not the original passage from the Bible, but she cannot look up the original words because reading and writing are prohibited and the Bible is locked away. The Commander is the only person in the household who is allowed to read it:

The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn't steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read. (27)
Offred's comment shows that she is aware of the situation she is in. The state prohibits the reading of the Bible so they can keep using it the way they want without the citizens questioning it or proving it wrong. They want to make sure that the public do not find out that they sometimes even pretend that certain statements they use are taken from the Bible although they are not. (28)

Another example of the pseudo-religiousness of Gilead are the Soul Scrolls, prayer machines that print out endless roles of prayers which can be ordered by the Commanders' Wives. Ordering these prayers is a sign of faithfulness, which helps the Commanders' careers. However, because reading and writing are forbidden, no one ever reads the prayers that are printed out:

Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again. There are no people inside the building; the machines run by themselves. (29)
The only reason why people order these prayers is that the orders are registered; they are certainly not ordered because of interest in the prayers themselves. This hypocritical and superficial use and abuse of religion is put into contrast with the way Offred uses prayers.

In contrast to the official use of biblical passages and prayers by the theocartic state, Offred secretly prays in her own private way to express her feelings. Offred quite often addresses God, but a very long and significant scene is the one in which she changes the Lord's Prayer to fit her situation and thoughts. By changing it, she refuses to take things literally - the same way she refuses to pray at the prayer sessions in her Commander's house. (30) She rather expresses her own thoughts and feelings:

My God. Who art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.[…] I have enough daily bread, so I won't waste time on that. It isn't the main problem. The problem is getting it down without choking on it.
Now we come to forgiveness. Don't worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don't let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves. […]
Oh God. It's no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living? (31)
In her version of the Lord's Prayer, Offred uses keywords from the original prayer (heaven, daily bread, forgiveness, etc.) and connects them with her private situation. She prays to God to help her and to help others. She also says that, although the regime uses the Bible as an ideological basis, she does not blame God for what is happening. Her statement “I have enough daily bread […]. The problem is getting it down without choking on it” shows how, in Gilead, the aspect of enjoying food is replaced by the functional, nourishing aspect of food. She “makes the connection between bread and spiritual sustenance”, (32) which stresses her emotional despair.

Although Offred can secretly resist the ideology of Gilead in her mind, she cannot escape the life she has to live according to her role as a Handmaid because in Gilead every action is controlled. Everyone has to act according to their role in society. As it is the case with language, the roles of the citizens and the practices in Gilead are justified by biblical references. Public events such as “Salvagings” (public executions) or “Prayvaganzas”(mass religious celebrations for group weddings or military victories) have names that refer to the Bible (salvation, praying). Other practices such as the act of spying on the citizens by the “Eyes” are justified by quotations from the Bible: “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him.” (33) This passage from II Chronicles (16:9) is read by the Commander at the monthly praying ceremony. In Gilead's literary translation it means that the “eyes of the Lord”, the spies in Gilead, have to watch the citizens in order to check if they behave according to the rules of the state.

The most obvious allusion to the Bible as a justification for the practices in Gilead can be seen in the role of the Handmaids. The quotation the state uses for declaring the role of the Handmaids as a religious, biblical role, occurs in Genesis, 30:1-3:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!” And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, ”Am I in the place of God, who hath withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Then she said, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in to her; that she shall bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.”
This quotation is one of the mottoes of the novel, and it runs through the whole book. With this passage, everything the Handmaids have to do is justified. In ancient Israel, as described in the Bible, women who could not conceive were devalued. It was a general practice that the women's maids would be used as surrogate mothers. In Gilead, this principle is adopted in order to increase the white population. While the Handmaids are educated in the Rachel and Leah Centre and while they live in the Commander's household, they are constantly reminded of the “religious” value of their function in society. They hear extracts from the Bible all the time, be it at the Rachel and Leah Centre or at the monthly Bible reading:

It's the usual story. The usual stories. […]. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give me children, or else I die.[…] And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast […]. (34)
The fact that the Handmaids have to submit to a patriarchal regime, where they are treated as objects and reduced to their procreative function, is condoned by the regime by using the Old Testament as an excuse. To underline the “religiousness” of their procreative role in society, the Handmaids even have to look “religious”. In their red, long dresses and their white “wings”, they look like nuns, like a “Sister dipped in blood”, as Offred says. (35) They even have to live like nuns as they sleep in small rooms without mirrors and are never allowed to go outside without the company of another Handmaid. (36) Even the fact that the Commanders' Wives are present at the impregnation ceremony and at the event of a birth (in both events, the handmaid is lying on the Wife's stomach with the Wife's knees around her) is taken from Rachel's words “she shall bear upon my knees”. (37) Rachel's statement “Give me children or else I die!” (38), which Offred repeats in her head at the monthly check-up, indeed has “more than one meaning to it”. (39) Like Hagar, who is sent away, (40) a Handmaid who fails to conceive after she has been sent to three households is sent to the Colonies, where she will die eventually. (41)

Offred's and the other Handmaids' fate stresses the hypocrisy of a regime that pretends to be based on religious and godly principles, but in “reality” is a system that controls and suppresses its citizens, especially women, and treats women and dissidents as objects. It is a place that claims to function on the basis of Christianity but that in fact lacks spirituality and morality. Instead it is based on terror and fear, which is justified by the archaic patriarchal language of the Old Testament. The Word of the Bible is distorted and used as an instrument for the control of society.

By describing how the fundamentalist state of Gilead uses the Bible in order to justify their ideology, Atwood shows how ambiguous language is and how texts can always be interpreted in various ways. She stresses how dangerous it is to approach a text only in the literal sense or in a way that only allows one single truth. As Janet Larson says: “[…] Atwood shows that a mode of interpretation that denies readings other than the literal is not only textually irresponsible but a social menace.” (42)

Atwood demonstrates that every interpretation of a text, no matter if it is the Bible or a novel or any other kind of text, is subjective. Therefore it is always possible that a text is interpreted inadequately and used in a dangerous way. Her novel is a warning about how easily people can be manipulated especially by language. As the use of archaic, biblical language is often a characteristic of extreme sects or fundamentalist groups, this warning is also directed towards current trends in our society, such as the rise of right-wing fundamentalist movements in general or the American New Right in particular who have racist and anti-homosexual/-feminist concepts and a strong reference to Puritan beliefs and practices. This resemblance between Puritanism and the society described in Atwood's novel, as well as the reference to Puritan beliefs and practices that is made by American fundamentalist groups, is another important aspect that could be discussed in class.

If Atwood's novel is interpreted in this way, and if it is used for classroom discussion, it is very important to include an analysis of the biblical influences and allusions that run through the novel in order to encourage thoughts about fundamentalist ideas and the use of dogmas.

IV. The lesson itself

A. The lesson in context

The following lesson plan for a double period is designed for a Leistungskurs in the first half of year 13. There are various criteria for deciding on the age group for a specific text. Among them are, for example, the number of unknown words, the degree of syntactical difficulty, the complexity of the plot and the accessibility of the text. In The Handmaid's Tale, the number of unknown words is rather low, and the syntax is quite easy, but the fact that the plot is very complex and is not told in a chronological way puts high demands on the reader. Therefore, it is reasonable to discuss The Handmaid's Tale with students of form 13, as they will have done extensive reading in the years before. Since the students are in form 13, they should have experience in dealing with literary texts in general as well as with texts in the English language in particular. In order to successfully discuss the novel in class, the students should have learned how to interpret a text and how to express their thoughts about it in the English language.

Due to the complexity of the topic “biblical influences”, the time dedicated to it should be that of a double period. This period is embedded in a sequence of discussions about the novel. Altogether, this discussion should last for about four or five weeks because of the complexity of the novel. Before the lesson about biblical influences, the students should have pre-read the text. This pre-reading should have included a testing of the reading comprehension and a discussion about the students' first impressions and reactions at certain intervals while the novel is being read by the students. Additionally, a discussion about dystopian novels in general, about characters and plot should have taken place in the preceding lessons. Due to its thematic complexity, it would probably be useful to approach the novel thematically and include discussions about other themes such as feminism in The Handmaid's Tale or relevance to present times while the novel is being discussed.

After the discussion of biblical influences in the novel, more detailed discussions about, for example, fundamentalism or right-wing radicalism could follow. If there is enough time to discuss the novel, the reading of other texts such as The Scarlet Letter could also be an interesting addition to the topic. It would also be motivating for the students to combine the topic “biblical influences in The Handmaid's Tale” with similar topics in their religious education classes in order to get an inter-disciplinary overview.

One important point to consider is that The Handmaid's Tale is a fairly recent novel, which has not been used in English lessons very often yet. Therefore, there is hardly any didactic material about the novel or teaching suggestions that the teacher can use. This may cause difficulties because the teacher has to come up with ideas by himself. On the other hand, it means that the teacher has more freedom while organizing and planning the lessons.

B. Overview of the lesson

During the double period that is planned in this paper, the students are to gain basic knowledge about how biblical influences run through every aspect of life in Gilead. By reading certain extracts from the text, the students are to interpret this use of the Bible as a basis for the ideology of Gilead. This interpretation includes thoughts about how and why Gilead uses the Bible in this way and if Gilead is really founded on Christian principles as it pretends to be. This first half of the lesson serves a cognitive purpose as the students will be enabled to a better understanding of the novel if they know about its biblical allusions and about the people and theories that the text refers to. (43) The close reading of extracts from the novel also helps the students practice the interpretation of texts.

After this phase of textual interpretation, the students are to make a transfer from the fundamentalist ideology of Gilead with its real practices (such as racism, anti-homosexuality and suppression of other religious groups) to other fundamentalist movements of our time and of the time when the novel was written. This second half of the lesson serves to make a transfer from the events in the novel to current events. It helps the students form an opinion about fundamentalist movements, and it gives them background knowledge that enables them to consider certain things in their every-day life critically. The students will read a text about a fundamentalist movement and try to work out certain characteristics of fundamentalist movements. In a following step, the students are asked to reflect upon various questions, for example, if the Christian Fundamentalism presented in the novel seems credible or not.

After this interpretation of a non-fictional text, the teacher presents two questions that are designed to recapitulate what has been said in the course of the lesson. The students are asked to write a short personal statement on one of these questions.

The lesson ends with a handout that the students are asked to take home with them. They can choose between various written tasks that are designed for either the interpretation of texts or creative writing, and they are given about two weeks to finish this task.

C. Detailed lesson plan (including methods and media)

The lesson starts off with a quotation from the novel, which the teacher presents on the OHP. (44) This quotation serves as a lead-in to the topic “biblical influences” as it is one of Offred's statements about how the Bible is used in Gilead. It also serves as a motivation for the students as they have to try to put the quotation into the context of the novel. It is estimated to take about ten minutes. First of all, the teacher asks the class if a student wants to volunteer and read out the statement aloud. After the quotation has been read out and unknown words have been explained, the teacher asks the students if they remember where this statement occurs in the book. After the students have put the quotation into its context, they are asked to interpret what Offred says in this passage. Answers that could be expected are, for example, that Offred and the other Handmaids hear certain quotations from the Bible all the time, over and over again, and that they get to hear these quotations so often because the state wants to give them the impression that their role in society is “religious”. It is also important that the students realize that the quotation from the Bible which Offred mentions in this passage is also one of the epigraphs of the novel, and that it is the main justification for the role of the Handmaids and a motto that runs through the whole book.

After the students have interpreted the quotation, the teacher gives them a handout with annotations and explanations about other quotations from the Bible together with quotations from the novel to show how Gilead uses them. (45) The handout is divided into two parts: the official use of biblical quotations and prayers in Gilead, and Offred's private use of religion and prayers. The students are asked to work in groups of two, read the handout, take notes about their ideas and comment on the handout later on. They can use some basic questions that are at the bottom of the page as a guideline, for example:

Does the state of Gilead only use biblical quotations to justify the role of the Handmaids?
How exactly does the state use quotations from the Bible?
Does Offred care about the literal meaning of prayers when she prays in private? If so, why? If not, why not?
This part of the lesson is supposed to take about 25 minutes. The students should get an idea about how the Republic of Gilead only uses the literal meaning of biblical quotations and how it uses language to manipulate the people in the state. It is possible that the students even come up with critical thoughts about the ambiguity of language and about the fact that every reading and interpretation of a text is subjective. By comparing Offred's version of the Lord's Prayer with the original version, they will see that Offred knows the original words of the prayer but she only uses key words from the original. She prays only in order to express her own feelings of despair and abandonment.

After this interpretation of key passages from the novel, the teacher asks the following question:

Is Gilead is really founded on Christian principles as it pretends to be?
The students are asked to discuss this question and give textual evidence for their standpoints. The teacher keeps out of the discussion and collects important results on the blackboard. The students are expected to come up with some negative characteristics of Gilead that are obviously not founded on Christian principles, such as racism, intolerance, hostility towards homosexuality, anti-feminism or suppression of other religions. This part of the lesson should take about ten minutes.

These results lead to the characteristics of other fundamentalist movements that exist at the present time or that were important at the time the novel was written. Therefore, the following part of the lesson serves as a transfer from the Christian fundamentalist state in the novel to current events. It is estimated to be about 30 minutes long. The teacher hands out a text about Islamic fundamentalism and the way people are treated according to the religious beliefs of the fundamentalist regime. (46) The text that has been chosen for this lesson plan is about an event that was relevant at the time this paper was written. As it is always motivating for students to apply what they have learned to a topical situation, it is best to always replace this text by one that deals with issues relevant at the time this lesson plan is put into practice. After the students have read the article, the teacher asks them to give a short summary of it. Then he asks a few questions that initiate a discussion in class:

Do you think, other countries should try to interfere and help oppressed citizens in such a country as Afghanistan?
Is the fundamentalism presented in the novel credible or not?
This discussion encourages the students to form their own opinion in these matters and helps them practice express their thoughts in English.
The last 15 minutes of the lesson serve to reflect upon the things that have been discussed so far. The teacher offers the students two questions to choose from:
Are there any limits to religious freedom?
How is it possible that fundamentalist groups like the one in Afghanistan or in The Handmaid's Tale gain so much power over the whole country?

The students are asked to write a short personal statement on one of these questions.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher presents a list of written tasks that can be chosen from by the students. The written tasks are a mixture of textual interpretation and creative tasks (47). The students are asked to choose a topic that they would like to write about. With this task, the students practice their written skills and their creativity. They get two weeks' time to write about the topic at home, but they are also encouraged by the teacher to use encyclopaedias, other books or the internet at school as additional resources. If the students like the idea, the texts can be collected, and the students can make a folder with collected texts from everyone. That way, the students would not have the feeling that they only write their texts for school but that their writings have a further-reaching purpose (48). The topics that the students may choose from are to encourage them to do some further thinking about biblical influences in the novel as all aspects of the biblical influences that can be found in the novel cannot possibly be taken into account in 90 minutes.

All in all, this lesson plan only gives suggestions about time units or about topics for discussion. The teacher is, of course, free to choose other texts as reading material.

V. Selected Bibliography

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale. London: Vintage, 1996.

Bracht, Max, “'Handmade's Tales'- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale im produktionsorientierten Fremdsprachenunterricht”, Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52:4 (1999): 229-238.

Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain, ed., The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. London: 1966.

Cohen, M. J., The Penguin Thematic Dictionary of Quotations. London: Penguin Group, 1999.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Second Edition (1981). Oxford UP, repr. 1991.

Evangelische Kirche Deutschland, ed., Stuttgarter Erklärungsbibel. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1992.

Freibert, Lucy M., "Control and Creativity: The Politics of Risk in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale”, Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood, ed. Judith McCombs (Boston: Hall, 1988), 280-291.

Harvey, Sir P., ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed. Oxford: OUP, 1967.

Helps to the Study of the Bible. Oxford: OUP, ca. 1896.

Howells, Coral A., The Handmaid's Tale. York Notes. London: York Press, fourth impression, 1999.

Hughes, Robert. “Buddha Bashing.” TIME Magazine. 19 March 2001: 157. TIME.com. Online. 7 Apr. 2001.

Korte, Barbara, “Margaret Atwoods Roman The Handmaid's Tale. Interpretationshinweise für eine Verwendung im Englischunterricht in der Sekundarstufe II“, Die Neueren Sprachen 89 (1990): 224-242.

Larson, Janet L., “Margaret Atwood and the Future of Prophecy”, Religion and Literature 21:1 (Spring 1989): 27-61.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. London: 1987.

Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung, ed. Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II - Gymnasium/ Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Schriftenreihe Schule in NRW. 4704. Düsseldorf: Ritterbach Verlag, 1999.

Rubenstein, Roberta, “Nature and Nurture in Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale”, Margaret Atwood. Vision and Forms, eds. Kathryn VanSpankeren and Jan Gordon Castro. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Snodgrass, Mary E. The Handmaid's Tale. Cliffs Notes. Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliffs Notes, 1999.

Staels, Hilde, “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance through Narrating”, English Studies 78:5 (1995): 455-67.

Stein, Hilde, “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Scheherazade in Dystopia”, University of Toronto Quarterly 61 (1991/92): 269- 279.

VI. Appendix

Handout 1:

"The Commander, as if reluctantly, begins to read. He isn't very good at it. Maybe he's merely bored.
It's the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast […].” (49)

Handout 2: The Official Use of the Bible in Gilead:

For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disk, the voice was a man's. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking.
A) p.99-100

The Gospel According to Matthew (from the Sermon of the Mount) 5:1-10

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and he taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We wish, in a word, equality - equality in fact as corollary, or rather, as primordial condition of liberty. From each according to his faculties, to each according to his needs; that is what we wish sincerely and energetically.
Michail Bakunin (1814-1876)
B) p.14

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Karl Marx 1875
C) p.241

From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.
A) p.127

“Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood.”
D) Hosea 6:8

Jezebel, the proud and infamous wife of Ahab, king of Israel (1 Kings xvi. 31, xix, and 2 Kings ix), hence used allusively of a wicked, impudent, or abandoned woman; also of a painted woman (2 Kings ix. 30).
E) p. 430

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him.”
D) II Chronicles, 16:9
See also: Soul Scrolls A) p. 175-176

Offred's Private Use of Prayers:

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
C) Matthew 6:9-13

Compare this with Offred's version of the Lord's Prayer A) p. 204-205

Central questions as a guideline for interpretation:

- Does the state of Gilead only use biblical quotations to justify the role of the Handmaids?
- How exactly does the state use quotations from the Bible?
- Why, do you think, is only the Commander allowed to read the Bible?
- Does Offred care about the literal meaning of prayers when she prays in private?
- What does Offred's version of the Lord's Prayer reveal about her feelings?

Selected bibliography:

A) Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale. London: Vintage, 1996.

B) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Second Edition (1981). Oxford: OUP, repr. 1991.

C) Korte, Barbara, “Margaret Atwood's Roman The Handmaid's Tale. Interpretationshinweise für eine Verwendung im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II.“ Die Neueren Sprachen 89 (1990): 224-242.

D) The Holy Bible, revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1966.

E) The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Fourth Edition. Oxford: OUP repr. 1967.

Handout 3: Buddha Bashing


The name Taliban means "seekers of knowledge." Since they seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, the clique of fundamentalist zealots who go by that name have eliminated virtually all human rights within their reach. Their proscriptions run from the hideous to the farcically pious--though farce itself, in today's Afghanistan, can and does kill. At one extreme, most girls are denied any education: Afghanistan is the most misogynistic country in the world. At another, a man who trims his beard commits a jailable crime.

Civil war, drought, famine, invasion and tyranny have been tramping back and forth across the weary soil of this miserable nation for so long that the prospects of its recovery, even if the Taliban were to vanish tomorrow, are distant at best. And now the Taliban have outraged world opinion with yet another bizarre and fanatic provocation. The leading Taliban mullah, Mohammed Omar, declared that since the Koran forbade the worship of idols, all idols in the country (meaning, for the most part, Buddhist sculpture made before the arrival of the Muslims in the 8th century) were to be destroyed. "The statues are no big issue," said an official, Qadratullah Jamal, from his office in the capital, Kabul. "They are only objects made of mud or stone." Jamal's portfolio? The Taliban's Minister of Information and Culture.

They meant it too. Already, the contents of at least two regional museums have reportedly been destroyed, with the rest--including Kabul's National Museum, with its much plundered collection of Buddhist art--presumably to follow. Not a museum or an archaeological site in the country has been secure from thieves since the Russian invasion of 1979; thousands of Hellenistic, Iranian and Indian artifacts from Afghanistan's many-layered past have been smuggled out to the voracious and amoral Western art market.

The announced target that has caused the most serious and concerted outcry from other nations, including some Muslim ones like Pakistan, is at Bamiyan, about 100 miles northwest of Kabul. There, in a valley, about a mile of soft-stone cliff is honeycombed with caves, many of them bearing ancient Buddhist wall paintings dating back to around the 4th to the 5th century A.D. The core of this already much defaced religious center, as it once was, consists of two gigantic standing figures of Buddha, recessed into the cliffs sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries. The larger of them is 175 ft. high--purportedly the biggest standing Buddha in the world. On Saturday, a spokesman for Mohammed Omar claimed to the Associated Press that soldiers using explosives had "destroyed 80% of the statues. There is only a small amount left, and we will destroy that soon."

In fact, the Koran contains no injunction to destroy the images of other faiths. It does forbid depicting the Prophet: it is not an iconic religion. But none of the teachings of Islamic faith give sanction to what the Taliban are up to. "The terrible irony," says Philippe de Montebello, director of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "is that Islam is essentially a tolerant faith--much more so than Christianity used to be." If there is practically no medieval art left intact in England, for instance, it is because the godly minions of Oliver Cromwell--ancestors of the Massachusetts Puritans--smashed and burned it all in the Lord's name.

The combination of Koran and Kalashnikov, however, is as toxic as that of Bible and burning stake ever was in Europe. The Taliban's mission is more absolute than some other culture crimes their decree has been compared to, such as the Nazis' famed burning of the books: works of art are singular and their destruction is irrevocable, whereas books exist in the plural and other copies may escape the fire.

Unfortunately, there are no good grounds to suppose that the Taliban can be deflected from their benighted campaign. Even the Metropolitan Museum's offer to purchase and transport pieces of the two Bamiyan Buddhas to New York was rebuffed by Taliban officials. Last week a very faint ray of hope faded when Pakistan, the Taliban's closest ally, failed to dissuade them from going ahead with their plans. Pierre Lafrance, a UNESCO special envoy, was sent to talk to Taliban mullahs in Kandahar, but he found that "there was not the slightest hint of bargaining in their position. Their standard is definitely extreme compared to other countries'."

Extreme is an extreme understatement. Once, Mao's Red Guards set the modern standard of ideological vandalism. Today it's the Taliban, and nobody quite knows what the mullahs hope to gain from their decree--other than a seat among the blessed in paradise, where no statues exist.

Annotations: (50)
- zealot: someone who is too eager in their beliefs and tries to make other people share them

- to proscribe: to forbid

- farce: an occasion or set of events that is a silly and empty pretence

- mullah: Muslim teacher of law and religion

- portfolio: the job of a particular government minister

- honeycombed: filled with holes, hollow passages, etc.

- recess: a space in a wall of a room for shelves, cupboards, etc.

- to recess: to make into or put into a recess

- to purport: to claim to be; to have an (intended) appearance of being

- injunction: a command or an official order to do or not do to something

- to depict: to represent or show in or as if in a picture

- to rebuff: to give an unfriendly answer to a suggestion, request or an offer of help or friendship

- to bargain: to negotiate

- decree: an official command or decision that has the force of law, esp. one made by a king or military government

Handout 4:

Please choose one of these tasks and write about it at home:

- What is televangelism, where is it mentioned in The Handmaid's Tale, and what are, in your opinion, the claims and risks of it?

- Describe your personal vision of a possible Bible-based theocracy in our time.

- Give an overview of how allusions to the Bible run through every aspect of life in Gilead.

- Gather information about 17th century Puritanism, and try to find resemblances between Puritanism and life in the Republic of Gilead.

- “The Bible is literature, not dogma.” (George Santayana, Introduction to the ethics of Spinoza)
See Penguin Thematic Dictionary of Quotations, p. 42. How would you interpret this quotation? Comment on it!

- Do a background study of The Handmaid's Tale's allusions to the rise of the American Moral Majority (also called the New Puritans) in the 1980s. Gather information about this movement and relate it to the novel.

- Is The Handmaid's Tale an anti-religious novel? What do you think does it warn against?

- Comment on the allusions to the Book of Job in The Handmaid's Tale (cf. for example, p. 182). Why is Offred's situation compared to that of Job?

- Read the Salvaging scene in chapter 42, in which Offred does not listen to Aunt Lydia's speech (p. 286). Imagine what Aunt Lydia could have said, and complete her speech.


(1)  Richtlinien (Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung), 86.
(2)  Richtlinien (Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung), 86.
(3)  Korte, 224.
(4)  Snodgrass, 7; Howells, 83.
(5)  Snodgrass, 7.
(6)  Howells, 83.
(7)  Snodgrass, 8.
(8)  Proverbs 15:3 and II Chronicles 16:9
(9)  Luke, 10:38-42.
(10)  Genesis 30, see quotation above.
(11)  Hosea, 8:7.
(12)  Job, 40:15.
(13)  2 Kings, 2:11.
(14)  Isaiah, 40:6.
(15)  Mathew, 6:28.
(16) Exodus, 3:8 and 33:3. Jeremiah, 11:5.
(17) Atwood, 35.
(18) Larson, 40.
(19) Staels, 458.
(20)  Howells, 62.
(21)  Hosea, 6:8.
(22) Staels, 456.
(23)  Atwood, 29.
(24)  Stein, 271.
(25) Atwood, 29.
(26) Atwood, 99-100.
(27) Atwood, 98.
(28) Atwood, 127.
(29) Atwood, 176.
(30) Atwood, chapter 15.
(31) Atwood, 204-205.
(32)  Rubenstein, 109.
(33)  Atwood, 102-103.
(34) Atwood, 99.
(35) Atwood, 19.
(36)  Freibert, 285.
(38) Atwood, 71.
(39) Atwood, 71.
(40) Genesis, 21:9-21.
(41) Larson, 39.
(42) Larson, 54.
(43) Bracht, 231.
(44) appendix, handout 1.
(45) appendix, handout 2.
(46) appendix, handout 3.
(47) appendix, handout 4.
(48) Bracht, 235.
(49) Atwood, 99.
(50) Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Last Updated by Dr. Willi Real on Monday, 14 July, 2003 at 10:44 AM.

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