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Understanding literature has sometimes been described as a struggle between the text and its reader. To understand and to evaluate modern novels places great demands on their readers in particular if they are non-native. In the following paper Nicole Lange develops practical steps in order to cope with the problems of understanding and evaluating The Handmaid's Tale in the foreign language classroom.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: General Evaluation of the Novel in Class - Basic Problems and Ideas for a Possible Approach

Nicole Lange

Table of contents

0 Introduction

1 General problems: Margaret Atwood´s dystopian novel

2 Preliminary remarks

2.1 The topic
2.2 The group of learners
2.3 Educational objectives and methods
2.3.1 General teaching aims and consequences for the methodical procedure
2.3.2 Educational objectives of literature teaching
2.3.3 Suggestions for a lesson plan
2.4 Survey of the suggested course of the teaching unit - a double period.

3 Concrete ideas for a possible approach: material and procedure

3.1 Phase I: Introduction: repetition and transition - the painting by Joan Miró
3.2 Phase II: Transfer - Are there any questions? What does the novel mean to you?
3.3 Phase III: Discussion of different opinions in class
3.4 Ideas for further tasks

4 Summary

5 Bibliography

6 Notes

0 Introduction

The following term paper deals with one of several aspects that must be considered if the novel The Handmaid´s Tale by Margaret Atwood is used as a piece of literature in class. It tries to answer the following questions concerning a final teaching unit after a period of discussion about the novel: how can a general evaluation of the novel be successfully planned and then developed with the pupils? Which problems must be taken into consideration?

In order to make it possible to get a general idea of the subject, this essay will, in a first step, provide some more details about the novel itself and about its characteristics as a utopian, or correctly dystopian novel, as well as the specific problems that follow from these pieces of information.

After that the second part makes some preliminary remarks about the concrete topic of the lesson, about the group of pupils for which the planned lesson would be suitable; it also informs about the teaching aims and mentions further details about the methods which should be used to make the discussion in class as effective as possible. Furthermore a table serves as a summary of the planned teaching unit, before the third part gives more details.

The third part presents in detail what a possible approach to the problem could look like. Material is given, and the teaching process is being explained. For the sake of completeness, however, the following comment should not be missing: as this essay mainly wants to describe the whole teaching unit and reasons for this approach, the material is integrated into the course of the description and not provided again separately at the end. If the transparencies correspond with the presented worksheets etc., it is mentioned when they are used, but it then did not seem necessary to add a similar information in form of a transparency again. The summary emphasizes once again the most important problems and ideas of this description of a possible approach.

The pieces of literature quoted and listed in the bibliography can only be regarded as a choice of most important titles concerning the topic directly.

Finally it should be mentioned that this essay is certainly not able to present necessarily the ideal approach and that it does not lay claim to do so. Instead it tries to provide some basic ideas which should serve as one idea for realization that can provoke criticism, lead to rethinking, changing, new creative ideas - as school always means a variety of topics, different pupils and groups, the different approaches should be as manifold.

1 General problems: Margaret Atwood´s dystopian novel

As a part of a seminar, which took place at the English Department of Münster university in the winter term 2000/01 and which was entitled Selected Utopian Novels in Class, two such novels were discussed, namely Margaret Atwood´s The Handmaid´s Tale and Ray Bradbury´s Fahrenheit 451. In the course of this class some characteristic features of utopian novels that are important for the preparation and realization of a teaching unit which deals with such a novel have become obvious. The most basic problems will be presented here in order to provide a basis for the following descriptions.

Each of the novels might be of some difficulty for learners, as a novel is a long piece of literature with a big amount of unknown words, a probably complex plot as well as a certain linguistic complexity and a text that always comprises the poblem of accessibility. These aspects demand a careful selection of a text that is not too difficult for the group; it might even be selected together with the pupils. Furthermore a thoughtful preparation of the lessons concerning the organisation of the reading process, the treatment of new vocabulary, the question how to get the course started and how to check textual comprehension as well as concerning the actual textual analysis and working with the text and different topics, is important. Full-length novels should not be read before the end of the Sekundarstufe I.

However, utopian novels might be of a special difficulty which is created by their characteristic topic and plot: often it might appear difficult for pupils to identify with the story and one or more of the characters, and as a result, a lack of interest or motivation to talk about the text can develop.
On the other hand, this means a challenge for both pupils and teacher; and with an adequate preparation for the teaching unit the utopian novel can turn out to have a great potential for discussion. It might be exhausting, confusing and exciting (1) , but that is just why it is a good possibility of thinking about our society and future and our own personality and life.
Concerning the difficulties on the linguistic level the novels which are recommended for teaching purposes vary. The Handmaid´s Tale is one of the more demanding texts, as far as language, topics, names, allusions etc. are concerned, and should be discussed with learners of English as a foreign language in forms 12 or 13.

Another important aspect must not be forgotten here, as it is of such a great importance if you want to understand the complexity of the matter of discussion: dealing with utopian novels in class means, due to the just described difficulty of these novels, a lot of work and effort for the teacher, if the teaching unit is supposed to be a successful one. Especially with a novel like The Handmaid´s Tale, for which no didactic edition exists (2), it is not easy to find the right approach to the text and the different topics. Very often the teacher has to think about a possible solution himself (3), and very often methods that differ from usual classroom procedure must be used. In general it will be necessary to put, more often than usual, emphasis on creative tasks, and to follow the method of an inductive rather than deductive teaching: the teacher does not make use of too much guidance and does not constantly present information to the pupils; instead they come to conclusions using their own knowledge and ideas in individual work and are only led by the teacher. Many examples could be given here, but perhaps it will be enough just to mention possibilities like the reading log (4) or the creative task Homework Restaurant (5) to explain what is meant in this case. The following ideas for a possible approach to a final teaching unit concerning The Handmaid´s Tale will try to pay attention to the listed complex of problems.

Last but not least some words should be said about this special novel and its writer. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, born in November 1939 and living in Toronto. Her texts comprise many genres, and Atwood already won several prizes for them. Among other things she has written ten novels. Her works are internationally known, very popular in Canada and the USA, and they are used for school purposes (6). The Handmaid´s Tale was first published in 1985. In 16 parts it tells the story of young Offred and her life as a handmaid in the fundamentalist republic of Gilead in 21st century America. In this totalitarian world of religious fundamentalism, authoritarian hierarchy, strict rules and severe punishments for misbehaviour, it is now, after the loss of her family, her role to breed for her Commander and his wife. Finally she manages to escape, and although we are not exactly informed in the end, there is some hope that she is able to rescue herself. Finally the Historical Notes confront the reader with a multivocal and 'optimistic' coda: in the year 2195, historians talk about her and her life based on a document in form of some tape cassettes on the occasion of the ”Twelfth Symposium of Gileadian Studies” (7) which is supposed to take place at the University of Denay in Nunavit. Denying how terrible the past has been and seeming not to understand how the creation of this state happened and that it could probably happen any time again the scholars see it as their job ”not to censure but to understand” (8). This means that the writer ironically attacks those historians who do not condemn a theocratic and totalitarian state but accept it as a fact. Therefore they are constantly running the risk of making the same mistakes again themselves.

2 Preliminary remarks

2.1 The topic

The topic of the suggested teaching unit is a final, general evaluation of the novel The Handmaid´s Tale in class. The decisive aspect of this lesson is the participation of the pupils, who, giving their opinion, finally lead themselves to a discussion about and evaluation of the novel they have been talking about for quite a while.

2.2 The group of learners

As stated before, the novel should be discussed in an English course with learners of forms 12 or 13 because of its difficulties. It would be certainly desirable to talk about this text with a lively and able group of pupils, however, this novel might also be seen as a chance to fascinate and therefore motivate a less interested group to read and discuss such a text.

2.3 Educational objectives and methods

2.3.1 General teaching aims and consequences for the methodical procedure

The teaching unit aims at an active participation of the pupils. Their attention has been hopefully attracted and an access been found in the lessons before. Now it is their turn to form and utter their opinion about the text they have read. It is important that the teacher tries to be in the background and gives the pupils time and opportunity to say what they think so that finally a discussion can develop.

2.3.2 Educational objectives of literature teaching

For the realization of a lesson like this it is essential to take into consideration the educational objectives of literature teaching (9). It is not possible here to give an overall view of the development of these objectives (10) , but at least some ideas, which will be fundamental for the presented ideas for an approach, should be described.
The literary text in the classroom is first of all certainly important for the aspect language and communicative competence in general. When discussing a novel or an alike text, pupils are dealing with the language: they need to work on a complex task, to understand the text and to use the language for the discussion of the material. Dealing with a text like that means language improvement and practice of working with complex tasks.
On another level they deal with the text analysing it as a novel: discussing such a text means analysing the constituent elements, the setting, the plot, the theme, the narrative perspective, the different characters, the language, and various techniques of analysing itself. (11)

However, education in general is in the first place not aiming at professional knowledge only, as the basis of the German Richtlinien, article seven of the constitution for the country North Rhine-Westphalia, shows:

(1) Ehrfurcht vor Gott, Achtung vor der Würde des Menschen und Bereitschaft zum sozialen Handeln zu wecken, ist vornehmstes Ziel der Erziehung.
(2) Die Jugend soll erzogen werden im Geiste der Menschlichkeit, der Demokratie und der Freiheit, zur Duldsamkeit und zur Achtung vor der Überzeugung des anderen, zur Verantwortung für die Erhaltung der natürlichen Lebensgrundlagen, in Liebe zu Volk und Heimat, zur Völkergemeinschaft und Friedensgesinnung. (12)

This means that consequently education in general and in foreign language teaching must be more than just professional knowledge; instead it has to fulfil the following conditions:

Die gymnasiale Oberstufe fördert den Bildungsprozess der Schülerinnen und Schüler in seiner personalen, sozialen und fachlichen Dimension. Bildung wird dabei als Lern- und Entwicklungsprozess verstanden, der sich auf das Individuum bezieht und in dem kognitives und emotionales, fachliches und fachübergreifendes Lernen, individuelle und soziale Erfahrungen, Theorie und Praxis miteinander verknüpft und ethische Kategorien vermittelt und angeeignet werden. Erziehung und Unterricht sollen [also] zu einer wissenschaftspropädeutischen Ausbildung führen und Hilfen geben zur persönlichen Entfaltung in sozialer Verantwortlichkeit (13).

In modern literature teaching therefore, first of all it has to be the meaning of the text in the foreign language that turns out to be the decisive element. The following fields play an important role for classroom procedure: a text reveals connections with other subjects, e.g. history, and makes the pupil realize that society influences literature and that literature therefore often has to say something about our society.

Besides the meaning of a text can educate the learners: it can contribute to the development of the pupil into a social, emancipated and enlighted human being and into a person who shows solidarity and responsibility. A text with its information about different societies, people, different lives and fates might help the learner to find an own identity and personality, to acquire critical faculties, a set of values, an own standpoint, empathy and the ability to communicate. It should also help the group of pupils to deal with their own present situations and probably situations in the future as well as provide an orientation for them in a fast-moving world of multitude and media. Another point is the fact that literature gives room for imagination (14).

Exactly these aspects and the role literature teaching takes in education are again clearly recorded in didactic handbooks and the German school guidelines:

Durch die Förderung individueller Fähigkeiten wie die Befähigung zu verantwortungsvollem Handeln sollen unter anderem Sozialisation und verantwortliche Selbstbestimmung nach demokratischen Grundsätzen erreicht werden. Der Beitrag des Englischunterrichts zur Annäherung an übergeordnete Zielbereiche besteht darin, im Vermittlungsprozess von Sprach- und Kulturkompetenz den Abbau ethnozentrischer Sichtweisen einzuleiten und die Bereitschaft zu wecken, fremdkulturellen Facetten mit Offenheit zu begegnen. Diese Grundhaltung schließt Toleranz gegenüber fremdkulturellen Alltagsroutinen, Normen, Wertvorstellungen, Lebensvollzügen und Konventionen ein (15).

The guidelines emphasize that learning English as a foreign language comprises many different fields and that literature is one of them which must contain again various aspects and be taught with the help of different methods so that it is finally aimed at the described main objectives:
Die Schülerinnen und Schüler sollen [auch im Englischunterricht letztlich] ihre individuellen Fähigkeiten weiter entfalten und nutzen[, ...] sich mit Werten, Wertsystemen und Orientierungsmustern auseinander setzen können, um tragfähige Antworten auf die Fragen des eigenen Lebens zu finden[,...] ihre sozialen Kompetenzen entwickeln und in der aktiven Mitwirkung am Leben in einem demokratisch verfassten Gemeinwesen unterstützt werden,
[ ....] auf ein Leben in einem zusammenwachsenden Europa und in einer international verflochtenen Welt vorbereitet [und] bei ihrer Studien und Berufswahl unterstützt werden. (16)

All this means that literature is more than studying a text and its language. The pupils should take something with them and learn something for themselves and their own persons and lives; they should realize that literature as an important part of our life can be experienced, understood, assessed and created: it is the human being as a whole that is addressed. Hopefully they will also be motivated for private reading. Only a combination of language improvement and individual development can assure that the pupils finally manage to achieve what is declared as a main objective to which learning English as a foreign language contributes: in the guidelines it is called ”Interkulturelle Handlungsfähigkeit” (17).

A final synthesis should be achieved: with a discussion and the realization of creative tasks the pupils use the language and their own ideas to produce something new in class, e.g. a new text, and they manage to develop their own personalities by means of the discussion about a piece of literature.

The following quotations are directly connected with the educational objectives of literature teaching in our time and might express more vividly or confirm what has just been said:

[...] why should you learn the language of art? To answer this question, we have to return to the main reason you are in school - so you become a complete, reasonably happy, and effective human being. In school you can learn less painfully than you had to find out everything yourself. You can learn what people are like, how they communicate, what they think is important, how they correspond to new feelings and ideas, and which events in the past shaped the world as we see it today. Art deals with all these things. But you will hardly recognize them unless you learn the language of art. It is just like watching professional football on TV: You have to know the rules and strategy of the game if you want to enjoy it completely. Otherwise, you will see what everyone else sees; however, like some viewers, you will lose the track of the ball (18).

William Golding, writer of Lord of the Flies, says concerning this topic:

Our humanity, our capacity for living together in a full and fruitful life, does not reside in knowing things for the sake of knowing them or even in the power to exploit our surroundings ... Our humanity rests in the capacity to make value judgements, unscientific assessments, the power to decide that this is right, that wrong, this ugly, that beautiful, this just, that unjust. Yet, these are precisely the questions which ‘Science’ is not qualified to answer with its measurements and analysis (19).

Finally another quotation from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. deals with the importance of humanity in our world:

[It is important] that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with...humanity...to encourage them to make a better world (20).

In order to do justice to these objectives the teaching units need to offer opportunities for the pupils to realize what has just been described. In general it is helpful if the teacher provides the necessary information or just provocation or situation and then tries to stay in the background sticking to inductive teaching. If you want to teach the pupils that literature means more than words, means something for the human being and probably something different for everyone, you will need to treat the text like that using various methods in order to touch upon different things and you will need to create an atmosphere in the classroom that reflects this attitude: it has to be made sure that the pupils have the feeling that each of the uttered opinions is taken seriously and that the interpretation of the teacher is not the only correct one since art is open to several interpretations. Only if the pupils are in the centre of the lesson and encouraged like that can a conversation or discussion really develop.

2.3.3 Suggestions for a lesson plan

By making use of different methods the following lesson plan tries to do justice to these educational objectives.
By means of the first phase the teacher tries to introduce the character and meaning of art and to rise the pupils´ awareness of the problem that will be discussed. However, they have to realize the connection themselves only with the help of the teacher´s questions.
After that, going back to the text as a starting point, the pupils and their ideas are placed in the centre of the lesson. Their imagination has been stimulated before, and now they should be able to draw some final conclusions, with further adequate helpful material, concerning this novel and probably literature in general as well as their meaning for human life, that will lead to a discussion.

2.4 Survey of the suggested course of the teaching unit - a double period

I. Introduction, repetition and transition: Joan Miró - Der Sonnenschlucker

timeteacher/pupilsmethods/ media
  • the teacher informs the course members about Joan Miró
  • the pupils describe the painting/give possible interpretations
  • the teacher provides the pupils with unknown words
  • adding/ reading out one possible interpretation
  • finding parallels to the novel/repetition of some essential aspects (human being/ situation of fear/ hope etc. ....)
  • picture and novel as pieces of art: there are several possible interpretations! What happens when we talk about literature? How do we form our opinion?.....
interpretation (German text);
probably use of one quotation (---> Feldman)

II. Transfer

  • The starting point is the last sentence of the novel: Are there any questions? ---> What does the novel mean to you?
  • Task: Write down your ideas, finally try to form one sentence expressing your ideas (To me, The Handmaid´s Tale is .....) and make plans for a presentation of your ideas!
  • The pupils then get some time to read the statements first and think about them
individual work;
possibly going back to reading-log;
use of dictionaries; statements

III. Discussions of different opinions in class (second lesson)

  • the pupils comment on the given statements, compare them with their own ideas ---> discussion
  • the teacher just helps/ works with the pupils, explains unknown words, gives further ideas/ collects some ideas ......
several statements;
list of helpful terms for a discussion

3 Concrete ideas for a possible approach: material and procedure

The following part of this essay will try to give some concrete ideas for the realization in practice. In the following parts the different phases of the suggested teaching unit are described in detail: material is presented and its use in the classroom explained. The explanations draw on essential information given in the preliminary remarks.

3.1 Phase I: Introduction: repetition and transition - the painting by Joan Miró

This first phase is a kind of creative introduction and supposed to have the pupils realize the basic ideas concerning a piece of art before they will talk about the text: art means something, it is open for interpretation, it is a product of the human being and can mean something for the life of a person, etc.

Therefore it is the first step in this double period to present a transparency of Joan Miró´s picture Der Sonnenschlucker and to talk about it for the first 25-30 minutes. First of all the teacher can ask the pupils if they know the painting or the artist and then give them some important facts about Miró and his life and work. A second, general question could then be: ”What can you see?” The pupils describe the painting, the colours and shapes, and talk about their first impression, while the teacher is helping and providing them with the meaning of unknown words.

After that, in a next step, the discussion is slowly moving towards the level of interpretation: the pupils try to put in words what the painting could mean, the teacher reads out one possible, probably provoking interpretation (21). Probably pupils will assume that the painting could talk about a human being and his feelings, about fear and hope in a difficult situation etc. There will be different opinions but probably many different ideas.

A next question after this interpretation of the painting could be: ”Do you see any parallels to our text The Handmaid´s Tale?” Here the class could repeat some essential aspects, e.g.: both the picture and the text present a human being in a basic, special situation of life. We see danger on the one hand, but also hope on the other hand. There might be a gap between reality and thoughts and feelings. Probably many more examples can be found.

The important point about this task is that the class is not supposed to give a perfect and most convincing interpretation or definitive solutions. It is the teacher´s task to make obvious by means of his behaviour that there is no definitive right or wrong and that even the formulation of questions is helpful. He should wait patiently for the pupils´ ideas, encourage them to let their imagination work and accept the uttered ideas since the task functions as a preparation for the whole double period and conveys essential thoughts.

Because of this the pupils should, in a final step, also get the chance to realize what they have just been doing with the painting. In a discussion the teacher can lead them to the essential insight that art is open to several interpretations and that talking about art and forming an opinion always involves personal opinions, the influence of society, etc. They will recognize that the use of language plays an important role, too, as far as the wording of a thought is concerned.

But the most important insight is the fact that the person who looks at the painting or reads a text gives a meaning to this piece of art, and even if there might be an interpretation that seems to be more convincing for more people, there is still always an interaction between art and the human being dealing with it. Probably one of the quotations, the one by Feldman (22), here used in the preliminary remarks, could be read out and help to make clear what is meant.

This phase serves as an introduction but also as a transition to the main problem of the teaching unit: the novel The Handmaid´s Tale has been discussed for quite a while: how can we now judge the text? Do you like it or not? What does the story probably mean? What can we learn?

When the class tries to answer these questions the ideas they got with the discussion of the picture should be helpful in many regards.

Below you find a scanned version of the painting, (23) which is shown to the pupils and a sheet with information about the artist with one possible interpretation. They should get a copy of both after the introductory phase for their files.


VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2001.]

· a contemporary of Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall
· born in Barcelona on April 20th., 1893; died on Christmas in 1983
· first he devoted himself to cubism, then to dadaism and surrealism
· he had contacts with poets; influenced by Freud´s ideas he tried to discover and depict the reality of metamorphoses, dreams and the subconscious
· an obituary states that he was a true poet.

Considering the ”Sonnenschlucker” just as a structure of strokes, i.e. in black and white, he may cut a fine figure, but altogether he stays still pale and without any profundity. It only appears, if colour is added to the picture: a bright red and a deep blue, a speck of yellow and a dot of green. Now it becomes obvious that Miró intended to do more. All of a sudden his man represents something very vividly. One has got really the impression that he is sitting behind bars, feeling happy and unhappy at the same time, but from one moment to the next his situation changes far-reachingly, and it is not a lost cause any more. It is hope that stirs. One could say that he had a narrow escape. He does not really trust his luck yet, he only risks a glance at first. After that he sees daylight, and at the sight of what is happening to him he is deeply moved. It hits him right into the heart and fills him with great joy. He thaws internally. His heart is filled with warmth. His life has fortune on its side again.

3.2 Phase II: Transfer - Are there any questions? What does the novel mean to you?

The next phase is closely connected with the introduction. The teacher now creates a transfer to the text and presents a second transparency just by means of the following two sentences: Are there any questions? What does the novel mean to you?

The first question is the provoking last question of the historical notes as a part of the novel (25). Here it is used as a stimulus to make the class think about this statement. By means of this starting point the pupils should be encouraged to find out what questions they have got and what the text means to them.

They should now, for the next 10 or more minutes, work silently and individually, the transparency in the field of vision, possibly using their reading log - if this device has been introduced before - and using dictionaries.
It is their task to write down their own ideas concerning the two questions. As well everyone should at least try to form one sentence expressing the most important ideas starting with To me, The Handmaid´s Tale is.... (26).
They should also try to think about a way to put their ideas in words. The teacher goes through the class and helps when and where necessary.

After that the pupils ideas are not discussed at once. First they get a worksheet with a choice of different statements concerning the novel (27), a list that shows value judgements of scholars right beside those of pupils. These statements talk about a variety of aspects, for example:
the language aspect in human life, the literary quality of the novel as well as the narrative technique and the art of making a novel show fictional life instead of theories, the readers addressed, the femality of the text, human ignorance, humanity, anonymity, danger, terror and warning, despair and hope, optimism and pessimism, fundamentalism, etc. Many further ideas are provided here.

They have some time, about 10 minutes again, to read them, think about them, compare them with their own views.

3.3 Phase III: Discussion of different opinions in class

Everything that has been done by now was a preparation for the actual topic of the teaching unit. The time that is now left, probably nearly the whole next lesson, should be a discussion about the evaluation of the novel that takes into consideration the thoughts of the pupils as well as the selected statements concerning the text.

The class can see the statements everyone has already got for himself in form of a transparency as well. Teacher and pupils work together and try to come to different conclusions; the teacher should be in a helping position, he could hand out a list of helpful terms for a discussion; could explain unknown words, give further ideas, collect ideas, sum up. This means that the teacher should only direct the discussion without emphasizing his own opinion, which does not mean that he cannot give an own example for a possible interpretation in the course of the discussion, e.g.: ”To me, The Handmaid´s Tale is a story about important characteristics of the human being, e.g. language, power, thinking, ignorance..., and the recurrent catastrophes we cause.” Such a contribution sets an example, gives probably a new idea and can be valuable for the conversation:
some pupils will like the novel, some probably not, others can comment on the language as well as the meaning; for some the novel might say something about human behaviour, about ignorance, it might be a warning not to give room for violent governments, it probably reveals the relationship between writing as an art and the human being, etc.; for some these interpretations might go too far, and for them the novel probably has less interesting aspects. Certainly they should give reasons for their opinion in any case.

This essay cannot and does not want to present all the different elements and aspects - many of which have been already touched in some of the seminar´s ideas for approaches to different topics concerning the course of the discussion of the novel - that might be found in the text; a look at the list of statements might already provide an idea of a possible development of this discussion.
It is only the aim of this argumentation to show that different opinions exist, will exist in class and need to be discussed, and give an idea for one possible approach that manages to make sure that everyone in the classroom finally has had an opportunity to form his own opinion and to discuss this opinion with the others.

With regard to the modern objectives of literature teaching described above it is indeed important to let the discussion of a text find an end in a lesson or teaching unit during which the pupils have an opportunity to reflect the things they have read and learned and to come to conclusions, to find something they take out of the text and home with them. In the following the list of different statements concerning the novel is shown (28).


1. ”[...] The Handmaid´s Tale presents its reader with an exercise in learning how to read for survival”. (Bergmann, p. 847)

2. ”An excellent novel about the direction our lives are taking .... Read it while it´s still allowed. (Houston Chronicle)” (Fawcett Crest)

3. ”This boldly political and darkly comic novel illustrates Atwood´s grasp of the cultural, historical, philosophical and literary facets of Western tradition, and the role of women within that frame”. (McCombs (a), p. 280)

4. ”The novel is [...] a political statement and a ‘female text’ (at least, one written by a woman)”. (Bergmann, p. 853)

5. ”A sly and beautifully crafted story about the fate of one ordinary young woman caught off guard by extraordinary events... A compelling fable for our time. (Glamour)” (Fawcett Crest)

6. ”Atwood´s tale makes a political point simply by [...] the little evils we tend to ignore [...] (The Boston Globe)” (Fawcett Crest)

7. ”But the novel succeeds so beautifully as a work of art because its argument is made through the humanity (and inhumanity) of its characters. (Newsday)” (Fawcett Crest)

8. ”A real shocker...We the readers are an audience held captive by the pity and terror we feel at this cautionary tale. (Chicago Tribune Book World)” (Fawcett Crest)

9. ”[....], but it [the book] does not yield for despair. (Ms.)” (Fawcett Crest)

10. ”[...] Throughout her literary career [...] Margaret Atwood has impressed and delighted the readers with her wit, lyric virtuosity, and imaginative acuity. But never before has she written a book in which these qualities were orchestrated so perfectly..... (San Francisco Chronicle)” (Fawcett Crest)

11. ”Particularly striking are two opposite reductive responses to Atwood´s fiction [...] - an optimistic and a pessimistic one”. (Staels, introduction)

12. ”To me, The Handmaid´s Tale was the stumbling-block that made me realize that I/ people should appreciate things and conditions as they are now that we are able to love and to do as we please”. (Bracht, p. 236)

13. ”To me, The Handmaid´s Tale shows the disastrous effects of religious and ideological fundamentalism and makes us sensitive to current developments especially in Islamic countries. In addition the novel reflects the growing anonymity of our computer-dependent society”. (Bracht, p. 236)

14. ”To me, The Handmaid´s Tale is that kind of novel which helps me to make up my own image of the present and future world”. (Bracht, p. 236)

15. ”I would not give this book to my grandmother”. (Cf. Bracht, p. 237)

16. ”One of the strengths of Atwood´s novel is the way [...] principles are turned into fictional life”. (Nischik, p. 141)

3.4 Ideas for further tasks

Although the above teaching unit is supposed to be the final one concerning the text, it would be interesting and motivating for the pupils to get some further tasks. Two of the various existing possibilities are mentioned here:
the teacher could, for example, offer the class a list of selected literature for private reading and as well as a preparation for university procedures.
Another creative task, further away from the text itself, would be the realization of a final project (29) : this means that a collection of texts is created by the class as each of the pupils produces a short text about his ideas, opinions, open questions or interpretation of the text. This collection of final statements records the multitude of results for the future and makes it available for others; it also does justice to both the character and problems of the novel and the educational objectives of modern literature teaching:
the pupils can express their opinions and ideas, probably also concerning present situations, they reflect the text again, produce a new text themselves and have to pay attention to linguistic rules, need to take into consideration techniques of presentation, etc.
Therefore this task might be a really suitable and rewarding conclusion of the discussion of The Handmaid´s Tale.

4 Summary

The approach presented is, like stated before, one possibility that takes into consideration important aspects of literature teaching in general and pays special attention to the characteristics of a novel like The Handmaid´s Tale. It could be certainly varied and supplemented.

Even if this essay only allows a rather general and short description of the teaching unit and cannot go into detail concerning fundamental theoretical reflections, it hopefully manages to show that it can be a great chance to discuss quite a difficult novel for which no didactic edition exists - a chance that does not take too much preparation and effort in comparison with the results hoped-for; and that it might sometimes be helpful to tread new paths by using different methods.

It remains to be said that the teaching unit has been put in practice in the seminar about Selected Utopian Novels in Class and that the approach seemed to be quite possible to realize as finally a fairly lively discussion about the evaluation of the novel and concerning various aspects developed.

5 Bibliography

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid´s Tale. Fawcett Crest: New York, 1986. (a)

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid´s Tale. Vintage: London, 1996. (b)

Bausch, Karl-Richard/Herbert Christ/Werner Hüllen/Hans-Jürgen Krumm (Hrsg.), Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht. Tübingen, Basel, 3. Auflage, 1995.

Bergmann, Harriet F., ”Teaching Them to Read: A Fishing Expedition in The Handmaid´s Tale”, College English 51:8 (1989), pp. 847-54.

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

Brumfit, Christopher J., Language and Literature Teaching: From Practice to Principle Oxford, New York, 1985.

Eggers, Theodor/Herbert Fendrich, “Ecce homo”. Bilder von Gott und Welt aus der modernen Kunst. Zu Grunderfahrungen des Menschen. Bonn, 1997.

Feldman, Edmund Burke, Becoming Human Through Art. Aesthetic Experience in the School. New Jersey, 1970.

Freese, Peter, “Vom Nutzen der ‘Nutzlosigkeit’: Zu den Aufgaben und Schwierigkeiten einer fremdsprachlichen Literaturdidaktik.” In: Freese, Peter/ Liesel Hermes (Hrsg.), Der Roman im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II. Theorie und Praxis (Paderborn: Schönigh, 2. Auflage 1989), pp. 11-46.

Gehring, Wolfgang, Englische Fachdidaktik. Eine Einführung. Berlin, 1999.

Hellwig, Karlheinz (ed.), Textdidaktik für den Fremdsprachenunterricht - isoliert oder integrativ? Tübingen, 1990.

Howells, Coral Ann, York Notes. The Handmaid´s Tale. London, fourth impression 1999.

Kramer, Jürgen, “Literaturunterricht - Das Ende als Anfang”. In: Kramer, Jürgen (Hrsg). 1996. Bestandsaufnahme Fremdsprachenunterricht (Stuttgart, 1996), pp. 247- 255.

Kröger, Susanne, ”Welcome to the Homework Restaurant. Differenzierende Hausaufgaben im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II”, Neusprachliche Mitteilungen (1999) 52:4, pp. 239-246.

McCombs, Judith (ed.), Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston, 1988.

McCombs, Judith/Carole L. Palmer, Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide. Boston, 1991.

Ministerium für Schule, Weiterbildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (Hrsg.), Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II - Gymnasien/ Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Englisch. Frechen, 1999.

Nischik, R. M., ”Back to future. Margaret Atwood´s Anti-Utopian Vision in The Handmaid´s Tale”. In: Englisch-Amerikanische Studien 5:1 (1987), pp. 139-148.

Real, Willi, ”Teaching English Novels In the Foreign Language Classroom”, http://telic.home.pages.de

Schier, Jürgen, Schülerorientierung als Leitprinzip des fremdsprachlichen Literaturunterrichts. Frankfurt, 1989.

Scholes, Robert "A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.", in: Klinkowitz, Jerome/John Somer (eds.), The Vonnegut Statement (Frogmore, St. Albans: Panther, 1975), pp. 94-119.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Atwood´s The Handmaid´s Tale. Cliff Notes. Lincoln, Nebraska, 1999.

Staels, Hilde, Margaret Atwood´s Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse. Tübingen, 1995.

6 Notes:

(1)  Compare: Max Bracht, ”‘Handmade Tales’- Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid´s Tale im produktionsorientierten Fremdsprachenunterricht”, Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52:4 (1999), 230.

(2)  Only the following two notes exist; they can be criticized in many regards: Coral Ann Howells, York Notes. The Handmaid´s Tale (London: fourth impression, 1999) and Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Atwood´s The Handmaid´s Tale. Cliff Notes (Lincoln; Nebraska: 1999).

(3) In the following explanations concerning teacher and pupils only one term is used as a generic term for both sexes.

(4)  Bracht, p. 232.

(5)  Susanne Kröger, ”Welcome to the Homework Restaurant. Differenzierende Hausaufgaben im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II”, Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52:4 (1999), 239-246.

(6)  For information see: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid´s Tale (Fawcett Crest, New York: 1986 (a) and Vintage, London: 1996 (b)); Bracht, p. 229 s.; internet sources.

(7)  Atwood (b), p. 311.

(8)  Ib., p. 315.

(9)  Compare for the following information and further details if not separately quoted: Ministerium für Schule, Weiterbildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (Hrsg.), Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II - Gymnasien/ Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Wesfalen (Frechen, 1999), in the following explanations mentioned as Richtlinien; see especially the introduction, chapter 1 and 2 and; cf. also: Bausch/Christ/Hüllen/Krumm, Handbuch Fremdsprachenunterricht (Tübingen, Basel, ³1995); Christopher J. Brumfit, Language and Literature Teaching: From Practice to Principle (New York, 1985); Karlheinz Hellwig (Hrsg.), Textdidaktik für den Fremdsprachenunterricht - isoliert oder integrativ? (Tübingen, 1990); Jürgen Kramer, “Literaturunterricht - Das Ende als Anfang”, in: Jürgen Kramer (Hrsg.), Bestandsaufnahme Fremdsprachenunterricht (Stuttgart, 1996); Jürgen Schier, Schülerorientierung als Leitprinzip des fremdsprachlichen Literaturunterrichts (Frankfurt, 1989).

(10)  For information concerning the historical development of English as a subject and the objectives see: Wolfgang Gehring, Englische Fachdidaktik. Eine Einführung (Berlin: 1999), pp. 8-39.

(11) Information based on: Gehring, p. 140.

(12)  Richtlinien, p. X.

(13)  Ib., p. XI.

(15)  Compare: Peter Freese, “Vom Nutzen der ‘Nutzlosigkeit’: Zu den Aufgaben und Schwierigkeiten einer fremdsprachlichen Literaturdidaktik”, in: Peter Freese/Liesel Hermes (Hrsg.), Der Roman im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II. Theorie und Praxis (Paderborn: ²1989), p. 22 s.; and Richtlinien, pp. 7-9.

(15) Gehring, p. 35.

(16) Richtlinien, p. XIII s.

(17)  Ib., p. 7.

(18)  Edmund Burke Feldman, Becoming Human Through Art. Aesthetic Experience in the School (New Jersey: 1970), p. 247.

(19) The quotation from Golding is taken from: Freese, p. 23.

(20)  Robert Scholes, "A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.", in: Klinkowitz, Jerome/John Somer (eds.), The Vonnegut Statement (Frogmore, St. Albans: Panther, 1975), p. 109.

(21)  Both the information and interpretation are actually in German, which are presented here:
· Zeitgenosse von Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall
· geboren am 20. April 1893 in Barcelona, gestorben Weihnachten 1983
· wandte sich zuerst dem Kubismus, dann dem Dadaismus und Surrealismus zu · versuchte, angeregt durch Kontakte mit Dichtern und beeinflußt von den Ideen Freuds, die Realität der Metarmorphosen, der Träume und des Unterbewußtseins zu entdecken und darzustellen
· ein Nachruf sagt, er sei ein wahrer Poet gewesen

Betrachtet man den “Sonnenschlucker” nur als Strichmännchen, d.h. schwarz auf weiß, macht er zwar eine gute Figur, bleibt jedoch insgesamt noch blaß und ohne Tiefenwirkung. Die stellt sich erst ein, wenn Farbe ins Bild kommt: ein leuchtendes Rot und ein tiefes Blau, ein Fleckchen Gelb und ein Tupfer Grün. Jetzt zeigt sich, daß Miró mehr im Sinn hatte. Mit einem Mal stellt sein Mann plastisch etwas dar. Man hat förmlich den Eindruck, als sitze er hinter Gittern, mit einem lachenden und einem weinenden Auge, doch von einem zum anderen Augenblick verändert sich seine Situation tiefgreifend und ist nicht mehr aussichtslos. Hoffnung keimt auf. Er ist, so könnte man sagen, mit einem blauen Auge davongekommen. Noch traut er seinem Glück nicht ganz, riskiert zunächst nur ein Auge. Dann geht ihm ein Licht auf und angesichts dessen, was ihm widerfährt, das Auge über. Es trifft ihn mitten ins Herz und erfüllt ihn mit großer Freude. Er taut innerlich auf. Ihm wird warm ums Herz. Sein Leben steht (wieder) unter einem glücklichen Stern.

It might also be justified to use the original material here as quite complicated terms occur, and especially the interpretation is quite long, but both parts are not in the centre of the attention. If different material is used, it should be rather short and comprehensible.

(22)  Compare chapter 2.3.2 of this essay.

(23)  The picture is taken from: Theodor Eggers/Herbert Fendrich, “Ecce homo”. Bilder von Gott und Welt aus der modernen Kunst. Zu den Grunderfahrungen des Menschen (Bonn: 1997). The painting is used as a transparency in class. We would like to thank the VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn for permission to reproduce this painting in this context.

(24)  Original information and interpretation: Eggers/Fendrich, p. 4 s.

(25) Atwood (b), p. 324.

(26)  Compare the suggestion in: Bracht, p. 235.

(27)  Compare p. 21. A variety of more opinions can be found in: Judith McCombs/Carole L. Palmer, Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide (Boston: 1991); and in the further mentioned secondary literature, especially in: Judith McCombs (ed.), Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood (Boston: 1988).

(28)  Statements 2 and 5-10 are taken from: Atwood (a); 12-15 can be found in Bracht, p. 236; 1 and 2 are from Harriet Bergmann, ”Teaching Them to Read: A Fishing Expedition in The Handmaid´s Tale”, College English 51:8 (1989), p. 847 and p. 853; 3 is based on McCombs, p. 280; 11 on Hilde Staels, Margaret Atwood´s Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse (Tübingen: 1995), chapter II, 1; and finally 16 on R. M. Nischik, ”Back to future. Margaret Atwood´s Anti-Utopian Vision in The Handmaid´s Tale”, Englisch-Amerikanische Studien 5:1 (1987), p. 141. (There are similar statements to be found in this article on p. 139 and p. 147.) This sheet is used as a transparency in class as well. Probably unknown words are underlined only here to show where difficulties might occur.

(29)  Compare concerning this suggestion: Bracht, p. 235.

Last Updated by Dr. Willi Real on Tuesday, 1 July, 2003 at 10:45 AM.

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