English & EAL

The Handmaid's Tale Essay Topic Brainstorm

Lisa Tran

October 29, 2020

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[Modified Video Transcription]

What's up everyone! So, I want to get a new segment started and it's pretty much the ‘essay questions with Lisa Tran’ segment. And basically, what this includes is every now and then I will choose a topic on one of your suggestions of whatever book, or film you’re studying, and break that down together with you on camera, on YouTube. So, if you like the idea of that, then make sure you give this video a thumbs up so that I know that this is something that you're super keen on and that you'll find helpful. 

So, I've taken liberties (since this is the first one that we've ever done) of choosing my own essay topic that I was interested in doing. It's based on The Handmaid's Tale, and if any of you have read this or watched it (it's a TV series on Hulu) I have read and watched both and it has just been sensational, so I wanted to basically break down this prompt with you. If it's something that you haven't watched, or if you haven't read it, that's not a problem at all because the skills that I will be teaching you when it comes to breaking down an essay topic will be invaluable when it comes to actually applying it to your own studies. So, let's get started. 

The Handmaid's Tale Quick Summary

Just as a really quick summary (that will probably butcher the overall meaning and the experience that you get from the book, but I don't want to really spoil it for you either), The Handmaid’s Tale is set in this future world where America, or the United States, has become a dystopian society, and women in particular are reduced to nothing more than just a child bearing species. Men are in charge and these women, who are deemed to be people who can give birth, are kept alive and kept around in these rich people's homes or people who are higher up in the hierarchy, and they basically have to have sex with the male leader of the home and just create children, and that is their purpose. If they're no longer fertile, then they'll pretty much be out-casted from society and rejected. 

As a book, it's very thought-provoking because it's set in the future. Of course, this is something that we cannot guarantee won't actually happen. It's really scary to see how a world that was progressive (because they lived in modern American society, there was a lot of free movement happening, there were same-sex relationships that were out in the open, people were taking contraceptives) regressed, and it went back to a lot of old values that we had moved on from. It really opens up a pot of questions that you can ask about where we’re going as a society, where we think we're going as a society and where we'll actually end up. 

That's just my quick two minute spiel. If you wanted to get your hands on the book then I highly recommend it - I'll pop it down in the description box below (on Youtube). 

Part 1: Brainstorm

The question here is ‘Atwood’s concerns in The Handmaid's Tale go beyond women's freedom’ Discuss.

 So, the first thing I always do is I look at the keywords; we've got ‘Atwood’s concerns’, ‘go beyond’ and ‘women's freedom’

The reason why we look at keywords is because we want to confirm to ourselves (as the writer of this essay), that we are going to stay focused and not go off topic with the essay topic, and the keywords will ensure that not only we stay on topic, but they emphasize the ideas that we really need to focus on. So, let's break down each of the keywords individually.

‘Atwood’s concerns’ 

This means that we have to focus on the author's intention or message in writing The Handmaid's Tale. We'd be thinking about ‘what ideas does she criticize or condemn?’, or ‘what does she endorse on the other hand?’

‘go beyond’

So, ‘go beyond’ is a very straightforward way of saying that an essay that is only focused on women's freedom probably won't be holistic or well-rounded enough. We have to look beyond the obvious. 

‘women’s freedom’

The third one is ‘women's freedom’. So, what does this mean? To live in a patriarchal society, to be constantly monitored by guards and potential eyes. 

It's very easy to slip into just speaking about handmaids. Like I mentioned before, there's a male lead in the house who is the highest up in the hierarchy. He has a wife as well. Serena Joy is a perfect example of someone who on the surface ranks as the highest in female roles, because she is the wife of the commander. So, we see things from her perspective.

Part 2: Main Arguments

From this exploration of the key words, I can come up with two main body paragraphs. The two ideas are one:

‘To live in a chilling, post-modernism dystopia, Atwood showcases the evils of the patriarchy

My second one is:

‘Moreover, Atwood reveals how, despite being at the top of the female hierarchy as commander’s wives, even they suffer’

Let's have a look at both of these ideas individually. 

‘To live in a chilling, post-modernism dystopia, Atwood showcases the evils of the patriarchy’

Some of my rationale behind this idea include one: Offred, who is our protagonist. Offred is actually not her real name, and because Offred is not her real name, she therefore represents any type of handmaid. She's just another one of them with a name assigned to her. Our identity is connected with our name, so her identity, which is what makes her feel human, is completely shredded from her. She has trouble remembering what she even used to look like.

The second thing is that it's dehumanizing. It doesn't matter whether Offred is intelligent, educated or even beautiful, what matters are viable ovaries and therefore, she's classified as a handmaid, and this is her last chance at being able to survive in this type of society. 

The third one is that she isn't even given the freedom to take her own life. Suicide is almost impossible, “I know why there was no glass in front of the watercolor picture of the blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn’t running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get that far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge”. For us as humans, we get the opportunity to do things that we want, but even to take her own life away, to save herself from the world that she's living in, is impossible. 

Onto our second idea.

‘Moreover, Atwood reveals how, despite being at the top of the female hierarchy as commander’s wives, even they suffer’

The first example I have for this is how Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, actually used to have her own television show. She used to be really popular, she was a celebrity, and yet she's been reduced to basically just being the commander's wife, where she lurks around in the house. She really doesn't do that much anymore, she's just there to support her husband and that is her role. 

The second example is that she's forced to partake in a ritual where her husband has sex with a handmaid, “Which of us is it worse for, her or me?” (her meaning Offred). So, you can see that even for a commander’s wife, somebody who is in a high position in this society (she's the elite basically of what women could be), even she is suffering. 

Going back to our keyword of ‘go beyond’ 

This means that in fact, we should speak about other major issues in the novel and not just about female concerns. Our first two ideas revolve around female concern, but let's see what else we could discuss. To me, another major issue revolving around freedom that's important to talk about is ‘has the Gilliad society actually influenced men and men's freedom?’ It's super easy to just target men and say that, you know, men are in power now and so it's all about the women, but there are ample examples that show that even the men are suffering. 

Of course there are heaps of other issues that are brought forward in The Handmaid's Tale, but the ideas that I’ve discussed here are the ones that personally interest me the most, meaning that I've got a lot more to say and a lot more opinion to offer in my discussion. 

At this point, I'll leave it up to you guys. If you have read or watched The Handmaid's Tale, tell me what you think or ask me any questions you have about how you would structure this essay. I'd really love to have a productive discussion with you that includes some critical thinking on your part. So, let's get it started. 

If you like this type of advice, you may like joining my mailing list. Basically I send out weekly emails to you where I answer student questions and give you more advice, tips and resources that I don't give anywhere else. 

And, if you're in need of a more detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

It's 32 degrees today for the first time in Melbourne, in like forever, so I'm going to the beach and I'm going to spoil myself right now. I'll see you guys next week. Bye!

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