The Perversion of Education in /The Handmaid’s Tale/

The decision to write on this topic was greatly influenced by my fascination with The Handmaid’s Tale. In addition to thoroughly enjoying the experience of reading the novel itself, I also was enamored with the many issues a novel of this futuristic dystopian genre brought to my attention. In regards to my topic choice, I chose this topic because I found that as I was reading, there was much textual reference to education, not only in the past of Offred, but additionally in the many inter-textual references. For example, Gilead is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the site of Harvard University which is constantly alluded to throughout the text. Although there is a conscious effort in Gilead to quell education and the acquisition of knowledge, education itself is an ever-permeating force. In addition to the setting, I would investigate further references to education throughout the text including the “re-education center/ Red center”. This juxtaposition between instilled knowledge and the color red as a motif is one that I would further examine in my paper. I have also found that different characters react to education in different ways, for example, Offred’s mother becomes a radical thinker while Serena Joy firmly cements her conservative viewpoints after she is indoctrinated into the society of Gilead.

1. If so many of the characters of the novel were highly educated individuals, how is it possible that they so fully embraced the ideals of Gilead when Gilead is formed on sub-alternation by the withholding of knowledge?

2. At what point does education become a character itself in the novel rather than simply a motif?

3. Do other factors influence the emphasis on knowledge/education in the book? i.e. specific character traits, experiences, etc.



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14 responses to “The Perversion of Education in /The Handmaid’s Tale/

  1. aeernst

    I think examining the fact that the Gilead is centered around Harvard can bring a whole new aspect into the story, especially the school is the setting for Salvagings and the headquarters for The Eyes. Maybe another question you could consider is:
    4) What is the significance of all of the death centered around the campus of Harvard?

  2. smboehm

    I like your concentration on Education in these stories. You could also look into:

    5) What is the significance of the little education that these people do posses coming from the people who oppress them?

  3. siegvald

    There are a lot of references to education in The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think you will have a lot of examples and ideas to base your paper. However, my only thought is that 6. the concept of the color red in relation to education might take your paper in another direction. How might you fit in the concept of red with your other points to give your paper a continuous flow?

  4. stperry1

    I agree that tying the color red into the paper might distract from the educational focus. The two ideas don’t seem connected enough at first, however, if you see a means of tying the color into education then it might be really interesting and insightful. There is a lot on education though so that might be a big enough topic on its own. Another idea to consider is:
    7) Are there examples in the book of people who are TOO educated and it ends up being harmful to themselves or others?

  5. vrosengrant20

    Education, or more specifically re-education, plays a big part in the novel and makes the characters more dynamic with how they change after being incorporated into the society. I think you should be sure to pay attention to characters like the Aunt in charge of the Red Center, who not only advocated the new life style for women but was allowed to continue to read and write. Another question you may want to ask is:
    8.) Which characters in the novel have a higher education and how does that higher education affect their perspective in the new society?

  6. Samantha Cooke

    Education is something that is considered today to move a society forward, both economically and socially. Gilead is obviously a society pushed backward, with the sole purpose of repopulating the earth and spreading its realm. It has been noted that one of the best methods of birth control is to educate women, which is, interestingly enough, something taken away in Gilead. I agree that education is definitely a major aspect of the text.

    9. Offred and the Commander play Scrabble together. Of all the old, popular board games, Scrabble is perhaps the one best linked to education – one must not be able to read and write, but be able to spell the words correctly. How does this particular game play into their relationship, into Offred’s subversion, and the Commander as an authority figure of Gilead?

  7. I think the function of education within a text is always important to consider because it shows the value of that society. #7 is interesting to consider who is too educated? Perhaps you could argue the government or whomever it is that is truly in charge. #10 Do the people in the highest position realize the extent of oppression they are putting their people under?
    #11 In relation to Jamaica Kincaid’s idea about how one’s language can serve as a form of oppression since it is learned from them, how is this similar to the oppression caused by the withholding of education within The Handmaid’s Tale?

  8. Your topic is a very interesting one. One thing that may be interesting to explore is:
    1. Why would a government control the access of education to its citizens and does it usually give the desired outcome that the government is looking for in doing this? Are these sorts of governments usually successful? Perhaps you may want to look at governments in place that have done this and see what their ultimate fate was. You can use these examples to make comparisons to what happens in Gilead.

  9. looloo14

    I never considered the role of education in A Handmaid’s Tale, however, I think it is a valid one. Gilead’s concept of education in the red center is very different from our own. It is a place that teaches only fertile women how to function at a commander’s house. This suggests that the only purpose of educating women is to teach them how to function in such an oppressed society.
    13. What do you think would be the effects of sending women straight into the society, without going to the red centers?

  10. Sophi

    Though the presence of education as a major focus of A Handmaid’s Tale was evident to me, it did not occur to me that it could be delved into the way you have proposed to do so. Something I would consider that may be helpful is:
    14.) When placed next to one another the way they are (Gilead and Harvard), it appears as though Gilead is also a “school” for adopting new ways of thinking and reflecting them in the lives of the “students”. In this case, is Gilead’s location ironic?

  11. In regards Question 7, I found the commander to have so many resources in the context of the society that he became too confident. Because of this excessive confidence, he put Offred and his own position at risk.

    15. What education would even be useful for Offred where she cannot physically combat the restraints of Gilead, such as the armed Angels?

  12. Your topic is very interesting. You also pointed out an important fact of the setting in The Handmaid’s Tale that I missed: Gilead is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the site of Harvard University. Knowing this, it is sort of an oxymoron: the story taking place in a town with such prestigious education, only for it not to be accessible to women. You have a great topic to formulate a strong thesis and better yet produce an outstanding paper. A question I thought to ask is:
    16.) If the novel would have brought Harvard into the text, what impact do you think it would have had on the text?

  13. ashleighbarraca

    I never really considered education to be such a big part of the story while reading the novel, but I think you made a great case here. What really struck me, though, is the concept of “re-education”. 17) IS there such a thing as re-education? Is re-education not just learning something else? Or is it really brainwashing?

  14. I think this is rather a fascinating topic, and it is one that I actually hadn’t thought a whole lot about when reading the book. I found it ironic that the story took place in Cambridge, where this re-education was taking place. I really like your first question. Just how could the highly educated characters be (seemingly) okay with everything that went on in the book?

    18) (as an expansion on your second question), Just how does education become a character in the book? How does this occur?

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