Language and Power in The Handmaid's Tale and the World
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In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the narrator, Offred, regularly interrupts the narrative flow of the text to contemplate the meaning of certain words and phrases. Often she finds that the meanings of words have changed since the revolution in Gilead, the fictional society in the novel. In this lesson, students work in small groups to examine Atwood's use of these language musings, as well as neologisms and Biblical language, in an assigned chapter. Students then share their findings with the class. Through this activity, students can see the integral role that control of language and abuse of Biblical language play in the totalitarian government of Gilead and the specific ways that Offred challenges that control by the simple act of thinking and writing about language. This activity can be extended to include an analysis of power and language in our own world.
Although the activities and resources in this lesson refer directly to The Handmaid's Tale, the approach can be applied to a number of Other Books that Focus on Language and Power.
Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout: students examine three categories of language used in the book.
Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Teacher Notes: these notes are a guide for teachers to use with the accompanying student handout.
Copies of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
From Theory to Practice
In her College English article "'Teaching Them to Read': A Fishing Expedition in The Handmaid's Tale," Harriet F. Bergmann argues that the novel "presents its reader with an exercise in learning how to read for survival" (847). Specifically, she calls attention to "Offred's survival through language. In order to stay alive, she learns to use the new language of her own time so as to seem part of the new order that the language reflects. She quickly understands how much she had failed to value language as Gilead deprives her of word and text. She then learns to read the subtext of the new culture and so to subvert the illusion of absolute power created by its language" (848).
Just as Offred learns to read the language of her time, students must learn to read the texts teachers give them in the classroom, as well as the language of their time. Through examining the "multiple ironies," of language in The Handmaid's Tale, students will see the connection between Atwood's specific use of language and the larger themes of the work (848). Additionally, they will practice the skills necessary to read how the language of power is used in their own world.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
Materials and Technology
- Definition and Examples of Neologism
- Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout
- Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Teacher Notes
- Copies of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Sticky notes
- Presentation Notes Handout
- Reflection Activity
- Other Books that Focus on Language and Power
- Venn Diagram Tool (optional)
This site is a brief article about neologisms that were added to the 2007 version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Twenty sample words are offered as well as a brief explanation of how words are added to the dictionary.
Using the example of the word “e-tailers” (electronic retailers), the process of how a new word is added to the Oxford English Dictionary is explained.
This site creates tag clouds from the top 100 words used in “presidential speeches, official documents, declarations, and letters written by the Presidents of the US between 1776 – 2007.” Words that are used more frequently show up in a larger font. Students are able to scroll through the tag clouds and see how words and phrases come into and out of favor in official communication.
This WebQuest, covering topics such as dystopian literature, the American Fundamentalist movement, and feminism, can be useful as a student activity or a collection of teacher Web resources.
- This activity is designed to occur after students have read the first fifteen chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale. It assumes that students understand the basic plot of these chapters and have a firm understanding of how the society of Gilead is structured, came to power, and maintains its power. Consult this Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale from Washington State University's Department of English for additional support.
- Prepare a transparency of the Definition and Examples of Neologism.
- Make an appropriate number of copies of the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout and Presentation Notes Handout.
- Read through the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Teacher Notes and review the assigned chapters, adding any additional language examples you would like students to discuss.
- Test the Venn Diagram Tool on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the Technical Support page.
- identify and analyze examples of neologisms, Biblical language, and Offred's unique language musings.
- articulate the significance of language patterns that they find in Atwood's writing.
- apply knowledge of literary themes to articulate the connections between specific textual examples and larger themes.
- apply their findings about language in Atwood's work to examples of official language in their own world.
- Begin the session by asking students to define the word neologism. If necessary, guide students in an examination of the Greek prefix neo- and the root logos. Share the Definition and Examples of Neologism on an overhead or LCD projector to clarify understanding.
- Ask students if they can recall any neologisms from the novel. If they cannot, direct them to the section of the novel where they read about unwomen (10).
- Explain that students will be doing an activity in small groups in which they examine one chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale to find examples of neologisms that the government of Gilead has created or reappropriated.
- Explain that they will also be looking for examples of Biblical language, i.e., phrases that sound Biblical, are said to be from the Bible, or are lifted from the Bible and have become part of everyday interaction. Offer as an example, “Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow rooted” (10). They will also be looking for instances of Offred’s own language musings, such as “ladies in reduced circumstances” (8).
- Depending on your students’ level of familiarity with the Christian Bible, it may be helpful to have a discussion of what Biblical language sounds like. Ask students who are familiar with The Bible to provide examples of Biblical language, or share an excerpt from the Beatitudes (in the Christian New Testament, the Beatitudes can be found in the book of Matthew 5: 1–11) .
Note: If you have students who are uncomfortable with the portrayal of Christianity in the novel, this activity is a good place to talk about the misuse of Biblical language that occurs in the book and to make a distinction between a portrayal of abusive religion and a book that makes a statement about all religion. Using the examples of Biblical language in the book, you can make a strong case for Atwood arguing against the manipulation and misuse of the Bible, rather than a blanket condemnation of religion.
- Distribute the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout and review the content and instructions.
- Divide students into small groups of three to five students and assign each group a different chapter to examine closely. This lesson is connected to chapters 2, 4, 8, 11, 12, and 15, but others chapters would work as well.
- Once they have read through their chapter marking “NL” for neologism, “BL” for Biblical language, and “LM” for Offred’s language musings, they should answer the summary and reflection questions on the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout.
- Let students know that in the next session they will be reporting on how their observations have led them to an overarching understanding of how language is used by society and by Offred in the book.
- For the remainder of the period, allow students to work in their small groups. Circulate among the groups answering any clarifying questions that come up and engaging the groups in questions about their chapters and the language examples they are finding. Use the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Teacher Notes to help prompt groups that need additional assistance.
- Give students time at the beginning of the session to meet in their groups and review their Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Student Handout in preparation for the presentation.
- Then, in chronological order according to chapter assignment, ask student groups to share the language examples they found in the previous session. The goal of these student presentations should be to help students see the integral role that control of language and abuse of Biblical language plays in the totalitarian government of Gilead and the specific ways that Offred challenges that control by the simple act of thinking and writing about language.
- Distribute the Presentation Notes Handout and ask the students who are not currently presenting to write down key ideas from each presentation and any questions they have for the presenters.
- For each example of a neologism, Biblical language, and Offred’s language musings, ask presenters to read a brief excerpt that contains the example. Once they have read their examples, ask them to summarize their answers to the questions about how these specific types of language are used in the book and any general observations about language in The Handmaid’s Tale they have made while doing this activity.
- While groups are presenting, follow along in the Examining Language in The Handmaid’s Tale Teacher Notes for these chapters (and any additional notes you have made), offering your own language examples if students do not find all the examples that you wish them to cover.
- Patterns and themes will naturally emerge as more groups present. Feel free to stop and ask additional probing questions of the groups presenting about these developing patterns and themes.
- Also ask the students who have been listening (who have already presented or are waiting to present) to ask any questions they have written down while listening.
- After presentations are complete, have students complete the Reflection Activity.
- Ask students to bring in examples of official language put out by the U.S. or other governments. Examples may include government press releases, comments by government members or representatives to the media, language taken from a government website, speeches by politicians, and so forth. Students can analyze these examples of official language in the same manner as in the lesson, looking for neologisms and references to Biblical or other common texts. Students can write their own language musings, making observations about the various ways governments use language.
- Ask students to use the Venn Diagram Tool to compare and contrast the kind of language use they find in official documents from their government to the language used by the government of Gilead. A discussion answering the following questions could ensue:
- Is our government manipulating the meaning of words in the same way that the government of Gilead does? To what ends?
- What is the relationship between power and language?
- How do people in power dictate the meaning of language?
- How do people outside of power reappropriate or challenge the official uses and meanings of language?
- Do we need to fear the kind of social change that lead to Gilead?
- What warnings for our society are present in The Handmaid’s Tale?
- After completing The Handmaid's Tale, have students select and read a novel from the list of Other Books that Focus on Language and Power. Have students meet in mixed groups to discuss the ways that each of the novels treats the relationship between language and power.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- After students complete the Reflection Activity, provide timely feedback before students read the rest of the novel.
- After completing the novel, ask students to write a more formal analytical paper that discusses the relationships between power and language in the novel. Adapt this rubric for evaluation of student work.
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