Handmaid’s Tale Research Essay Analyzing Theme, Symbolism, and Character Development

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Length: 5-6 pages (1650-2000 words)

Write a research essay analyzing Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, paying special attention to symbolism, character development, and theme.

Use one of the following critical approaches to guide your discussion:

Marxist Criticism, A16-A17

Feminist Criticism, A17-A19

Gender Studies and Queer Theory, A19-A20

New Historicism, A22-A23

Psychoanalytic Criticism. A11-A14

Before beginning, read “The Literature Research Essay” (1951-1961); “Quotation, Citation, and Documentation” (1962-1991); and the sample research paper (1992-2001)


  • In your introductory paragraph, state a clear thesis using the template we’ve discussed in class: By showing us [this specific element of the narrative], The Handmaid’s Tale urges us to consider [this particular theme]. (See pp. 1921 for more on thesis statements and pp. 429-433 for assistance with identifying themes).
  • In your essay’s body:
    • Use specifics (e.g., characters’ names and in-depth analysis of the novel’s events) to illustrate your main points and support your central argument (thesis).
    • Quote and/or paraphrase from at least three pieces of literary criticism from SMC’s library databases. (SMC’s literature database should be your first option. Academic Search Premier or JSTOR could prove useful as well.)
    • Identify your sources with proper MLA parenthetical citation.
    • Identify quotes from the novel using page numbers.
  • Use your concluding paragraph to summarize your main points and restate your thesis.
  • Finally, include a works cited page to list the sources you have quoted. Use Easybib.com for assistance in compiling your works cited page.

Note that you should utilize very little, if any, plot summary. Assume your audience is familiar with the events and characters in the narrative.

For additional guidelines, consult “The Writing Process” (1938-1950). We will discuss this process in class with special emphasis on elements about which you have questions.

We will discuss how to generate topics, and formulate questions and thesis statements as we examine the novel as a class. As a starting point, consider these prompts as you read:

  • Discuss the ways in which Atwood treats sexuality and fertility in The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • Atwood’s novel depicts a dystopia. To what extent do the events in the narrative reflect concerns in contemporary society?
  • In what sense are the women of Gilead powerless (and in what sense powerful)?

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