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The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood

Key Questions and Answers

Summary Key Questions and Answers
Why are women forbidden to read or write?

As in many totalitarian societies, females in Gilead are forbidden from reading and writing—the punishment for a first offense is having one’s hand cut off—which enables the authorities to more easily maintain control over them. Women who can read and write can communicate and strategize secretly, form thoughts and ideas independent of government propaganda, and maybe even make plans to escape or rebel. Further, illiteracy limits women’s education and keeps them ignorant. While many females still retain the skill of literacy, Offred acknowledges the future loss, commenting that the girls who are younger than nine or ten will soon be unable to remember a time when they were allowed to read: “They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent.”