Controversial Literature in Schools


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and 1984 by George Orwell are two summer reading choices for students taking Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Jumma)

This summer, I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as part of an assignment for my AP Literature class. As a prerequisite, rising seniors choose between Atwood’s widely known thriller and George Orwell’s 1984. By a quick glance at the covers, the novels seemed like they are simple enough. I would soon realize the mistake of judging a book by its cover. There were hints of twisted ideas that I, like many of my peers, brushed off. The author would go into detail about a monthly ceremony that manufactured nausea, dizziness and a feeling of disgust. Peers that read Orwell’s 1984 reported a similar effect.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that tells the story of Offred — a handmaid who lives in the Republic of Gilead (set in the present Massachusetts area). The republic is a society plagued with infertility and Handmaids are used as vessels to procreate. Offred details her normal life before the government takeover and desperately attempts to cling to the memories of her family who were taken from her. As the story progresses, Offred meets others like her, including Ofwarren who introduces Offred to the underground resistance. Offred even befriends her Commander: an unlikely friendship that gives Offred opportunities that no other handmaid has.  

In the past few years, controversial literature in schools graced the headlines of news stations across the nation. Parents of middle and high school students expressed their rage over classics like How to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because the text offered illicit themes.

Teachers across the nation argue that historical literature teaches students the history that built countries, shaped lives, and transformed governments across the world. So what is the importance of this type of literature and what does it do for students who are just beginning to make their mark on the world? 

“Controversial literature is definitely important. Students need to be exposed, and people in general, need to be exposed to different types of literature that will enlighten them, challenge their beliefs, make them think about issues and events in a different way,” said Monica Wilkerson, an English teacher at Leesville Road High School. Reading one book, “…doesn’t mean you’re going to change your mind [about your beliefs], but you need the exposure so people aren’t so provincial or narrow-minded.”

Literature that expresses different ideas teaches students that there are many ways to think about things. “If you grow up in a place or a household or something of that sort that is very restrictive, [literature] teaches you that there are different approaches,” said Wilkerson. Often, literature, along with social media and the news, are the only resources students have to expand their thought processes. “The exposure will help you understand and appreciate others, their situations, their cultures, their ethnicities, and so everyone needs to read something different than their own because we live in a multicultural world, we live in a multigenerational and so for us to understand and appreciate each other, we need to be exposed.” 

In past years, parents took a stand against books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn due to their themes, and Wilkerson acknowledges that every parent has the right to limit what their child is exposed to. “ But, you also need to understand that your in a public school environment, your child or your student has already been exposed to many things they may or may not understand and what you consider [controversial] may help them develop an understanding of that, maybe even similar to your own because they will see things the way you like or not,” said Wilkerson. 

Books hold knowledge and knowledge is power. At an early age, books harness the power to unlock a child’s imagination and they teach lessons to teenagers who are just figuring the world out. “ ..if people are going to be successful outside in the real world, they are going to have to deal with different types of people and controversial literature allows them to have an understanding to be able to do that,” said Wilkerson. 




The Handmaid’s Tale; A Review

As a prerequisite for the AP English Literature and Composition class, rising seniors are required to read either The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or 1984 by George Orwell. After a skim over the back covers, I decided to purchase The Handmaid’s Tale at my local Barnes and Noble.

At a glance, The Handmaid’s Tale Looks like any other dystopian novel — at a closer read it is anything but. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a young woman who had a normal life until her government is overthrown. As a totalitarian theocracy, the Republic of Gilead implements laws that coincide with every word of the Bible. In the story, Handmaids like Offred, are forced to participate in a monthly ceremony where they lay on their backs and hope that their Commander blesses them with a child. As the story progresses, Offred learns about a resistance and attempts to free herself from the bonds of slavery all while attempting to hold on to the memories of her family. 

The ideas presented in The Handmaid’s Tale may seem like pure fiction, but there is an odd familiarity about them. When Offred describes the takeover of the country, she acknowledges that everything was computerized (much like our society today) which aided in the takeover. Those in power blamed the events that unfolded on Muslim fanatics — an idea that has manifested since 9/11. Media outlets were censored and identification passes became mandatory — a process occured in places like Nazi Germany or present day China. In the writing process, Atrwood laid out rules for herself; every aspect of her book correlated to something that already occurred in history. Her experiences traveling behind the Iron Curtain helped her create the story. 

Although The Handmaid’s Tale can be a depressing read, it is a novel that presents crucial ideas, especially in today’s political climate and in light of movements like #metoo. Women’s issues are at  the front of our social culture, and The Handmaid’s Tale prompts consideration on the lessons of history that we can learn from today. 

In light of those factors, The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely worth the read. 




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