The Handmaid’s Tale

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At first, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) may purely seem like a reconstruction of events. However, when examined more closely the reader can see that Atwood has used many narrative and poetic techniques. Each of these devices develop the novel into so much more than just a simple reconstruction of events, it becomes a precise and planned piece of work; a documented life experience that slowly unfolds. The reader becomes involved in the story and in Offred’s life; they go through her pain, suffering and occasional joy and trusts what she is telling them to be the truth.

Yet, when the novel comes to an end, the reader is presented with another set of text, the ‘Historical Notes’. This epilogue is a record of a lecture, lead by Professor Pieixoto, about The Handmaid’s Tale. It comes to light that Offred had actually recorded this diary-like story on cassette tapes and the historian, Professor Pieixoto, had to meticulously piece it together. The Historical Notes do not serve as an answer to what happened to Offred.

Ironically it does not answer any of the questions the reader may have, although this is the intent of the arrogant Professor Pieixoto. It instead provokes more questions from the reader and it questions the authenticity of the story. Thus, the reader may doubt the narrative of Offred. The novel is indeed partly a reconstruction of events, but it is also a recording of a women’s journey; a journey through her emotions, experiences and facts that she has learnt on the way. The Historical Notes are transcripts of the proceedings of a seminar about The Handmaid’s tale.

Professor MaryAnn Crescent Moon and a Historian, Professor Pieixoto, held this seminar. Pieixoto’s presentation of The Handmaid’s Tale reveals his thoughts on the subject; he believes the tale to be a literal reconstruction of events. Although he does not clearly state this, it’s hinted throughout the seminar. He often undermines Offred’s tale, “I hesitate to use the word document” (p. 295), showing his beliefs that it is an unimportant piece of history, that it doesn’t even deserve to be called a document.

Thus indicating his ignorance and attitude toward women, the fact that a woman has documented this stage throughout history, somehow makes it less important; not worth his time. Pieixoto’s disrespect towards women is seen again in many parts of the seminar; he continues to make sexist jokes, “’The Underground Femaleroad’, since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad’” (p. 295). He repeatedly refers back to his superior, who is in fact a woman, in a patronising and arrogant manner.

The way in which he talks about Professor MaryAnn is very surprising as she is clearly above him in the hierarchy, “I must also remind our keynote speaker [Pieixoto] – although I am sure it is not necessary – to keep within his time period” (p. 294). This statement she made to Pieixoto, reinforces her power, reminding him that he is in her control. However, this reminder has no effect, his chauvinistic and arrogant ways precede him. Moreover, indicating that Atwood suggests female rights and power should never be complacent.

Nevertheless, as much power and control Professor MaryAnn holds over him, he still manages to find control over women. Pieixoto was in charge of organising Offred’s cassettes, the recordings of her journey, “Thus it was up to Professor Wade and myself to arrange the blocks of speech in the order which they appeared to go; but as I have said elsewhere, all such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate” (p. 296). The fact Pieixoto was left to organise the cassettes is slightly alarming and ironic, as it is a tale about a women’s struggle to survive in a male dominated society, now being arranged by men.

Pieixoto’s statement that the organising of the tapes was left to some “guesswork” shows again, his disrespect for Offred’s story, the way in which he tells his listeners this, is in a very frivolous way. Pieixoto continues to undermine Offred’s recordings; he condemns the tale Offred left, stating that there were “difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents and archaisms” (p. 297). Here, Pieixoto is implying that Offred and in perhaps a more slight way, that women in general are less intelligent than men.

Pieixoto is enormously condescending of Offred’s story; he makes sly remarks throughout his entire presentation, almost mocking her tale, not giving it the seriousness it demands. On countless occasions he belittles Offred and her experience, “Our author, then, was one of many” (p. 300), implying that her experience was not an individual one. Of course this is fair to say, many women went through the same punishments, “salvagings” and had the same beliefs thrust upon them. However, each of the Handmaid’s stories would have varied.

Offred’s tale is an individual one, her thoughts, memories and opinions were her own, and Pieixoto has no right to say differently. Thus, proving that the oppression women received in the past has not totally disappeared. Although it is not as dire as it was, men are still oppressing women, an indication of the ignorance of many people. An example of how extreme the situation became because of the machismo attitude of men, is right in front of them.

However, they are too ignorant and pretentious to change their ways and insure that there isn’t a repeat of the past, “Are there any questions? (p. ). Satirising In an attempt to portray Offred as less of a victim to his audience, he deems her a liar, “This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author” (p. 305). Pieixoto is completely unsympathetic towards Offred, he shows know sympathy and makes no attempt to condemn the awful regime that was forced upon Offred, and instead he wishes to understand it, and almost think of a reason to excuse it. The attitude of Pieixoto, that women are the inferior race, can be clearly seen in the Historical Notes.

He seems far more enthusiastic about the Commander “if we could identify the elusive ‘Commander’, we felt, at least some progress would have been made” (p 301), than he is about Offred. Pieixoto would rather focus on the powerful men within Offred’s story, than the terrible suffering these powerful men put the women through. “What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer! ” this illustrates Pieixoto’s beliefs, those twenty pages or so from a authoritative man, would be worth a lot more to him than the three hundred, thoroughly detailed pages from a women are.

The way, in which Pieixoto approaches The Handmaid’s Tale with a narrow mind, causes him to miss the point of Offred’s story. He does not take note of the emotional journey she is telling or the warning she is subconsciously giving the people of the future. He simply focuses on the analytical side of his duty, labelling her tale as a reconstructive, missing the moral message that is hidden within the text. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel; it is a fictional society that is the antithesis of an uptopian society.

The dystopic society is defined by it’s negative traits. Offred lives in Gilead, a former state of America that has been taken over by fundementalist christians, they have renamed it and turned it into a totalitarian theocratic state; they believe God to be the supreme civil ruler. Offred’s narrative role in this dystopian tale is a difficult one. Not only does she have to tell her story and all the events to the reader, but she has the task of describing the new world and the changes that have been made.

This affects the narration, making it disjointed, there is no sign as to how it is order, whether it is in chronological order or not. Thus the novel’s narratology is very complex and complicated, this complex narrration uses many different devices and techniques, for example flashbacks and religious imagery. If it were simpley a reconstruction of events, these devices would not be used and the language would be far more clinical, involving no emotion and thoughts, “I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me” (p. 9).

The novel almost reads like a journal, it is very fragmented in places, with Offred abruptly jumping from past to present in a very short space of time. Usually she supplys the reader with no warning of the tense change she has made, or is about to make, “I’m in our first apartment, in the bedroom. I’m standing in front of the cupboard, which has folding doors made of wood”, this demonstrates how Atwood gives the reader no warning or sign that a flashback has commenced.

Offred could easily be talking about the present as there is no tense change. By using this technique, the reader only gradually becomes aware of Offred’s situation in the present and of her past life. Flashbacks are very often used, allowing Atwood to control how much information Offred reveals to the reader, thus the reader only gradually begins to understand Offred’s current situation and how she got there. Atwood’s use of flashbacks can be seen throughout the entire text, however they are most apparent in the ‘Night’ chapters.

These ‘Night’ chapters are the time that Offred has wholly to herself, “the night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet” (p. 35) she is able to loose herself in her memories and momentarily forget the present. Although she states that the night is hers, she also confesses that it is only hers as long as she is quiet. Illustrating the tight hold the regime has over Offred and the other Handmaid’s. She often compares the present with the past, what she refers to as “the time before”.

The comparasons Offred makes strongely go against the idea that the tale is purely a reconstruction, Offred bares her memories to the reader, she reveals her personal thoughts and how she remembers the past and the people she loves. These memories are essentialling, all she has left of her old life. If what Professor Pieixoto was saying is true, that The Handmaid’s Tale was just a reconstruction, there would be no place for her memories, no need to compare the past and the present. The person reconstructing the events would focus on the present and producing a precise explanation of the people and events taking place around them.

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