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The Handmaid's Tale

An Analysis of the Narrative Structure of Atwood's novel

Michelle Alspaugh

on 23 April 2014

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Transcript of The Handmaid's Tale

Time periods
Different Voices, cont
When Offred recalls her mother’s feminist views, these too are reproduced in a different speech style, so that we seem to encounter different people and personalities even though the whole narrative is ostensibly told in Offred’s voiceWhen we reach the section Historical Notes, Atwood creates another, very different voice for Professor Pieixoto, whose rather cynical, detached style is in sharp contrast to Offred’s sensitive, thoughtful and emotionally engaged tone.
Different Voices
Aunt Lydia ( chapters 13 and 20.) She frequently talk in clichés, attacking sexual and other freedoms
This is counterpointed by Moira’s earthy comments and demotic, often obscene, language
The Text (Chapters 1--46)
Young girls should not wear red.
In some countries it is the color
of death; in others passion,
in others war, in others blood…..
Dancing in red shoes will kill you.
"The Red Shirt" by Margaret Atwood (1978)
Examining the Epigraphs
The Canterbury Tales
There is repetition within the chapters
Deferred and Withheld Information
I can’t remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down.’
Different Versions of Events
Offred herself highlights the fallibility of her narrative
*chapter 23: Offred tells us she thinks about stabbing the Commander
*then, she says ‘in fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put that in only afterwards.’
*Chapter 40: Offred describes her lovemaking with Nick as feeling "‘alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere’"
*Then says: "‘I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.’"
Then she gives a different version and then says, ‘It didn’t happen that way either.’
Examining Narrative Design in
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Metafiction in Atwood's novel
Usage of "frame story":
a literary technique that sometimes serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, whereby an introductory or main narrative is presented, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories. The frame story leads readers from a first story into another, smaller one (or several ones) within it. "Frame Story" Wikipedia.com
*Limitations of the narrative

*Suggestions as to the multiplicity of the narrative that is withheld from us

* Because Chaucer's narrators were frequently either ironic narrators (embodying a particular social foible that Chaucer was remarking upon) or the paragon of wisdom, critically remarking upon the social ills, we are called upon to see both elements in Offred
Sufi Proverb
Self evident truth
There is truth in the text
The fact that we must
the truth in this text
alludes to Offred's own
limitations and emergent identity
(as she comes to understand the truth, so do we)

Serves as a
social commentary
of a society which deliberately obscures moral truth, despite its theocratical justifications

Highlights the timelessness of truth in fiction
(see: Emotional truth in O'Brien)
"Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured." Genesis 29:17
This is the bible verse that Gilead will use to justify the practice of the handmaid
Points to note:
*Leah and Rachel are rivals, and it is out of jealousy that Rachel sends her servant to Jacob to sleep with him. Leah is not as loved by Jacob but is fertile.
*Later in the bible, Rachel goes on to have two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, the two favorites of Jacob

Gilead's usage of this story as biblical justification increases the irony and satirical nature of the novel--as it highlights a moment when Rachel makes a decision not out of faith in God, but out of pettiness and jealousy for her sister; even though she is more favored, her barren womb is a sign of God's displeasure. (Jacob had already swindled his father, Issac, into giving HIM instead of his older brother Esau, the first born blessing) Laban, Leah and Rachel's father, swindles the swindler when Leah is substituted for Rachel.
The name ‘Gilead’ derives from the Bible and ironically approximates what Jeremiah prophesied for its biblical namesake. When the Israelites had worn his patience to the limit, God called forth Jeremiah and through his mouth foretold the desolation of the Promised Land.

Aghast that Gilead, the most fertile area, might be included, Jeremiah cried out, “is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”

Atwood’s Gileadians design a system that recognizes divine power but relies heavily on human control. The system tolerates no resistance or dissent. A military hierarchy – Commanders, Eyes, Angels, and Guardians – maintains surveillance through the use of electronic devices, a network of checkpoints, and a ubiquitous fleet of multipurpose vans, agents of both life and death.
fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality
‘It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances’.
Offred frequently draws attention to the constructed nature of the narrative
"Las Meninas"
1656 painting by Diego Velázquez
The Red Center
Where Offred trains
The Time Before
(Luke, baby, etc)
(Offred's current
(when Offred records the tapes)
Now-Professors discussing tapes
Us: reading a
of the tapes as re-orded by profressors
"The night is mine,my own time to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don't move"
*Categories as reflective of the fragmented nature of Ofred's memory
*Categories as assertion of control (given presumably by professor since the tapes were un-numbered and unlabeled), creating a paradox, since Offred associates the night with freedom, yet the labeling of "night" again asserts control over the narrative
Chapter 1:
unknown narrator "we" in a strange and undefined situation, controlled by ‘Aunts’ who seem anything but typically aunt-like, and by Angels carrying guns.
points to subjectivity of Offred's narrative as well as the metafictional quality of the novel. In this way, Atwood deliberately blurs the line between the time of the story in current Gilead and Offred's re-telling of it, which allows her to underscore the liberating quality of language and the acquisition of her authentic voice (as she remembers her "silenced" voice)
Chapter 2:
is mentioned
, but it is not until Chapter 5 that we realize his relationship to her, as well as her child.
*This adds another dimension to the story, and opens up a whole new possibility for what Ofred's life could have been if this had been her first marriage (and therefore she could have been an Econowife with her life more or less intact--this highlights the nature of the religious justifications for the Gileadean system)

Yet the full horror of their attempted escape together from Gilead is not revealed until later; Offred dreams about the loss of her loved ones, and we gradually piece together what happened in their last days together. Even then, we never do find out what has happened to Luke, and although Offred is shown her child’s photograph (in chapter 35), we know nothing about where she is, because we are only told what Offred can tell us.
‘all I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.’
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