Breaking the Fourth Wall

The “Historical Notes” section at the end of The Handmaid’sTale helps set the novel apart from any other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Most other novels (as well as movies) of the same genre have very ambiguous, open-to-interpretation endings; here, however, Margaret Atwood makes the novel even more of a mystery by adding the notes at the end. We know the novel is fiction; the notes state that the narrative could be fiction, too. The notes essentially “break the fourth wall,” a theatre term that refers to a play directly addressing the fact that it is, indeed, only a play. The way Atwood presents the Historical Notes, she breaks the fourth wall with her readers in a way to make them really think about what they’ve just read.

The lecturer in the notes brings to attention many of the common tropes and topics discussed when analyzing a novel. The lecturer speaks at length about the reliability of Offred as a narrator, the conveniently ironically named females in the story, and the puzzling abrupt ending of Offred’s story . It seems as though this is Atwood’s way of winking and tipping her hat at the readers. By directly addressing the issue of narrator reliability within the novel itself, Atwood is forcing her readers to find something else to discuss about the novel; in other words, she is eliminating the easy way out of discussion. The brilliance of it all is, though, that we as readers can look at the novel as a whole under a different light – the light of the Historical Notes.

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One response to “Breaking the Fourth Wall

  1. I agree with you that the historical notes offer a different reading of The Handmaid’s Tale or a different way to interpret Offred’s story. However, I do no believe that Atwood was “breaking a fourth wall” as you suggest, when she was writing the historical notes. The speaker in the historical notes does question the validity of the tapes, but, in the end, concludes that such tapes would be difficult to forge and assures the audience of the legitimacy of the tapes. I believe that Atwood does not want the reader to think of Offred’s story merely as a story but as a possibility- she wants her readers to realize that Gilead could be a possible future for women if they do no fight for their freedoms. Atwood makes this realization possible by offering us these historical notes and taking the story out of the narrative context of fiction and placing it into the historical context of reality.

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