One of the of the themes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was the ever-present estrangement throughout the novel. Although things in Gilead society seem to appear normal, the reader knows nothing is as it seems. This produces a nostalgic and almost sickening feeling as one reads the novel.
A specific example is Gilead’s false pro-women advocacy, the reality is women are subjugated and ultimately viewed as subhuman. In Gilead society women are reduced to nothing more than their reproductive capabilities. As Offred describes, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” (Atwood 73-74). Offred’s description of her own body describes how Gilead only value women for their uteruses and their ovaries. One could even go so far and argue that they are slaves of the state, with their bodies owned.
Further estrangement occurs in a society based upon misogyny. The women are traumatized and demoralized, through ceremonies of forced rape. This rape is then juxtaposed with the communities supposed acknowledge of rape as an evil, punishable by death. The only difference in these two instances is if the government has sanction the rape to occur or not. The handmaid’s name is the taking on of the word “Of” and their master’s name, makes the handmaid not just a possession of the state but of their master as well. Although The Handmaid’s Tale possess many of the characteristics of a normal functioning society, the characters within the novel know something is just not right about the circumstances.
At the end of The Handmaid Tale, the author “shifts gears” so to say and evaluates the story within the previous 300 pages as history. After reading the tale, I did not expect for the historical context of it to be explained at the end. Professor Piexoto places us in a different setting where he goes into explanation of the tapes found in the army locker that were said to be of recordings during Republic of Gilead. By doing this, Piexoto somewhat “brings to life” Atwood’s story and causes the reader to believe it was indeed non-fiction, instead of the specualtive fiction we believe it to be. Piexoto’s notion to explain why the Republic of Gilead worked the way it did gives the tale somewhat of a reasoning. For example, when discussing polygamy, Piexoto correlates it with the Bible and how it occured during the Old Testament and even on our own territory (United States). This notion goes to give the Commander having a handmaid while being married some “just”. The historical notes of this book contradict what we just read as spec fiction by insteaf giving it some authencity and a new genre– nonfiction. By providing this as the ending, Atwood leaves a hugw open-ended question, what happens to Offred? Did she die? Is she still free? Did she reconnect with Luke? Although providing historical context at the end of the book is a different ending to use, in this case, it was not a good idea. The historical context did help explain the tale, but at the same time, leaves us with an open imagination to wonder what happened to the main character in the book, Offred.
The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale offers us no insight into the fate of our protagonist Offred and the historical notes do not offer us any sort of resolution either. The lack of resolution, of conclusion, in the novel functions to remind the reader that no future is certain. Even though Offred’s destiny was already decided in Gilead as being a handmaid, we can see that this is not her ultimate fate- whether she ends up in Jezebel’s, in the colonies, or if she escapes is uncertain, however, we can see through this ending that a society, even one as totalitarian as Gilead, cannot successfully map the destinies of their population and that no matter how oppressive the society, the society can not account for all variables and will ultimately fail.
Most importantly. the historical ending contradicts much of what Atwood was trying to convince us of in the preceding part of the book. In the first part of the book Atwood writes in a way that we sympathize with Offred and judge Gilead to be an immoral society. In the historical notes however, Peixoto contradicts this by stating “…we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans” (Atwood 302) and continues by making excuses for the Giledeans immoral practices by citing declining birthrates. The audience to Peixoto’s lecture seem almost unmoved by Offred’s plight as they talk about the recordings in a nonchalant way, laughing at intervals. They even value some readings from the Commander’s computer more than the moral teachings of Offred’s plight: “What we would give, now, for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer!” (Atwood 310). This future society may think of themselves as progressive, but their society still has a core of patriarchy and oppression. The historical ending, in conclusion, has the effect of creating a society much like ours, who believe themselves to be progressive but in fact have seeds of oppression which may grow into totalitarianism if left alone. Atwood urges us to think of Gilead as a possible future and to rethink our own society, as it is, in fact, not progressive but primitive.
There were various ways in which A Handmaid’s Tale could have been closed. However, the current choice of ending is interesting, because not only does Professor Pieixoto discuss the recovering process of the tapes from which the tale was extracted, he also defends the Gileadean ideology by showing agreement and understanding of why Gilead society practiced the way they did. In fact, there is not much concession as Professor Pieixoto insists on the audience understanding why this society was indeed reasonable in their laws and had the intentions of protecting women and their “biological destinies” (204) while giving men the unshakeable power of control.
For the first half of his speech, Professor Pieixoto does well in maintaining a certain level of objectivity when he presents information on the recovery and restoration of the cassette tapes found in the army locker. However, his subjectivity in the way he later states that Gilead’s “genius was synthesis” (281), makes me a bit weary of the information he is choosing to share with the audience. Usually “genius” and “synthesis” have very positive connotations, but when they are used in the context of Gilead society, I find it difficult to convince myself that – despite Gilead’s so-called innovativeness – the “synthesis” they were trying to achieve was ever truly attained. Because of this bias, the credibility of the Professor diminishes greatly; I become much more suspicious of his intentions and his message.
This subtle tone of Gileadean support changes very little, because towards the end of his speech, when presenting possible outcomes of Offred’s escape, he suggests that by leaving into the “outside world” (285) Offred is also leaving her “protected existence” (285). The fact that he uses “outside world” to describe life outside of Gilead strikes me as odd, as though he is admitting to the isolation and lack of freedom Gilead has in relation to all other places on earth. Further, suggesting that women were more “protected” in Gilead makes me curious about his idea of “protection” and if, to him, this means having to exchange an individual’s freedom to have it. I would expect a professor willing to speak on the topic of Gilead to also have certain ideas of what is ethical and unethical, especially in terms of whether the application of ethics is only relevant to one gender or to both.
The Historical Notes at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” give us historical context of the story and give us clues of what could have possibly happened to Offred at the end of the story. Since they are part of an Anthropology department, they don’t necessarily focus on just the historical details, they also delve into why the Gilead period happened. They even go into observing similar trends in other nations such as Romania. There is also a focus on the pre-Gilead period that gives good insight into why the Gilead period and periods that followed it happened. Many Caucasians were becoming infertile and this created a fear. The legalization of birth control and abortion stirred this fear up even more. So even though the dystopia presented seems really extreme, the history gives it an explanation. They are not defending the Gilead period, but simply presenting explanations and historical context, thus making the story seem more real.
Also the historical notes give us a hint of what may have happened to Offred. When Professor Pieixoto speaks of Offred’s tone, he says this: “Also, there is a certain reflective quality about the narrative that would to my mind rule out synchronicity” (Atwood 277). Professor Pieixoto suggests that the tapes they find of Offred telling her story sound more like they are looking back than in the moment. Plus, he also notes she would have no place to record or keep these tapes if she had made them while she was at her Commander’s house. This suggests that Offred made it to the Underground Femaleroad and not with the Eyes. So in a way, the historical notes give us an idea of Offred’s fate after the story ends.
The novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood creates a view of the world that is incredibly unique. One of the many things that adds to this being a one of a kind story is the fact that Atwood concluded the story with a section entitled “Historical Notes”. By making this little end section something different than just a small ending chapter or an epilogue Atwood creates a different feel that is difficult to find in other dystopian stories.
The biggest thing that the “Historical Notes” does is lend the story an air of authenticity. For one thing, these notes help place Gilead in context with the rest of the world such as when the Doctor discusses the “various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time” (Atwood 304). By making those opposed to the Gilead method more organized and placing them in a different country, Atwood creates just another layer of detail that adds strength to her story. Additionally, I believe the “Historical Notes” lends a second and more important idea of realism. Dr. Pieixoto discusses the fact that no one can judge the individuals who lived then because the times were different. This is a notion employed today when learning about past abuses and makes the story of Gilead all the more real to the reader. By changing the very end of the book to a look back on a previous dark time Atwood lends an authenticity to the novel that would otherwise be difficult to cling to.
The end of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has a section entitled, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” In your blog post #7, write a post responding to the “Historical notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.”
What do you make of this section of the book? How does this challenge the rest of the book (the previous nearly 300 pages)? What is the function of having THIS ending (i.e., the historical notes)? What would the text be like had Atwood omitted the historical notes?
The usual list of criteria is below:
- Give your post a good title.
- Add tags (keywords) to the post.
- Posts must be at least 250 words.
- Posts must include at least one quotation from Atwood’s text.
- Stay focused on answering the prompt. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer. Remember to clarify the importance of your post. Don’t just tell us that something is “important”; rather explain why it is important.
- Make an argument. Don’t summarize the text.
- Use specific moments from Atwood’s book to support and illustrate your argument.
- Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotations.
This response is due before class on Tuesday, March 1st. Blog comments (at least 2) are due before class on Thursday, March 3rd.
In the first half of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, freedom is largely the issue of focus. This passage, “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24), suggests that freedom from such things as control and decisions is more of a luxury than Offred may think. This lack of control and decision-making is constantly shown in the first half of the book through simple, everyday occurrences such as what the individuals wear. What makes this passage so important is the way Aunt Lydia presents “freedom to and freedom from”. This differentiation presents a great contrast between Red Center and society outside of it.
This direct comparison of “freedom to and from from” is shown when Offred and Ofglen encounter Japanese tourists of Westernized society (that Aunt Lydia would refer to as “anarchy”), the society to which Offred once belonged. At one point, Offred is “mesmerized by the women’s feet” (Atwood 30) and continues to fantasize about what wearing open-toed shoes with polished toe nails felt like. She delves so deeply into this thought that she even says that “I can feel her shoes, on my own feet”. Something that is so simple, to people who have the freedom to paint their toe nails and wear open-toed shoes, is a daydream to an individual who has “freedom from” having to go through the complications of choosing a color and finding a way to paint their nails.
When Aunt Lydia says “don’t underrate it”, she is trying to convince Offred that giving all control to the Commanders of the Red Center is more liberating than having the ability to do whatever she pleases. She makes it seem that the freedom to do something was found only in the days of anarchy and chaos, implying that a place of stability and order provides an environment that requires no thought from the individual besides completing the task assigned to them.
This is main struggle for the first half of the book; despite every attempt by women of the house to show Offred that the “freedom from” is more valuable than the “freedom to”, quite often she still finds herself thinking about the way her life used to be and how badly she wants to return to it, flaws and all.