The historical notes in The Handmaid’s Tale give the book an entirely different feel by offering unusual insight into Offred’s life after her escape, and the fate of the Gilead society itself. First, it provides a frame for the story – the conversational tone of the story becomes clear when it is revealed that it was recorded on tape. This frame makes the story seem more real, in a way, more than just a story: it is an actual history. Professor Pieixoto also reveals to us that Offred did change at least some names (if not, possibly, all), and suggests this is because either she is afraid for her daughter or she herself is in danger. Both options take from the reader the hopeful, happy ending that was suggested by Offred’s escape among the Mayday rebel group in her retelling.
Something I found interesting was that the people in the Historical Notes were not white – the convention is held in Nunavit, and the introductory speaker is “Maryann Crescent Moon”. Crescent Moon also mentions another professor at the university – Professor Running Dog. Both have names that are clearly not “traditional Christian”. They are part of the “Department of Caucasian Anthropology” (Atwood 299). That there would be a department dedicated to Caucasian Anthropology suggests that something significant happened to the Caucasian race.
Pieixoto mentions a decline in birth rate, attributing it to many causes, such as the “widespread availability of birth control of various kinds” and diseases such as “R-strain syphilis” and the “infamous AIDS epidemic” as well as environmental factors, such as nuclear waste plants, toxins dumped into the water supply, and biological warfare (Atwood 304). That these things, products of our modern society, might cause such a drastic change in the population is a scary thought, and one that adds another dimension that it would not have without the context of the Historical Notes.
The historical notes section of The Handmaid’s Tale serves a very important purpose because it gives context to the story and answers some questions, while also asking more. The way that Offred’s account of her life ends on tape does not satisfy the reader, and so the historical notes give you that little bit more that the reader desperately wants.
Professor Pieixoto’s keynote address gives us more information about the larger society of the Republic of Gilead and the way it functioned, information that Offred would not know. We find out the larger context in which Offred and the rest of the people of Gilead lived, such as all of the civil wars and the theology and reasoning of many of the rules of the government. We also learn more details about the Underground Femaleroad and the large amount of resistance that Gilead faced. This information gives us a whole new set of circumstances in which to read Offred’s story.
We also find out answers to some questions in the historical notes, such as the fact that Nick must have been part of the Mayday group and orchestrated Offred’s escape because Offred’s tapes were found in a safe house of the Underground Femaleroad. We also most likely learn the Commander’s real identity, as well as his role in and contributions to the Republic of Gilead. Most importantly, we learn that the Republic is no longer a reality and is now something just to be studied. This brings the story to an absolute close because this society is no longer a threat to women and their freedom.
However much resolve the historical notes and Pieixoto’s address gives us, there are still questions that remain. We never learn Offred’s identity or her ultimate fate, along with those closest to her that she spoke so much about in her tapes. The fact that the address ends with Pieixoto saying “Are there any questions?” (Atwood 311) is represents how there are many more questions, but we do not get to learn the answers, for he stops the story there.