Tag Archives: historical notes

History within Science Fiction

     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.

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It could happen…

Humanity’s stress of history derives from the ramifications it has on the present, as well as model of what to avoid for the future. By including the “historical notes”, Atwood anchors a grim sense of realism to her story. These professors have names that are unfamiliar to the present, such as Crescent Moon and Piexioto. Piexioto establishes that the Republic of Gilead was demolished, and by doing so, Atwood dismantles any preconceived notion that civilization can remain static, no matter how perfect it may seem. This was dabbled in the book by the insinuation of Offred being a part of contemporary United States of America, which by a series of realistically possible events, get overthrown. Nationalism and social esteem cannot keep a country from changing. There is an instance where Professor Pieixoto elicits how the polygamy practices of Gilead derived from “early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century” (Atwood 305). Here, Atwood presents how tangible this aberrant behavior can be, because it was something actually practiced in humanity for ages, instead of just being a work of Atwood’s imagination. The professor goes to to say that Gilead acquired racist policies that were “firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed” (Atwood 305). This racist quality was common, and was what advanced such detestable events in history, such as slavery and the Holocaust. Even though this is a work of fiction, Atwood manages to relate the disquieting story to that of non-fictional events to arouses a discomfort for how conceivable these events could occur, deriving from events of the past.

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Historical Notes: Giving The Handmaid’s Tale Historical Context

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.

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Historical Evaluation

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.

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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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The Only Hope is in the Historical Notes

The historical notes acts to create a sense of hope for the dystopian society described by Offred through use of the freedom of the future setting to take note of the people that were able to escape and tell their story.  The historical notes mentions “various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time”, thus showing the reader that not the entire world was overtaken by the Gilead regime and there were still people working for women’s rights and freedoms (304).  The historical notes also prove that the society was unable to continue and faded into obscurity to the point that future historians are left with a few articles and diaries to piece together what happened.  The author uses the historical notes to frame the story in a way that best explains the use of the first person perspective that is telling the story in the past tense along with the protagonist’s despairing and frustrated tone.  The historical notes placed after the story allow for there to be an element of hope without detracting from the tension present in Offred’s story.  The two separate tones in the novel allow the author to add hope without detracting from the danger of the regime or adding any positive elements to the society.  Their presence also leaves Offred’s fate shrouded in mystery, allowing the reader to infer whether she escaped or even received anything close to a happy ending.  The historical notes with its less suspenseful tone are able to delve into the possibility of Offred’s escape and the decline of the regime while still preserving the previous segment’s atmosphere of hopelessness and danger.

 

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Historical Notes or Debriefing?

In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the final section of the novel, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” at first glance appears to be merely an attachment with little relevance to the entirety of  the work. However, through this discourse much is revealed not only about the fate of Offred, the protagonist, but additional explanation of the fate of Gilead is provided.

Most importantly perhaps with the ambiguous conclusion of the novel, the historical notes offer a glimmer of hope for the protagonist. “…it could not have been recorded during the period of time it recounts, since, if the author is telling the truth, no machine or tapes would have been available to her, nor would she have had a place of concealment for them” (Atwood 303). From this and with additional hints such as the location of the tapes, the Underground Femaleroad, the audience can deduce that Offred escaped Gilead and was free long enough to record her recollections- her ultimate fate, however, is unclear.

Additionally, the panel discusses the fall of Gilead. With the keynote speakers names being reflective of an intermixed culture such as James Darcy Pieixoto, it is obvious that the goal of the purely Caucasian society of Gilead failed. In relation to the names of the speakers of the conference, it is interesting that the Chair is not only a woman, but a woman named ” Maryann Crescent Moon”. Throughout the novel, there is an emphasis on night, monthly cycles, and fertility, all symbolized by the moon. These factors in Gilead were utilized to oppress women, however in this address, it can be seen that a woman bearing the namesake of the means of oppression is not only empowered, but superior. This further highlights the abysmal lack of success of Gilead.

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A Story vs A History

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.

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Historical Notes and Questioning in The Handmaid’s Tale

The closing section of The Handmaid’s Tale gives important insight into the true context of the story, ultimately answering some details about Offred’s life. Although this is an important closure section of the book, I also feel like it causes the reader to feel slightly more curious in a way about other happenings in the rest of the book, in that it gives more information about the context of the story such as Offred and her life as well as the Republic of Gilead. Through important details in this section, the reader finds out key information, which adds to the overall background information and origin of the story. This information is important because since the story is from the narration of Offred, she may have not known key elements about her society and other aspects of life in the Republic of Gilead that were outside her perspective. It’s interesting to consider how the story was passed on as well. Offred recorded her version of the story on tapes which we find out in Professor Pieixoto’s keynote address were safely hidden in a safe house used in the Underground Femaleroad. The reader never finds out what happens to Offred, as Professor Piexoto addresses by saying “as for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure” (Atwood 284). By looking at this quote as insight into the novel, it shows how although there is closure in the realization that Offred is gone, it also brings up more questions about obscure situations underlying in the story.

 

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Historical Notes: a challenge to The Handmaid’s Tale

The historical notes section of The Handmaid’s Tale challenges the rest of the book in a variety of ways. One of the first and most obvious differences in regard to this section is the differing style of writing. The town hall meeting discusses average daily business and is filled with wit and laughter, a strikingly different tone then the preceding eerily memoir. The ending has a “lighter feel” and allows the reader a chance to recover from the story and gain a sense of closure. If Atwood had choose to omit this section, the story would have ended on a much graver note.

The reader is further comforted by the fact that much time has passed since the days of Gilead, and the customs of that society are merely a thing of the past. There continues to be much secrecy surrounding Gilead even to the present day and many questions remain unanswered.  I found it very interesting that the tapes had songs in the beginning of each to disguise their true content thus adding to the secrecy surrounding the story. The choice of these songs is also important to note, each adds meaning and irony to the story.

The historical note section may also serve as a warning to today’s society as, “some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds”. It also blames many other byproducts of today’s society such as the AIDS epidemic, genetic deformities caused by nuclear power plants, chemical and biological warfare, and the uncontrolled use of insecticides and other sprays.

Choosing this ending also helps to legitimize the story. It attempts to show how a society like Gilead truly could have come about and in reality is not so different from other events that have occurred in history.  As the historical notes cleverly addresses, “there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.” I completely agree with this statement and believe that society is merely a culmination of the world’s past events and little is original, but rather a recombination of events and ideas.

 

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