As a fictive autobiography, Atwood looks at the life of a woman in a dystopian setting, living amongst a male dominated environment, that of Gilead. The main protagonist is presented as first person narrator and offers a subjective yet often subversive view of her surroundings and life. Atwood has evidently chosen this narrative strategy to build a personal relationship between Offred and the reader. As Offred unfolds her descriptions, with perpetual attention to clarity and detail, the reader is willing to believe her eye witness account.
This narrative strategy is effective in that the personal relationship also enables Margaret Atwood to place her own opinions in the reader’s mind and begin her messaging process. Offred has a complex narrative, which signals the post modern nature of Atwood’s technique. She becomes a self-conscious narrator, caught in between the past and the present and continually draws attention to the storytelling process, ‘I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling.
I need to believe it. ‘ Atwood shows how Offred uses storytelling for survival, she needs something to occupy her mind and offer hope for the future.
Atwood uses defamiliarisation when Offred presents three accounts of her time with Nick, ‘It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened’, ‘It didn’t happen that way either’ and ‘This is the story, then’, which all draw attention to changes, offer different viewpoints and bring the reader back to fictionality. Offred cannot find the language to describe her love affair under Gilead’s repression.
Atwood is determined that the reader hears Offred’s story, ‘Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are. As with postmodernist structures, The Handmaid’s Tale has no closure, no definite ending.
The reader doesn’t know what happened to Offred or how the Gilead society collapsed and so the effect of the post modern narrative forces the reader to ask questions. Atwood uses a heightened sensibility to bring the book alive by choosing language with connotations of touch, smell and taste. Offred recalls lemon oil, daffodils, nail polish and craves for cigarettes and coffee. Serena joy’s perfume, Lily of the Valley, however triggers off sensations and memories of Mother’s Day.
When Offred helps to make the bread dough, her sense of touch is compared with flesh and her hunger to touch another person generates a longing within her, a yearning for freedom and choice, yet Offred’s desire is disallowed in the puritanical ideology of Gilead. An allusion to Tennyson is revealed when Offred describes Serena’s garden in such a way that the reader feels they are in it, ‘Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool … black cat’s ear in the sun … the bleeding hearts … it breathes … The willow … s no help with its insinuating whispers. ‘ Presentation of heightened senses and feelings establishes a vivid realistic effect. As Atwood does this, she draws the reader into the setting and Offred’s life.
Sheila Conboy, Reading and Writing Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, argues that Offred creates her narrative as a metaphorical body. Offred mirrors ambivalence towards the text and the body’s rigid experiences of patriarchal society, highlighting a theme of anxious power, a conflict of feelings of anxiety and empowerment expressed by women writers.
Atwood uses layers of references as a narrative strategy where she binds the text together with the use of intertextuality from broader readings. According to Sherrill Grace, in her Analysis of Female Autobiography, ‘The layered narrative invites exploration. ‘ Historical and biblical allusions are profuse, Gilead has undoubtedly been selected from The Old Testament, Hosea 6 : 8, where it is described as ‘a city full of evil men and murderers’ supporting Offred’s depiction of Gilead.
The Rachel and Leah centre, named after Jacob’s two wives, whose handmaids were required to produce children for them suggests that Gilead’s culture is an acceptable practice, following the Bible’s word. The reader is reminded of history repeating itself, the basis of Atwood’s message. Language is used to subjugate women, ‘Marthas’ are named after a woman who served Christ and in the text, now serve the Commander. References are made to Karl Marx’s statement of production, whereby Aunt Lydia misrepresents the slogan the handmaids are expected to chant, ‘From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs’.
The Aunts imply that the terminology has derived form the bible, which is untrue. This verifies the Aunts’ beliefs and acceptance of Gileadean culture. The Aunts names are ambiguous, either from the Bible, Elizabeth, Sara and Helena or extrinsically connected to commercial products of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, Sara Lee cakes and Helena Rubinstein cosmetics, keeping the reader in touch with Offred’s previous life and the changes that have been developed. Sexual exploitations and the ideology of the fundamentalists are supported by the Aunts, who argue that the Gileadean social order offers women respect and safety.
Layers of referencing back up Offred’s story and are effective in making the cultures of Gilead more believable as the chances of a dystopian future becomes a possibility for the reader. Atwood’s strategy, using time shifts, allows Offred the opportunity of presenting narratives on various time levels: the present, with her account of the events in Gilead, her surroundings and the more distant past, by her often painful memories and dreams, forming a cohesion of the text. The Gilead narrative is made up from observation and is often presented in tight, short statements, ‘A chair, a table, a lamp …
A window, two white curtains … a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour … A bed. Single, mattress medium hard. ‘ This narrative technique gives the reader an intense feeling of being boxed in and connotations of loneliness. Yet on the opening page, when Offred recalls the gymnasium at the Red Centre, the nostalgic sense images are extremely detailed, ‘the pungent scent of sweat … sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume’, ‘the music lingered, a palimpset of unheard sound, style upon style. ‘ ‘Palimpset’ represents layers of times gone by which are sustained by the repetitive images of the past and give a sense of being.
The stripes, circles and nets may represent boundaries of the unknown future. Atwood prophesies Offred’s future, ‘There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation of something without a shape or name’. This prepares the reader for the layers of restrictions imposed especially upon the `nameless` handmaids, by Gilead’s customs. Offred has no rights under Gilead’s authoritarian rule and makes a personal, political statement through her thoughts and memories, creating a resistance to Gilead’s coercion. She refuses to silence the narrative in her head, often singing, she links the reader with her past life.
The self writing in The Handmaid’s Tale ensures Offred’s sanity as she constructs herself as an identity against Gilead’s conformity. Offred realises her narrative is a substitute for dialogue and that the only bridge between herself and the world beyond is when she reaches out to the future and addresses the reader, ‘Dear you, I’ll say … I’ll pretend you can hear me. ‘ Atwood is determined that the reader hears Offred’s narrative. Offred’s detailed and powerful descriptions of her surroundings and the events she witnesses in present day Gilead give some insight into her life under totalitarian rule.
The Gileadean regime, a mixture of religious and patriarchal fundamentalist principals and twentieth century technology is inscribed by a woman’s viewpoint, described by Offred’s narrative. Atwood supports Offred’s report by other methods: The patriarchal system is exposed by the handmaids’ names. Possession is publicized by their given names, Offred being Of Fred and Ofglen being Of Glen and so on. Women are restricted in Atwood’s patriarchal society, secured by soldiers (Angels), secret police (Eyes) and police (Guardians of the Faith).
Offred’s narrative of the Commander at her first bible reading is intense, assessing his masculine powers and his representation of the power of Gilead. Offred considers his position, the capacity to have women at his disposal and the right to read. ‘We lean towards him a little, iron filings to his magnet’, ‘He has the word. How we squandered it, once. ‘ Life for the females in Gilead is run by a series of bells, reducing their opportunities for verbal language to a minimum. Atwood conveys her message once again, not to squander what others have struggled for.
As Linda Hutcheon reminds us of, ‘The power of the male textual space’, highlights Atwood’s personal resistance to masculine fiction conventions. Powerful images of crowd hysteria is shown at the Salvagings when the females are whipped up into a frenzy, reminding the participants of their fate should they rebel. Atwood’s dominant events are illustrated by exceptionally realistic images. Flashbacks enable the reader to piece together the past and the present, gaining an understanding of how the patriarchal rule has come to be.
Atwood uses flashbacks as a strategy in the form of Offred’s memory narratives. Mostly set at night, when Offred has time to herself, she retreats into her memories for refuge, evoking many situations: her mother is highlighted by Atwood as an active member of the feminist movement, burning pornographic magazines; her husband, Luke before the birth of their daughter, representing her happy family life before Gilead; the disturbing removal of her daughter by the regime; her college friend Moira, representing choice and sexual freedom, all present Offred’s feelings and Atwood’s messages.
Offred’s stories of other women in the text, rebels or victims are highlighted as their chances of survival are slight and contrast Offred’s survival narrative. Atwood judges morality, the unacceptable rule of Gilead’s patriarchal government by allowing these victims to suffer or die. Offred remembers hymns, pop songs and TV programmes, contrasting freedom of the past with the isolated existence in Gilead. Atwood’s contrasts generate awareness for the reader and by using the narrative strategy of flashbacks, can in effect, show the drastic differences of a contemporary lifestyle compared to one of authoritarian rule.
Atwood is clearly symbolic writer and this narrative strategy presents many examples: fresh flowers for youth (Offred) and dried flowers for old age (Serena Joy); the colour red, representing love, life, female fruitfulness; red shoes; offering the chance to escape and the consequences if the women tried; eggs for ovulation and fertility, ‘If I have an egg, what more can I want? ‘ Atwood’s symbols are themselves messages for the reader’s awareness. In Atwood’s own words, the handmaids uniforms are derived in part from, ‘nun’s costumes, schoolgirls’ hemlines … nd partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations’. This is also represented in the text, ‘freedom, and freedom from. ‘
The cushion embroidered with the word ‘FAITH’ is significant in that Offred never finds ‘HOPE’ or ‘CHARITY’. Her only hope for the future is in the narrative in her mind. Inversion is employed when the Commander wishes to play scrabble instead of having sex with Offred. Nick allegedly says ‘No romance’, when in the past would have meant ‘No strings. The Wall is situated outside Harvard University and the Salvagings occur outside the Widener Library, overturning the reader’s known environment, a place of learning and language, to that of Gilead’s execution and mutilation, where language is a tool of power. Atwood mixes metaphors and idioms, ‘caught whiffs of their conversations’, ‘it was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a charm’, creates an unusual effect. Perhaps the Marthas, could build on ideas to form a rebellion?
But from Offred’s viewpoint, Rita would be too afraid. A complete change of narrative in respect of register, time frame and language, Professor Pieixoto presents the cassettes with Offred’s narrative, perhaps the reason for the irregularity of the time shifts. What we’ve read now raises even more questions. The professor has an obvious condescending and sexist attitude towards women. The Historical Notes further confirms that Offred existed, making the story more authentic.
Yet the Professor seems more interested in the Commander’s identity and is cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. In 2195, the male voice is still strong. Atwood’s narrative strategies are effective in that she is successful in making Offred’s identity a voice for the future, imparting varied and important messages upon her audience. Through Offred’s narrative, visions, thoughts and the outlines of the other women’s sub-texts, her use of symbolism, extrinsic and layered references, Atwood’s messages are reinforced.
References to islands of nuclear waste, war, rationing, the knowledge of Atwood’s concern for human rights, and member of Amnesty International, the reader is encouraged to believe in the text, and heed her warnings of sexploitation, religious or political and extremism in any culture. Atwood’s fictional dystopia is extremely effective as a warning for the avoidance of a nightmare like Gilead in the future.
Messages strongly suggest, by showing Gilead’s patriarchal rule and the effect on the women in that society, that women of the twentieth and twenty first centuries should not become complacent. Typical of a postmodernist text, Atwood offers no clear cut ending to the tale, Offred’s escape is long enough for her to record the tapes, but we never find out exactly what happened to her. Gilead is a mirror of what could be. Atwood leaves us with an incomplete novel, and the inevitable question, how free are we?