The novel The Handmaid’s Tale Essay
The novel The Handmaid’s Tale
In this essay I am going to look at how readers get a sense of Dystopia from the first opening chapters of the novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood. We are thrown right into it and we readers are forced to think what is happening. Right at the start of Chapter one Atwood starts the novel with an interesting use of syntax; she uses a very short sentence which makes us think. ‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium’. This is a very powerful opening sentence and gives us a sense of Dystopia right from the word go because it makes us think why are they sleeping in the gymnasium.
Also her use of the word ‘once’ is an interesting lexical choice because by saying once it shows that this is no longer the case, it makes us think what has happened to the gymnasium. Throughout this paragraph Atwood shows us that time has passed and things have changed, for example when our narrator tells us that games were ‘formerly played there’. Also ‘the nets were gone’, from the basketball nets which again gives us the impression time has passed and things have changed.
Also our narrator tells us how time has passed further by describing the people that had once been there, ‘later in mini-skirts, then in pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair’. This creates an interesting image in our heads of the different fashions that people wore once in this gymnasium. Atwood uses some interesting lexical choices such as ‘lingered, palimpsest, forlorn wail and cardboard devil’, which builds up a rather strong semantic field of evil and forsaken images. However Atwood puts in a rather strange antonym to generally make us think, ‘cardboard devils’ and ‘snow of light’.
Our narrative voice now makes us think even further by saying that ‘[w]e yearned for the future’, again this makes us uncomfortable as readers because we wonder why she said we. Are there more of them? Also it makes us think why do they yearn for the future. This simple short sentence is a good use of syntax by Atwood because it further builds up the image of a dystopian world. Again our narrator uses ‘[w]e’, and she also tells us that they slept with ‘army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U. S ‘.
Yet again it makes us think that this world is not right, if the blankets are old and they still said U’S then what happened to the United States? Do they no longer exist? Another way in which our narrator portrays dystopia is the fact that ‘Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled, they had electric cattle prods on thongs from their leather belts. ‘ This builds dystopia because in a normal world Aunts do not patrol and they do not carry electric cattle prods to keep our narrator escaping. From this we get a sense of some sort of hierarchy in this dystopian world.
We gain an insight further into their hierarchy with the introduction of the Angels who seem to be right at the top. There is a sense of irony when we learn that ‘[g]uns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels’. This builds further dystopia because why are the Angels allowed to dish out guns? Also our narrator speaks about them as ‘objects of fear’, which is odd because we see angels, in our world, as good helping beings. Our narrator gives us a sense of the plot by saying that they are only allowed out ‘two by two around the football field which was enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire’.
This tells us that our narrator is trapped somewhere, and we are starting to build a picture up of what is happening. Our narrator then gives us the characters names, ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. ‘ From this we learn that all of those names belong to women, which is odd. However just when we are getting comfortable and just when we have started to build up a picture of what is going on Atwood abruptly changes the whole setting and mood by going onto a chapter called ‘SHOPPING’, which is completely unrelated to what our narrator has been talking about in chapter one.
Chapter two starts off with a good use of tripartite construction; ‘[a] chair, a table, a lamp. ‘ This is also a good use of syntax by Atwood because again it is very acute. It also gets us thinking as readers because it is completely unrelated to what our narrator was talking about in chapter one. We start to get the setting from our narrator however no specifics are given such as the time or name of the place. We see that their captors have ‘removed anything you could tie a rope to. ‘ This tells us that the captives want to hang themselves.
This makes us think further because we want to know why they want to hang themselves. Throughout the first paragraph in chapter two our narrator plays on our senses by saying ‘the air can come in and make the curtains move’ and ‘I can smell the polish. ‘ Our narrator gives us a hint as to what the girls are used for in this story when she says ‘I am not being wasted. They are being used as incubators to breed a new race of people and Atwood gives us a subtle hint that this is the case by saying this short, simple sentence.
Throughout the first two paragraphs of chapter two Atwood uses the cohesive thread of whiteness to portray a positive place in complete contrast to the first chapter which was full of an evil semantic field. Atwood gives us a sense of our narrator’s idiolect through the way she thinks about past memories. ‘Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia. ‘ Atwood doesn’t put in any speech marks to indicate someone is speaking so I think that our narrator is remembering something that was said rather than actually speaking to someone.
We get a further sense of her idiolect from the way she says ‘[s]o. ‘ Our narrator seems as if she is having a general chat with us which builds up an image of her character. However once again our chain of thoughts is broken because we again jump to another setting and another subject which is a good use of graphology by Atwood. Once again we get a very short sentence for the start of a paragraph. ‘The bell that measures time is ringing. ‘ This is a very absorbing way of describing time; it also shows us that our narrator has been there for a while because she plans her day by the bell.
Our narrator describes the clothes she is wearing and we learn that her outfit is all red. ‘The red gloves are lying on the bed. ‘ Red is a rather strange choice of colour because it can be interpreted in two ways, it can be related to evil and the devil etc. but to me in this instance it portrays a rather alive and vivid colour in a somewhat unusual world. We also learn that they have to wear ‘white wings’, which again builds up the unfamiliarity with this dystopian world. We now finally learn about why the chapter is called shopping.
‘I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm. ‘ However our narrator doesn’t seem to thrilled with the shopping and it is not the kind of shopping we are familiar with. We also learn that they can only ‘stand or kneel only. ‘ in the sitting room which is bizarre. Atwood uses another interesting lexical choice because above the front door there is ‘a fanlight of coloured glass: flowers red and blue. ‘ This gives us a rather idiosyncratic contrast between the flamboyant colours of the flowers and the obnoxious world that our narrator is in.
We now find out more about the hierarchy present in the house through the umbrella stand, ‘black, for the Commander, blue, for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me, which is red. ‘ Our narrator also gives us a glimpse of two new characters, the Commander and his wife who are very influential in the lives of the women in the house. This sense of hierarchy by colours makes us feel very uncomfortable which is good as it shows Atwood is doing her job in portraying her dystopian world. The next paragraph again jumps abruptly from talking about the hierarchy of the house to what our narrator is doing now.
We also are introduced to more characters, if only for a short time. We meet Rita who is ‘standing at the kitchen table, which has a top of chipped white enamel. She’s in her usual Martha’s dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. ‘ This makes us uncomfortable again as readers because this sentence has a lot of information for us to process. Firstly, who is Martha? Also another colour is introduced so we wonder is this another piece in the hierarchy puzzle? Finally we attain that time has passed because she says ‘from the time before.
‘ We also find out that Rita disapproves of her attire ‘and what it stands for. ‘ But what does it stand for? Next we find out about alternatives situations to the one they are in now. Our narrator overhears Rita talking to another girl called Cora. ‘Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice. With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all? said Cora. Catch you. ‘ This shows us that there is the possibility of escaping their captors and trying to go to this colony. Also we wonder who the unwomen are. We also get a further sense of their idiolects through their paralinguistic features when they are communicating.
‘We would nod our heads as punctuation to each others voices, signaling that yes, we know all about it. ‘ They have very distinct paralinguistic features because their captors do not want them talking to each other because if they do, they can plot and plan to escape the establishment. We also learn that our narrator has a ‘hunger to commit the act of touch. ‘ The lexical choice of the word hunger really hits home to us how much she yearns for it. Also the way Atwood phrases it as the act of touch makes it sound to us like it is the biggest crime in this dystopian world.
Another way in which Atwood builds the dystopia in this world is when our narrator has to get tokens to get food. ‘I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. They have pictures on them, of the things they can be exchanged for: twelve eggs, a piece of cheese, a brown thing that’s supposed to be steak. ‘ The tokens can be exchanged for very unusual things which build on dystopia. At the end of chapter two we are left with a very uncomfortable feeling, ‘[w]hy tempt her friendship? ‘ We are left with the fact that our narrator doesn’t want to try and make friends with her as if it would be a bad thing.