Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has sufficient content to be the subject of many academic papers. Since I will be approaching it in a mere blog entry, I will limit my scope to the part that most intrigued me, which I brought up in class when it came time for my turn to speak.

First, an interesting aspect of the ebook edition that I used. I thought I had a hard copy, I know I had one at one point, a gift from a friend, or perhaps a loan never returned, but when I searched my book shelves I couldn't find it. So I found a good deal and bought it for my Kindle. At the end of the text, Atwood has a section called "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale." To me, it is clearly meant to be read as a part of the text, because it is dated well in the future (22nd century). But when I finished the last bit before that section, the electronic edition determined that the book was over and gave me a pop up asking if I'd like to review the book before moving on to another file.

It seemed to me, from the class discussion that was before my mention of the note, that some of my classmates, whether reading hard copy or electronic, had not read the note. And I wondered what impact the note is supposed to have, and whether the text is incomplete without it. I think that the note turns the interpretation of the text to a new angle by framing the story that has just been told in a way that both adds and takes away from the daring act of a woman speaking.

Through the text, the narrator does not explain how it is she comes to be telling this story, how it has come to be in a written form when the society forbids writing to women. The reader can guess that the author is using a device, allowing the reader to be inside the head of the narrator. But the text itself contradicts that interpretation, especially as the narrator references a reader on page 268: "By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are." This is not the author dipping into the consciousness of her character, but rather a character speaking, telling her story to a future reader.

Another interpretation could be that after the ending of the book, the narrator did manage to escape and write down her story. But if that were the case, then why end so abruptly? The story ends with the narrator taken away by the secret police. She is told to trust them, that they are not what they seem, but no word of her fate is given. It is only the existence of the told story that provides proof that she was not killed immediately.

And in the Historical Notes section, Atwood gives another explanation. She calls the preceding story a found collection of narration on cassette tapes, hidden on tapes containing music until her voice breaks in after a safe interval. For me, this at first seemed to be a more powerful presentation of the woman speaking. Framing the words as recorded speech rather than written words gives them a more powerful voice. Perhaps, the solution for a woman to write her body is to speak it. To allow the emotions of voice to flutter and yell without the fence of words holding her in.

But a classmate brought up another aspect of the Notes section. The Notes are a kind of academic lecture, studying the authenticity of the recordings that became The Handmaid's Tale. What, then, does the fact that this woman's voice was transcribed, choices and interpretations made by others, mean for the emotional authenticity of the word? And, as I have already complained about the fact that Available Means often had male translators for works translated to English, how could I also not complain at the fact that the narrator's voice was transcribed by two male professors? (I admit that it is possible that Professor Wade is female as no reference is made to sex, but the first name is Knotly and I am going to stick with the interpretation of male, as I will for James Darcy Pieixoto). What does it mean that this woman's "accent, obscure referents and archaisms" (302), not to mention the order in which the text is presented, were all interpreted by men?

And yet, the men are characters, as is the narrator, all written by a woman. Atwood creates a depth of interpretation in many different aspects of this book. I've focused on one for brevity, but there are so many other pieces, even just in the Notes that I could dig into. For example, why do the academics assume that the narrator has told the truth about her "name" (Offred) when they try to authenticate? If she lied about every other name, why wouldn't she lie about that one, and especially in such a symbolic way. To me, the name is not Of-Fred, but Off-Red. She has taken off the red of the Handmaid when she tells this story, no matter what might have happened after the recording.

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