How appropriate a description of the structure of the novel do you consider this? Offred narrates her story in a rather disjointed, fragmented style. Some parts of it are flashbacks of her life before the rise of Gilead. Some parts are vignettes from her training as a Handmaid at the Red Centre, in which she and her friend Moira are subjected to the cruelty of the Aunts. Other descriptions are described as present tense.
Offred appears in many ways as a sympathetic narrator, an every woman, who, in the pre-Gilead world of the contemporary United States, was an ordinary, sensual woman, with a college degree, a husband, a daughter and a job in a library. She lost all those blessings as a result of the coup, and is now in a terrible, terrifying bind, a Handmaid in a powerful and repressive dystopia. As she narrates about her life, in Gilead and the time before, she presents herself appealingly. She shows resistance to the current regime.
She wishes to establish in Gilead two feelings rigorously suppressed: she wishes to talk and she hungers to ‘commit the act of touch’ (2:14). Her frequent juxtaposing of her past and preset creates a powerful sense of, not only loss, but also a feeling of great longing for her past life. As she recounts episodes that occur in the regime i. e. her recent past, she also looks back fondly to her life pre-Gilead. She remembers the control she felt when she had family and friends. She looks back with longing and love for her husband Luke and her daughter, reminisces about her friend Moira and thinks of her mother.
Her story is told in a stream of conscious style, with memories and thought cutting into the relating of events. Her voice is educated and sometimes funny, but she is a fallible narrator, as her story is so isolated. The historical notes at the end accentuate this fallibility as the authenticity of her story is questioned. She also tells her story in the present tense, which is near enough impossible as it would not have been possible for her to record this at the time that she describes (the regime did not permit any sort of communication).
Her memories seem almost hyper real in their descriptiveness and observations. Her mental state is described through the fractured form of the narrative. The fragmentation of Offred’s thoughts and the theme of anachronism within her character become more limited, as she drifts less and less into previous time periods. Atwood uses such a change in structure to present a stronger attachment to the Gileadean society through passage of time, made effective mainly by evolving Offred’s relationship with both the Commander and Nick later on in the novel.
Furthermore the fragmented structure of the novel is also reflected strongly by the use of atypical language techniques throughout the novel. Atwood unusually uses the present tense to represent the present period of time e. g. when describing their attempted escape where she says, ‘That is a reconstruction too’ (23:150), and this provides a stronger contrast against the past periods. Offred throughout the novel, and despite being the protagonist, seems somewhat detached from the story she narrates, ‘One detaches oneself.
One narrates’ (16:106), and on many occasions expresses her discontentment at relating the story, ‘I am too tired to go on with this story’ (22:138). This suggests that she finds it extremely difficult to tell her story even though it may be therapeutic for her to be relating it to others. When lapses occur she finds solace in the past memories she has stored, ‘Here is a different story, a better one’. She refers to her past repeatedly and many occasions stresses her great need for Luke, ‘I want him so badly’ (17:108), even justifying her feelings or reactions to Nick as a result of her loss of her husband.
There are also few occasions in the telling of her story where Offred seems almost inconsolable through sheer desperation as a result of the lack of normality in her life, ‘I want her back (her mother), I want everything back, the way it was’. She is desperate to escape from this regime which has bound her to such alienation. She wants to love and be loved once again. When Offred looks inside herself in her moments of nostalgia, she does find a set of memories that allow her to recall a sense of herself.
She can remember her job, her love for her husband, her daughter, her mother, her friends; particularly Moira, her education and the successes and failures of everyday life. Throughout the book she tries to hold on to these, but eventually they begin to fade away. Luke and her daughter slip into past tense. She fears that she is finally betraying Luke when she has her affair with Nick, and she feels erased by time, no longer a presence in her daughter’s existence. ‘I sit in the chair and think about the word chair.
It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity… ‘ On many occasions throughout the novel Offred plays with language. Language is one of the central symbolic themes of the novel and it is something that is restricted and demoted in Gilead. Barbara Hill Rigney2 described Atwood’s use of such a mechanism in the Handmaid’s Tale to represent Offred’s oppression as: ‘Language is a ‘fragile protest’, but it represents the only salvation possible’.
I believe this is absolutely true in that Offred being able to relate her story to somebody else is what keeps her sane. It gives her some form of escape where she does not have to be someone she isn’t, yet she can choose to be exactly what she wants; it’s her story, her choices. According to Amin Malik1 what makes Atwood’s book such a moving tale is ‘it’s clever technique in presenting the heroine initially as a vice like sleepwalker conceiving disjointed perceptions of its surroundings, as well as flashing reminiscences about a bygone life’.
As the scenes gather more details and momentum, Offred’s narrative transfigures into a full roundedness that parallels her maturing comprehension of what is happening around her. Atwood skilfully manipulates the time sequence between Offred’s past (pre-Gilead) and the present: those shifting reminiscences offer glimpses of a life, though not ideal, still filled with energy, creativity, humaneness and a sense of selfhood, a life that sharply contrasts with the alienation, slavery and suffering under totalitarianism.
1. Amin Malik, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition, 1987 2. Barbara Hill Rigney- Atwood Critic Published by Macmillan Press 1987. Dec 2003 Miss. Slocombe Nasima Begum 12B Pg 1 of 3 Show preview only The above preview is unformatted text This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our GCSE Margaret Atwood section.