narrative voice: the handmaid’s tale

Every word a writer uses is intentional. Every word Margaret Atwood uses is painstakingly intentional, particularly the decision to incorporate an emotionally fatigued, chronologically challenged shell of a woman as the narrative voice of The Handmaid’s Tale. So then how is it beneficial to the discourse, or the reader, to have such a discombobulated, presumptuous and almost secretive narrator in Offred?

The main motive on Atwood’s part for this inclusion would most likely be to create as real and raw a discourse about both Offred’s experiences and the fictional society of Gilead as possible, providing both a societal and personal commentary in a similar style to that of the human thought process.

This assumption is supported by forced silence surrounding elements of life in Gilead within her scrambled narrative; whether it’s an intentional ploy on Atwood’s part in order to highlight the absurdity of Gilead through ignoring the vast majority of contextual explanations, or whether Offred assumes the facts of her life to be instantly recognisable cultural norms is unknown. Regardless of her original intention, Atwood’s decision  to conceal information regarding certain elements of Offred’s life within Gilead creates a peculiarly disoriented narrative surrounding Gilead, as Offred continually references to events or quirks of her life that are only partially explained, if at all. This is particularly obvious within the first half of the narrative, as Offred throws the reader into a world  of ‘salvagings’, ‘martha’s’ and ‘aunts’ with little to no context given.

the novel’s muddled narrative structure and deliberate lack of context could confuse readers at first glance, however as the novel progresses and the reader’s understanding of Offred herself and Gilead as a whole become clear, the jolting style seems to flow in as sensible and fitting a fashion as any. Perhaps the divergence of Offred’s narration from traditional first person narratives -in terms of both content and structure- is intended to mirror the absurdity of Gilead’s society in contrast to the former USA, emphasising the many aberrations of Gilead when challenged with the reader’s preexisting knowledge of America.

Evidence of the ‘old’ United States is selectively used as a scare tactic throughout the narrative, employed (or edited) by the aunts in order to  create an appearance of the old reality as being a truly terrifying, barbaric alternative; this is highly evident within chapter 28, in which Offred reflects on her time in the Red Centre. The handmaid’s are routinely shown films regarding the treatment of women previously- ‘Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut into pieces, her fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open… consider the alternatives, said Aunt Lydia. you see what things used to be like?’. This selective use of propaganda orchestrated by the aunts could certainly be seen as an intentional statement on the part of Atwood, concerning both freedom of information (which is rather obviously missing within Gilead’s society), and as a commentary on the governmental control prevalent within Gilead. The question is whether Atwood would like the reader to draw parallels between their current experiences of the real world and Offred’s experiences of Gilead, or simply to observe Gilead as a speculative concept of what could potentially happen.

For Offred as a narrator however, Gilead is all too real- she regards her limited role within Gilead and the brainwashing perpetrated by the aunts and State with a sense of scepticism, showing a strong sense of character. One could argue however that Offred’s sense of self and therefore the defiant nature of her narrative tone  fluctuates and at points almost disappears within the narrative, only resurging with the arrival of other revolutionary figures such as Moira, Ofglen and by extension the underground organisation of Mayday.

By revealing snippets of other character’s lives and elements of the past whilst concealing the answers to the reader’s main burning questions, Atwood creates a sense of uncertainty within the reader- they are continually navigating unknown territory within their field of understanding of Offred’s narrative. This could be an intentional parallel of Offred’s own life, as she traverses the minefield that is life in Gilead for any woman, regardless of caste. This creates a sense of hungry observation within the reader, despite the continual limits placed upon them by Offred’s lack of explanation or her own lack of knowledge. Whether intentional on Atwood’s part or not, this then forces the reader to engage with (and show interest in) the narrative simply in order to understand it. The creation of suspense for the reader whilst being held in a state of enforced ignorance mirrors Offred’s limited existence in Gilead, whilst the lack of a clear understanding of Gilead creates a constant string of shocking revelations for the reader. This then creates a sense of hyperbolic extremity surrounding Gilead, emphasising it’s divergence from the reader’s own understanding and Offred’s  former experiences of womanhood in the US.

Offred’s lack of certainty regarding her own memories can only be a product of a forced assimilation into Gilead’s society, as the values of Gilead’s twisted puritanism are indoctrinated into all the women of Gilead’s society, including Offred. This “re-education”  is highly obvious within a period of reflection during chapter 28, in which Offred states ‘It’s strange now, to think about having a job.’  The adjective ‘strange’ has  negative connotations of both irregularity and of a divergence from what is naturally good, whilst the qualifying adverb ‘now’ only serves to highlight the differences in Offred’s thinking and her situation in comparison to former years. In this way it becomes highly apparent that Offred is a character of contrasts, and therefore produces a narrative plagued by contrasts of both opinion, structure and chronology.

The level of  structural accuracy and chronological clarity within Offred’s narration could also be seen as a clear map of her mental state and tumultuous emotional changes- as Offred abandons her traditional “safe” behaviours the narrative pace quickens and loses some of its regularity, mimicking Offred’s inconsistent mentality. Possibly the best example of this throughout the entire course of the novel would be in chapter 14, in which Offred states that ‘Serena lights another cigarette, I get into the car. We still have a car.’  The joining of 2 unrelated clauses using only a comma is rather jarring for the reader, whilst also contradicting the readers knowledge of Offred’s place in society; although it is never explicitly mentioned, it is not a large leap of the imagination to assume that Offred is not allowed to drive due to her low social standing, particularly  in relation to the commander’s wives, who hold the status of never being seen ‘on the sidewalk. only in cars.’ This known impossibility indicates to the reader that  Offred has now switched to one of her lackadaisically placed recollections, affirmed by the additional ‘we still have a car’-the personal plural pronoun of ‘we‘ referring to her past relationship with with Luke.

 Offred’s erratic thought processes (and therefore her erratic narrative) are intensely symptomatic of the human mind when trapped in captive boredom as she is in her role of a handmaid in Gilead- this is detailed within chapter 13, in which Offred states ‘There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for-… Time as white sound.’ This indicates that boredom is an ever-present feature of Offred’s life, as with the lives of other women trapped in the prison of Gilead’s patriarchy. Atwood has created a narrative voice symbolic of the mental and sensory stagnation prevalent within all the women of Gilead’s minds, creating a tangential narrative littered with glimpses of anticipatory rebellion and sorely missed past memories.

Although Offred’s narrative is irregular, it is not necessarily an annoyance to the reader- This instead is provided by the sense of complacence and lack of emotion pervading Offred’s thoughts within the early chapters of the book. ‘”All right,” I say. I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?’. To the unaware reader this refusal of both human closeness and courteous pleasantries creates an instantly negative (or at least unlikable) air surrounding Offred, heightened by her emotionally distant tone. As the discourse progresses  however, Offred’s reasoning for her apparently enforced automatism and ennui becomes highly apparent, as seen in this early quote; “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about.’  The use of the metaphor describing thought as being rationed is particularly evocative, as ‘rationed’ has connotations of large scale wars (and therefore great suffering) and of survival, whilst the auxiliary verb ‘must‘ adds a sense of urgency and need to the phrase. This infers that rationing thought is a vital necessity within Offred’s life, in order to help her survive- this is echoed by the following line of ‘Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.’ The rather ominous ‘to last’ once again echoes the concept of survival and endurance within Offred’s life,  whilst the vague reference to ‘a lot’ (it is unclear whether this is referring to Offred’s personal experience or the wider experience of life in Gilead- however the reader can comfortably assume that Offred is implying both) that doesn’t bear thinking about’ suggests that there are a multitude of hidden ugly truths within Gilead’s history and present day society, some of which affect Offred directly. In order to survive, it is better to ignore. In the words of Offred,  ‘Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.’, and ignorance is the only way in which Offred can prevent her own downfall- whether that’s a slow descent into insanity, or inciting the anger of her despotic superiors.

As a narrative voice, Offred could almost be accused of creating a reader who is ignorant of many of the facts of her own self-told narrative,  whether intentionally or not. Through the confusion of her current and past memories, through the ambiguity of her explanations and through her at times seemingly indifferent tone, Offred as a narrator furthers the stagnancy and suppression of her own existence into the reader’s perception of the novel- in literal terms, their understanding of Gilead and Offred herself is as flawed as her narrative. Yet in terms of human feeling,  Offred’s narrative voice  details the struggles of her life in Gilead  more perceptively than a traditional narrative ever could.


One thought on “narrative voice: the handmaid’s tale

  1. A level Literature can be truly wonderful. A thoughtful piece here Meg and you have considered Atwood’s intentions well. Have a look at de Beauvoir’s writings to see some intriguing correlations and ‘hard reality’ parallels of female portrayal!


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