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Reflections On The Handmaid’s Tale

By Rita Carbajal


Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a social science fiction novel which follows Offred, a woman forced to serve as a concubine, in what is recognized as the Republic of Gilead. Offred takes us through her psychological journey as a Handmaid through a series of recordings, which are transcribed into a manuscript after the Republic of Gilead has fallen. Atwood composes her novel in a mannered structure that mirrors the human memory and the psychological state of someone who has faced trauma, creating a book that is both realistic as well as insightful to the human psyche.

The book is an entwinement of several parts of Offred’s life, parts which (while blended together by the narrative) are distinct from one another, as marked by specific incidents of the book, mostly absent from the narrative. If one looks at Offred’s story chronologically there are seven distinct phases which she narrates: her childhood and adolescence with her feminist mother, an distinct growing experience in college, her life as a working mother and wife, the transitory phase as her rights are stripped from her, her training into the role as a handmaid, her beginnings as a handmaid, and the stage of inward rebellion. However the entirety of the story is told mainly though flashbacks and triggered memories, which intertwine these phases in a pattern that blends them together in a traumatic development of several consciousness but manages to keep them separate due to missing information – usually events that would mark the exit of one phase and into another. George Lipsitz of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls this fragmented, incoherent, forever under construction process of signification that marks the true human subject, “counter memory.” Counter memory focuses on localized experiences of oppression, reframing them to focus on dominant narratives that represent universal experience. This contrasts with historical narratives which begin with the totality of human existence and then locate specific actions and events within that totality. Counter memory is typically necessitated by a Catch­22 in which the narrator, in order to participate in the dominant discourse and be heard, must be able to speak in the language of that discourse; however, in doing so, the narrator (who is a part of an oppressed and subjugated group), risks eliding the very counter­memory that their efforts are attempting to legitimize. This results in the narrator having “to develop dual and triple consciousness, who have had to live with the consequences of history, and who have had to find their identities in stories that never mentioned them” (Lipsitz 288). We see this development throughout the novel when Offred gives us insight from her place in the future continuous into her past. “In half an hour, I said. I had a paper due the next day. What was it? Psychology, English, economics. We studied things like that, then. On the flood of the room there were books, open face down, this way and that, extravagantly” (Atwood 38).

Offred’s memories begin in the first person present before offering insight or qualifying statements and questions from the novel’s actual present and then transfer back to the memories, usually now in the past tense. In some instances she will offer insight to her past thoughts at the time of the memory, but almost always from the future. She also acknowledges this phenomenon and how it could potentially be faulty. “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It is a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it... When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, it any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove” (Atwood 134). Offred goes on to say that it is impossible to tell anything, ever, as it actually was due to perception and faulty memory. She also recognizes the liberties she has taken in her reconstruction. “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands. In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction... He was so sad. That is a reconstruction, too” (Atwood 140).

For Offed, it is not enough to merely give memories to contrast the past with the present. In order to be understood by those in the dominant dialogue, she must develop these multiple consciousness, which offer a way for the audience to sympathize with the feelings she expresses as she cannot possibly make them understand her experiences. This use of counter­memory through several consciousness is not only realistic in that it very much mirrors the human memory – separating our lives into distinct parts separated by a series of events which are usually actually absent from our memory, but marking the parts with seemingly unremarkable events which remain vivid – but also gives great insight into the human psyche.

Offred, on numerous occasion, would give insight from multiple of her consciousness. When discussing her adolescent years with her mother, there are of course the feelings of a teenage girl feels towards her mother – embarrassment, annoyance, and warmth – present. But there are also feelings from multiple points in the future. A grown mother with children of her own, remarking on the misguided feelings of teen angst; a woman who realizes that the rights her mother had fought for are slowly being taken away in the order they were gained; a prisoner who is alone in a gymnasium, scared and alone with memories of a past that she is not sure are entirely related to the future; a handmaid who is losing her past self, trying to make connections with a past that is slowly slipping away from her, feeling hope but also accepting the current situation and preparing for the worst.

These multiple points of introspection, show the psychological journey of a woman, with an indefatigable spirit, who does what she has to do to survive, but end up losing parts of herself. While she does display the emotions of suffering on the soul it is not through this intervention of the past, Offred does not sentimentalize or legitimate her suffering by bestowing a sense of healing that would enable the human spirit onward though this medium. It is Atwood’s language in which she describes events directly. It is without polemic or self­pity and is “sparse, taut, and concise. The events are allowed to speak for themselves” (Estess). Ted Estess, Dean of Honors College at the University of Houston, is an author of a book on Elie Wiesel and offers this insight into Wiesel’s Night:

The writing perhaps requires such control because the reality about which it speaks is so uncontrolled, so savage, and so thorough in its malevolence. The narrator's tone displays the same evenness and terseness, changing only infrequently to allow naked anger or horror to break through. The tone, moreover, is nonaccusatory. It is hauntingly sad. Irony is sometimes present, but it is not a bitter or strident or revengeful irony. The irony of Night makes the sadness more poignant, for it arises not from the narrator's cleverness but from painful discrepancies between his (and the reader's) expectations and the events he narrates.
While it is clear that to compare Night and The Handmaid’s Tale would be to do violence to both works, this juxtaposition casts light on the very crucial aesthetic issues of language and structure, helping us define the experience that T he Handmaid’s Tale e vokes. And such, when looking at Offred and Elie, it is clear that there are some very real similarities in their experiences, psychology, and mode of storytelling. In their experiences, both are slowly stripped of their possessions, then their rights and are eventually relocated and rewired into a new society where there are rules they must obey and roles they must play. (It is also arguable that both escaped their situations, but this would be speculation on part of us in relation to Offred as we are actually uncertain of her story’s resolution.) In their psychology, both are of indefatigable spirit, losing themselves to survive, and hating and feeling guilt over their changes, while keeping hope and accepting their situation at the same time. In their mode of story­telling, the most interesting similarity that they have in common, is the original form of the story versus the one being read.

Wiesel originally told his story in a much more concise manner in Yiddish before translating it into French and ultimately elongating the story by adding material when translating it into English. Offred’s story is reveled to be a manuscript of a woman’s story found in the form of tapes. It is unclear if the story is being told first hand by Offred herself of not and it is not even certain if the final manuscript was told in the order that was originally intended. However, knowing that the ultimate author is of course, Margret Atwood, and that these small details are actually facts of fiction, one can assume that the story is in­fact being told in its intended order. This set of fun facts aside, it is also clear that Elie Wiesel tells his story through a version of counter­memories, perhaps with less intervention of his several consciousness. While they are present, they are set aside in an impressionistic manner due to the preoccupation of trying to stay alive. Now having pointed out these similarities, it is reasonable to assume that Estess’ criticisms of Night a re very similar to those one would have about Handmaid’s Tale. While to a much milder extent than Elie Wiesel experienced, Offred does bear witness to a reality full of malevolence. Her psychology and that of Elie is very much the same. Both hang on to their families as points of hope, but know of that hope’s danger. Offred opts of believe that her family is dead and alive at the same time, believing them both to a strong extent. Offred also does not hold malice towards those around her for her condition. She remarks after The Ceremony, that while Serena Joy has it better than she herself does, that it is not a necessarily painless existence. “Which one of us is it worse for, her or me?” (Atwood 95). The chapter ends at this rhetorical question, leaving the audience pondering this question for a period much longer than one would have spent actually answering this question and leaving it alone if it were in the middle of a thought. Offred, in a position without information, refrains from holding judgement as to who is to blame for her pain. Like Wiesel, she is in a position with no power, and in constant fear of death, not always certain that death would be the worst option. The tone is “hauntingly sad.” Offred, though she maintains hope, has accepted her fate. “I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting” (Atwood 122).

The level of acceptance is not only what makes the story “hauntingly sad” but also contributes to the discrepancy between the reader’s expectations and the narrator’s expectations and experiences, contributing to the small irony which is present throughout the book. Even when Offred rebels by forming a relationship with Ofglen, the Commander, and Nick; she does not do so out of “revengeful irony.” In fact, this little act of rebellion, which the audience wishes would turn into a purposeful, strong, act of disobedience and resurgence to her past self, only contributes to Offred’s psychological deterioration. “I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely. I didn’t even think of it as giving myself to him, because what did I have do give? I did not feel munificent, but thankful, each time he would let me in. He didn’t have to” (Atwood 268).

We can see how, here at the end of the novel, the flashbacks and multiple points of insight have become hateful towards Offred’s own state of being. She remarks that she does not like who she has become and that she hates not being able to stop herself from becoming that person everyday. Her multiple states of being now only exist to show her deteriorating sense of being. Her indefatigable spirit, grows weary, only continuing in existence through her acceptance of her situation. As such, it is clear that the structure of Atwood’s novel provides insight to the human psychological state as it goes through a trauma. Through the formation of multiple consciousness to speak on the level of dominant discourse, Offred creates a narrative that reflects her psychological state and through Margret Atwood’s structure, the novel takes on a third dimension which mirrors the human memory and the narrator’s psychological state in a wholly realistic way. Lipsitz’s theory of counter memory is accurately applied to the novel in a manner that turns this social science fiction book into a work that is undubiously realistic, especially when one compares it to Estess’ characterization of Elie Wiesel’s Night, which renders the novel as a feasible alternate reality and which could actually affect people in the way that it affected Offred. The structure in which Margret Atwood composed her novel The Handmaid’s Tale created a discourse on the nature of human memory and the human psyche as it goes through a trauma.