Historical notes

Synopsis of Historical Notes

This section is supposedly a transcript of one lecture from a conference, held in the year 2195, of historians interested in the former Republic of Gilead, which, it is implied, ceased to exist some time in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. The conference is being held in Canada, and the speaker is a Professor Pieixoto from the University of Cambridge, England, talking on ‘Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale'.

He describes how he and a colleague, Professor Wade, have been working on transcripts of a group of about thirty old cassette tapes found in a metal box in what had once, before Gilead, been the State of Maine. Professor Wade has given the title The Handmaid's Tale to these tapes. The voice on all the cassettes is the same, but they have no way of knowing the correct order in which they should be organised, nor even if they are authentic. Pieixoto points out that, in Gilead at the time the material deals with, the tapes could not have been recorded, since a Handmaid would have had no access to such facilities, so presumably they were not made at the time the speaker is talking about (even though most of the material is in the present tense).

Professors Pieixoto and Wade have tried to establish the identity of the Handmaid, but with no success. They realise that she must have been one of the first women forced by the régime to try to bear children because of the fertility problems in Gilead - the result of AIDS, syphilis, nuclear-plant accidents and toxic leakages. However, they do not know her name, and suspect that other names she mentions may be pseudonyms to protect identities.

They have tried instead to identify the Commander in the story, and have come up with two suggestions: a Frederick Waterford and a Frederick Judd. Waterford was responsible for the design of uniforms, and details of names and ceremonial details for activities such as Salvagings, whilst Judd was involved in the massacre of Congress at the time the new régime took over, and for the forced emigration of Jews. Judd was also responsible for promoting the idea of particicution, and for forming the group known as the Aunts, whereas Waterford thought of giving them the reassuring names of well-known commercial products.

However, neither of these men was married to a woman called Serena Joy, but they think this name may have been invented by the Handmaid. They think the evidence is most in favour of the Commander being Waterford, who was executed for being in possession of literary material and for ‘harbouring a subversive', which could have been Offred.

Pieixoto admits that they have no idea what happened to the Handmaid, and whether Nick really assisted her. He may have done so, Pieixoto suggests, because Nick himself would have been in danger after indulging in illicit sexual activity and could not risk Offred talking under torture.

Pieixoto then asks if there are any questions.

Commentary on Historical Notes

These ‘Historical Notes' completely alter our perception of the novel. We have been made aware throughout that Offred's account is a construct, but now we are told that the order of the material is totally arbitrary. We are also asked to consider the Republic of Gilead not as a possible future state, but as one that existed in the past, as far as the speaker is concerned. See Structure and methods of narration.

Notes - This term perhaps suggests something relatively unimportant, as if the whole of Offred's experiences is a mere side issue for these historians

Gileadean Studies - The Republic of Gilead no longer exists, and is merely the subject of historical research. This is a reminder to Atwood's readers that even the most powerful régime or empire will in time fail or fade into obscurity.

Nunavut, CanadaDenay, Nunavit - Nunavut is a genuine place - a large region of northern Canada. Atwood's choice of the names for this place and region create an interesting pun: ‘deny none of it'- which suggests that, although Pieixoto is patronising and flippant about Offred's experiences, Atwood may well be indicating that there is an essential truth to be found in her narrative.

Chair ... Keynote Speaker - The Chair is a woman, and her name suggests that she is of native Canadian Indian descent. However, the Speaker, from a different academic background, is male and indulges in patronising comments belittling women.

The Nature Walk - these activities suggest a very different environment from the toxic-waste and nuclear fall-out background which so affected Gilead. Atwood herself spent her childhood summers in the Canadian backwoods with her entomologist father. (See Biography of Margaret Atwood.)

Republic of Texas - We learn that the structure of the USA has obviously changed if Texas is now a separate republic.

Gileadean Civil Wars - Presumably the rebels grew in numbers until civil war erupted - an echo of the Civil War in nineteenth century America.

If not personally - The word ‘personally' is significant: ironically, Pieixoto, like Offred, is only known through what is written; yet his writings are obviously impersonal and, as we see later, he does not value her revelation of her own thoughts and personality.

Authentication - The Professors are only interested in proving the provenance of the material. Its actual content, and the way in which Offred shares her thoughts with us, together with her insights into human relationships, seem of little or no interest to them. Later Pieixoto expresses regret that the Handmaid did not talk about ‘the workings of the Gileadean empire'. He never discusses what she does talk about.

‘enjoy' - Pieixoto indulges in a sexist punning joke: he enjoyed eating the fish, char, and he finds the Chair pleasant, but he implies that a man such as himself might once have ‘enjoyed' such a women sexually.

‘The Handmaid's Tale'... Chaucer - Chaucer, the fourteenth century English poet (whose work features elsewhere on the Crossref-it website), wrote a series of stories in verse called The Canterbury Tales, including, for example, The Wife of Bath's Tale.

puns … intentional, particularly … tail - Pieixoto - and some of his audience - find it amusing that his colleague has chosen a title which makes a joke about Offred's being forced into sexual slavery.

Underground Frailroad - In chapter 38, there was an escape route from Gilead known as the Underground Femaleroad - an echo of the nineteenth century escape route for slaves known as the Underground Railroad. Pieixoto puns on the name substituting ‘Frail' for ‘Rail' or ‘Female', since females were once known as the ‘frail sex'. This is another sexist joke which Atwood - a feminist - ascribes to the Professor, suggesting therefore that she is presenting a type of man whose views we are not to share.

U.S. Army issue - Nick had a U.S. Army blanket, though this does not offer any proof that he was involved in hiding the tapes. As Pieixoto says, ‘This fact of itself need have no significance.'

two or three songs - In chapter 10, Offred recalls her mother's old cassette tapes of songs. She says that her mother had ‘a scratchy and untrustworthy machine, too' and would play the music tapes for her friends.

tapes … in no particular order - In the rest of the novel, Offred's story moves backwards and forwards in time, but seems a coherent narrative. Now Atwood seems to suggest that the order of events is arbitrary, leaving us to assume that the real significance of Offred's tale is not when things happened but how she felt about them or reacted to them. (See Structure and methods of narration.)

judgements are … culture-specific ... not .. censure but .. understand - Although the audience seems to share Pieixoto's view that we should not judge Gilead harshly, Atwood may well be presenting us with a more complex ethical dilemma: how far can, or should, we stay morally neutral? If the depiction of Gilead includes some terrible atrocities which we find echoed in our own society, should we ignore the comparisons?

establish an identity for the narrator - Pieixoto and Wade see their task as ‘establishing an identity' for Offred, but fail to respond to the identity which she has established for herself through her narrative. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

The first wave of women recruited - ‘Recruited' suggests that volunteers were asked for, whereas Offred's account makes it clear that women were arrested, imprisoned and forced into sexual slavery. Pieixoto goes on to describe the men who ‘required such services and could lay claim to them', which seems to suggest that men such as the Commander had a right to use women in such a way.

Nuclear-plant accidents … disposal sites - Atwood's strong awareness of, and commitment to, environmental issues has in recent years led to her writing two dystopian novels about a cataclysmic end to most of humankind and to civilisation as we know it: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. (See Social / political context > Atwood's use of actual historical events > The real dystopia.)

Utah in the nineteenth century - A reference to the Mormons, a religious group founded in America in the mid-nineteenth century, which initially supported the idea of polygamy (men having several wives).

Our author … was one of many - Pieixoto seems to undermine the idea of Offred's individuality. As she herself said in chapter 30, ‘One and one and one and one doesn't equal four. Each one remains unique.' (See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

Names … connection - Pieixoto's choice of terminology again diminishes the horror of what happened to these women. They did not ‘take' the names, but, against their own wills, were called by their ‘owners'' names. Their relationship with these men was not the bland one suggested by ‘connection' but a forced imprisonment for sexual purposes.

Jacob and his sonsSons of Jacob - The twelve sons of Jacob were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob's two wives were Rachel and Leah, after whom Gilead's Rachel and Leah Centre (the Red Centre) was named.

mistake … teaching them to read - Atwood is extremely aware of the significance of reading and of nuances of language. She has shown how Gilead closed the Universities and banned literature, knowing that the dissemination of ideas through reading could be a vital weapon against oppression. (See also Social / political context > Political satire > Hitler and the Nazis or China and the Cultural Revolution.)

Scapegoats … useful throughout history - A scapegoat is someone who is blamed for the faults or sins of others. For example, in Orwell's novel 1984, the populace is invited to scream in hatred at a supposed enemy of the state, Emmanuel Goldstein, to divert their attention from government failures. The term comes from a ritual, described in the Bible in Leviticus 16:6-22, of sending a goat out into the desert, symbolically carrying away the sins of the Israelites.

Particicution ... echoes … fertility rites - In such rites men are sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the earth (as described in Mary Renault's novel The King Must Die). It is ironic that such a rigorously patriarchal, and supposedly fundamentalist Christian, society as the Republic of Gilead should use a practice associated with strongly matriarchal pagan societies.

invention by our author - There may be a sly joke here by Atwood: for Pieixoto, ‘our author' who has created the name ‘Serena Joy' is Offred - but we are also reminded that ‘our author' is actually Atwood. (The same is true of the later phrase ‘our anonymous author', even though Atwood is not ‘anonymous'.)

the workings of the Gileadean empire - Pieixoto has missed the point of Offred's - and Atwood's - narrative. Atwood has not chosen to invent the details of a totalitarian regime. What we do learn about its methods are echoes, deliberately chosen by Atwood, of tactics used in many real tyrannies, so we do not need to have further invented details. Instead, Atwood has chosen to give us an insight into the mind of a woman trapped in such terrible circumstances, and her attempts to survive in both body and soul.

the human heart remains a factor - For Pieixoto, Nick's only motive would be that ‘no male of the Gilead period could resist the possibility of fatherhood.' Pieixoto fails to realise that the factor which is ‘the human heart' could mean that Nick felt love, or at least strong affection, for Offred, as she did for him.

We cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day - Atwood leaves us to wonder whether we can, in any case, ‘decipher' the voices of the past. How do we begin to do this, and is ‘our own day' at all ‘clearer' than the past?

Are there any questions? - We should, after reading The Handmaid's Tale, have many questions to ask about our own society, and what we find acceptable or unacceptable in it. 

Investigating Historical Notes

  • In what ways do the Historical Notes change your perception of the novel?
  • What does Atwood gain by adding the Historical Notes?
  • Does she lose anything, in your opinion?
  • What would have been the effect if the Historical Notes had been put as an Introduction rather than at the end of the novel?

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