Structure and methods of narration

Tale as construct 

Atwood makes it very clear to her readers that The Handmaid’s Tale is - as are all novels, of course - a construct: 

  • She makes her character Offred tell us this directly in chapter 23:

    ‘It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances’.      
  • As Offred also says later, in chapter 40, ‘All I can hope for is a reconstruction’
  • In chapter 41 she apologises for her story being ‘in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire.

 But the fact that a novel is a construct is more obviously true of The Handmaid’s Tale than of, say, a straightforward chronological narrative.

The ending

When readers reach the section Historical Notes, they are suddenly faced with the idea that the whole of what has gone before is itself a reconstruction of material of uncertain provenance - a series of tapes, unnumbered and ‘arranged in no particular order’. These tapes ‘might be a forgery’, and the identity of the speaker on the tapes is unknown. By adding the section Historical Notes, therefore, Atwood has not only added a final feminist commentary to her feminist novel (see Synopses: Historical Notes) but has refused to provide a neat ending and has instead left her readers with an additional mystery, which she underscores with her final words: ‘Are there any questions?’

Non-chronological time sequence

In the section Historical Notes, Professor Pieixoto points out that Offred would have had no access to a recording machine while she was a handmaid, so her narrative must be put together at a later date from her memories. Even without the Historical Notes, we are left in no doubt that Atwood wants to make sure that we see her narrative as a construct; one way she does this is to play with the time-sequence.

Seven of the fifteen sections of the novel are entitled ‘Night’, and at these times Offred mentally escapes (though she cannot physically) from the present environment into her own mind. This often involves re-living past events, such as remembering times at the Red Centre, or her childhood, or her marriage to Luke - and, crucially, the failed escape attempt after which her child was taken away. These ‘flashbacks’ also enable Offred to show us the sharp contrast between the ‘time before’ and the current situation now that the Republic of Gilead has taken control in what was once the United States of America.

The shifts in tense in the narrative between past and present make the reader very aware of changes in time-sequences. 

Deferred and withheld information

Atwood chooses to write the novel in the first person, so we can only know and experience what Offred knows, experiences and remembers. And since Offred cannot record her ideas and experiences as she has them - because writing is forbidden in Gilead - we cannot assume that her memories are meant to be accurate. As Offred says in chapter 38:

‘I can’t remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down.’ 

Letting the reader suppose that Offred tells us only what comes into her mind at any particular time allows Atwood to increase suspense, by delaying the telling of crucial facts. The first chapter in the novel is a perfect example of this, as the novel opens with an unnamed narrator speaking of an unknown group - ‘we’ - in a strange and undefined situation, controlled by ‘Aunts’ who seem anything but typically aunt-like, and by Angels carrying guns.

Although someone called Luke is mentioned in chapter 2, it isn’t until chapter 5 that we realise his relationship to Offred when, suddenly, their child is introduced into the narrative. This revelation that Offred has had a husband and child adds a completely new dimension to her circumstances. Yet the full horror of their attempted escape together from Gilead is not revealed until later; Offred dreams about the loss of her loved ones, and we gradually piece together what happened in their last days together.

Even then, we never do find out what has happened to Luke, and although Offred is shown her child’s photograph (in chapter 35), we know nothing about where she is, because we are only told what Offred can tell us.

Similarly, with Moira and Offred’s mother, information about them is deferred: 

  • In particular, once we learn in chapter 22 about Moira’s escape from the Red Centre, we hear nothing more until Offred encounters her at Jezebel’s. Then we are left to assume what Moira’s final fate will be
  • Equally, although Offred recalls her mother at various times, the closest she comes to finding out what happened after her mother’s arrest is when Moira tells Offred, at Jezebel’s, ‘I saw your mother.. in that film they showed us, about the Colonies’.

And of course the most significant piece of withheld information is what happens to Offred herself - and what her real name might be.

Different versions of events

Another way in which Atwood underlines that her novel is a construct is to have Offred herself insist on it, by giving the reader different versions of the same event. This happens overtly in chapter 23, when Offred tells us that she thinks about stabbing the Commander - then tells us:

‘in fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put that in only afterwards.’

A few lines later she tells us that the Commander asked her to kiss him ‘As if you meant it.’ and Offred adds, ‘He was so sad’ before telling us, ‘That is a reconstruction too.’

Perhaps the most obvious example of Offred giving us different versions is her account in chapter 40 of her first visit to Nick’s room. Having given us a description of love-making which makes her feel:

‘alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere’

she then abruptly says, 

‘I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.’

Yet, once she has given us a more prosaic version of their sexual encounter, Offred declares, ‘It didn’t happen that way either.’ She reminds us that:

‘all I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.’

Different voices

Another of Atwood’s structural methods is to have Offred recreate different voices - in particular those of her friend Moira and that of Aunt Lydia, who are diametrically opposed in personality and attitude:

  • Aunt Lydia’s teachings at the Red Centre are reproduced in some detail, for example in chapters 13 and 20. She frequently talk in clichés, attacking sexual and other freedoms
  • This is counterpointed by Moira’s earthy comments and demotic, often obscene, language
  • When Offred recalls her mother’s feminist views, these too are reproduced in a different speech style, so that we seem to encounter different people and personalities even though the whole narrative is ostensibly told in Offred’s voice
  • When we reach the section Historical Notes, Atwood creates another, very different voice for Professor Pieixoto, whose rather cynical, detached style is in sharp contrast to Offred’s sensitive, thoughtful and emotionally engaged tone.
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