How effective are the narrative strategies in The Handmaid's Tale?

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How effective are the narrative strategies in The Handmaid's Tale? The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. As a fictive autobiography, Atwood looks at the life of a woman in a dystopian setting, living amongst a male dominated environment, that of Gilead. The main protagonist is presented as first person narrator and offers a subjective yet often subversive view of her surroundings and life. Atwood has evidently chosen this narrative strategy to build a personal relationship between Offred and the reader. As Offred unfolds her descriptions, with perpetual attention to clarity and detail, the reader is willing to believe her eye witness account. This narrative strategy is effective in that the personal relationship also enables Margaret Atwood to place her own opinions in the reader's mind and begin her messaging process. Offred has a complex narrative, which signals the post modern nature of Atwood's technique. She becomes a self-conscious narrator, caught in between the past and the present and continually draws attention to the storytelling process, 'I would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it.' Atwood shows how Offred uses storytelling for survival, she needs something to occupy her mind and offer hope for the future.


A window, two white curtains ... a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour ... A bed. Single, mattress medium hard.' This narrative technique gives the reader an intense feeling of being boxed in and connotations of loneliness. Yet on the opening page, when Offred recalls the gymnasium at the Red Centre, the nostalgic sense images are extremely detailed, 'the pungent scent of sweat ... sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume', 'the music lingered, a palimpset of unheard sound, style upon style.' 'Palimpset' represents layers of times gone by which are sustained by the repetitive images of the past and give a sense of being. The stripes, circles and nets may represent boundaries of the unknown future. Atwood prophesies Offred's future, 'There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation of something without a shape or name'. This prepares the reader for the layers of restrictions imposed especially upon the `nameless` handmaids, by Gilead's customs. Offred has no rights under Gilead's authoritarian rule and makes a personal, political statement through her thoughts and memories, creating a resistance to Gilead's coercion. She refuses to silence the narrative in her head, often singing, she links the reader with her past life.


The Wall is situated outside Harvard University and the Salvagings occur outside the Widener Library, overturning the reader's known environment, a place of learning and language, to that of Gilead's execution and mutilation, where language is a tool of power. Atwood mixes metaphors and idioms, 'caught whiffs of their conversations', 'it was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a charm', creates an unusual effect. Perhaps the Marthas, could build on ideas to form a rebellion? But from Offred's viewpoint, Rita would be too afraid. A complete change of narrative in respect of register, time frame and language, Professor Pieixoto presents the cassettes with Offred's narrative, perhaps the reason for the irregularity of the time shifts. What we've read now raises even more questions. The professor has an obvious condescending and sexist attitude towards women. The Historical Notes further confirms that Offred existed, making the story more authentic. Yet the Professor seems more interested in the Commander's identity and is cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. In 2195, the male voice is still strong. Atwood's narrative strategies are effective in that she is successful in making Offred's identity a voice for the future, imparting varied and important messages upon her audience. Through Offred's narrative, visions, thoughts and the outlines of the other women's sub-texts, her use of symbolism, extrinsic and layered references, Atwood's messages are reinforced.

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