The Handmaid's Tale By Margaret Atwood Summary and Analysis Historical Notes on The Handmaids Tale

Summary

On June 25, 2195, approximately two centuries after Gilead's hostile takeover, the Gileadean Studies' Twelfth Symposium meets at the University of Denay, Nunavit. The Chair, Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, indicates in her welcome to delegates that the creation of the Gileadean theocracy caused a remapping of the world. The keynote speaker, Professor Pieixoto, casts doubt on a manuscript pieced together from transcriptions of thirty unnumbered tapes, dubbed by Professor Wade The Handmaid's Tale, which were unearthed in an army surplus footlocker at a way station of the Underground Femaleroad in Bangor, Maine.

To answer questions of how, when, and by whom the tapes were made and stored, Pieixoto searched fruitlessly for information about the safe house in Bangor, then resorted to an examination of the few remaining printouts from Gilead, which were smuggled to England by Save the Women societies. He deduces that Offred was "among the first wave of women recruited for reproductive purposes" during a period when birthrates for whites were plummeting from use of birth control as well as from infertility, a virulent strain of syphilis, AIDS, stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities brought on by nuclear waste, chemical and biological weapons, toxic dumping, pesticides, and other deadly pollutants.

The speaker surmises that Offred, who never reveals her real name, may have concealed other characters' identities with pseudonyms. Data from the diary of Wilfred Limpkin identifies two Freds in early Gilead — Frederick R. Waterford and B. Frederick Judd, both Commanders and directors of the Eyes. The former, the husband of Thelma Waterford, was killed in a purge for liberal leanings and for harboring a turncoat. He seems a possible candidate for Offred's gray-haired Commander. Pieixoto surmises that Offred may have escaped to Canada or England, but chose not to go public with her story out of fear of retaliation against her family. Another possibility is that Offred's emotional sufferings forced her into seclusion.

Analysis

Posed at the end of the novel in the form of an author's appendix, this coda provides a framework and tongue-in-cheek historical perspective for Gilead's story. Atwood's abrupt shift in tone to witty repartee and punning benefits the work in several ways:

  • Self-important, supercilious academic humor lightens the intense and chilling conclusion to Offred's eerily bland recorded narrative.
  • Details revealed in Professor Pieixoto's speech extend some hope that she found her way to a Bangor way station and had enough time and freedom to locate a tape recorder and narrate her experiences in Gilead.
  • Additional facts indicate that the theocratic repression found in Gilead also existed in Seattle, Washington, and Syracuse, New York.
  • The method of ordering and communicating historical data in Offred's day authenticates and legitimizes memoir and diary as indigenous literary outlets of oppressed women.
  • The incongruity of recycled tapes by Elvis Presley, Boy George, Mantovani, Twisted Sister, and Lithuanian folksingers heightens the comic departure from Offred's dire situation. Also, the implications of each musical performance carry their own freight of meaning: Elvis, an idolized superstar and sex symbol; Boy George, a British rock singer who cultivates a bisexual image; Mantovani, a name synonymous with hypnotically bland elevator music; Twisted Sister, a heavy metal rock group whose name echoes Gilead's perversion of womanhood; and Lithuania, a former free state subsumed by the Soviet Union in 1940.
  • The nauseating political correctness of Pieixoto, who hesitates to side with Offred's account of murderous oppression in Gilead.

Glossary

University of Denay, Nunavit a pun on "Deny none of it." Nunavit suggests Nunivak, a fogbound island off Alaska in the Bering Sea. Likewise, the Dene, who are Native American ancestors of the Athapascan aborigines, inhabit the Northwest Territories of Canada south of the tree line. Another sound-alike is Danae, the character from Greek mythology who was impregnated by a ray of sunlight from Zeus while she was imprisoned. After giving birth, Danae and her child were cast into the sea. The conclusion to her story, like that of Offred, is ambiguous, suggesting both acceptance and treachery.

Pielxoto Pieixoto's name suggests Pope Pius IX, a Vatican pope (1854-1878), who, in his first year of office, issued the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reign of Pius IX produced a sharp swing from liberalism as the Church fought to maintain its powers from diminishment by the aftermath of Napoleon III's rise to power. As a result of the hostile political climate at a time when Rome became a part of the Italian kingdom, the state vs. church power struggle rendered Pius IX a virtual prisoner in the Vatican.

Krishna a light-hearted, sensual Hindu god connected with music and dance.

Kali a paradoxical Hindu goddess of creativity and destruction.

The Warsaw Tactic: Policies of Urban Core Encirclement In 1940, Nazi occupation forces confined 400,000 Jews to a ghetto in the center of Warsaw, Poland. As disease, starvation, and exportation to death camps decimated the number of Jews, the authorities began reducing the perimeter of the ghetto, thus squeezing the inhabitants into a smaller and more easily controlled compound. On April 19, 1943, German and Lithuanian soldiers joined Polish firemen and police in a brutal attack against the remaining 60,000 Jews, who put up a brave, but doomed resistance. By May 16, a house-by-house search revealed that Warsaw's Jews were annihilated.

Sumptuary Laws legal regulation of food, drink, color and style of clothing, personal adornment and purchase and display or use of luxury items, such as furs, glass windows, chimneys, and dishes made of silver or gold.

Monotheocracies religious dictatorships based on the worship of one god.

Arctic char a pun on a small-scaled trout and the British slang for charwoman, a domestic worker.

soi-disant manuscript a French literary term questioning the authenticity of a manuscript.

in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer author of The Canterbury Tales (1385), a series of narratives told by a contingent of pilgrims traveling to a religious shrine in Canterbury, England. Each tale is identified by the profession or social status of the teller — that is, the wife of [from] Bath, the knight, the nun's priest, the franklin, and so forth.

Bangor, Maine city in south central Maine. Brewer, across the bridge from Bangor, was once a Quaker waystation on the Underground Railroad. The town's location on the Penobscot River made it a useful connection point to seagoing vessels. From Brewer, abolitionists could transport escaping slaves downriver to the Atlantic Ocean and northeast around the coast to Canada.

Frailroad a multiple pun on Women as the weaker sex and the pejorative slang term frail, meaning a girl or woman. The term also suggests a line from a scene in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the title character disparages his mother, Gertrude, a widow newly married to her husband's brother. In disgust at her haste to remarry, Hamlet mutters: "Frailty, thy name is woman" (I, ii, 146).

recollected, if not in tranquility, at least post facto an allusion to William Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. This deduction suggests that Offred lived long enough "after the fact" to compose her thoughts, when safety, privacy, cassette tape, and recorder were available.

serial polygamy the practice of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

simultaneous polygamy . . . in the former state of Utah The reference is to the Mormon practice of polygamy, a socio-religious custom allowing men to take multiple wives, which thrived under the leadership of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young from 1843 until it was banned in 1890.

Eurydice in Greek mythology, the luckless bride bitten by a snake on her wedding day. Her husband, Orpheus, the famed musician, convinced Hades to let Eurydice return to earth. However, Orpheus disobeyed the strictures of the journey and looked at Eurydice too soon, thus dispatching her back to the abode of the dead forever.

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