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Close Reading: a Handmaid’s Tale

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    Often times when one reads a piece of literary work, the way that its’ themes and storyline are interpreted is truly dependant upon the reader’s individual beliefs and morals. The same passage from a novel or poem can be seen in completely opposite perspectives from two different readers, despite the fact that they contain the same literary text.

    By definition, this is what close reading is. It is taking a passage (or passages) from a work of literature and truly examining every single aspect of its content, from the literal word usage within the passage itself, to the underlying message(s) that that particular passage may be delivering to the reader.

    The purpose of this is so that one may gain a full and better understanding of the work as a whole and the many different ways that it can be translated. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the author Margaret Atwood uses literary language as one of her major tools within the novel to really captivate the reader and her usage of words really helps the reader connect with Offred and understand the issues that her story brings to the forefront.

    However, despite the many in depth passages from Offred’s account that one could closely analyze to fully understand these issues, it is my belief that Offred’s story isn’t really put into perspective until the end of the novel in the section entitled “The Historical Notes,” which includes the following passage: “But let me be serious. I wish, as the title of my little chat implies, to consider some of the problems associated with the soi-disant manuscript which is well known to all of you by now, and which goes by the title of The Handmaid’s Tale.

    I say soi-disant because what we have before us is not the item in its’ original form. […] The superscription of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer; but those of you know Professor Wade informally, as I do, will understand when I say that I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. (300-301) Although this passage may not be from Offred herself nor might it have taken place during her struggles, the inclusion of it within Atwood’s piece when closely analyzed truly paints the “bigger picture” of the themes behind the novel. In order to fully dissect this passage and show how it amplifies the meaning behind Offred’s experience one must first look at the context in which this passage takes place within the novel. It is clear that this is a story about the inequalities of gender roles in society and the struggle for survival and prosperity of a single woman (Offred) in a male dominated world.

    But Atwood includes a section at the conclusion of the novel entitled “The Historical Notes,” where this passage is taken from that really puts a giant twist on this entire story and leaves the reader with many questions. Within this section, the reader is placed in a setting over one hundred years after the incidents in the novel occurred, at the University of Denay, where a research professor by the name of James Darcy Piexoto, gives his account on his studies of the Gilead Regime and reveals truths about the actual manuscript of the novel.

    In the professor’s speech, we as readers discover that the manuscript is not actually written by Offred herself, but rather a transcription written by Piexoto and his colleague, based on the order of the tapes they had discovered containing Offred’s account years ago. As he continues to speak throughout the Historical Notes, the professor’s words tend to follow the same pattern of this passage, very egotistical and almost misogynistic, showing how despite the ceasing of the Gilead Regime over a century prior, men still assume a superior attitude towards the female community.

    With this new setting and mindset in place, looking back at the passage one can see how Atwood’s usage of words here really sheds light on new themes and interpretations to be taken into account in respect to the novel itself and cause one to question the integrity of the novel. Being that a high degreed professor says this passage, it is no surprise that the intellectual level of the words used within his speech are somewhat high. However, it is not so much the actual words themselves that create confusion in the reader’s mind, rather the order and manner in which the words are used.

    Examples of Piexoto’s use of words like “soi-disant manuscript”, meaning something that is pretended, and “homage to Geoffrey Chaucer,” referencing the payment of respect to another MAN, and even his emphasis on the intentions of the puns that the word Tail evokes within the title itself, all make his attitude not only towards Offred’s account but just in general seem very self centered and cocky. It is my belief that Atwood made his language like this on purpose to depict how despite the lessons that were supposed to be learned from the Gilead society, issues of gender roles have seemed to not progress even in the year 2159.

    In addition, his attitude also further emphasizes Offred’s account by supporting the issues she describes through her occurrences. Using certain words and phrasing in a piece of literature from a first person perspective of the character to depict aspects of their personalities is something that author’s utilize a lot to allow readers to analyze and make hypothesis about themes within the work, as well as engulf themselves deeper into the character’s experiences.

    Take for example the novel PUSH by Sapphire, which documents the story of an underprivileged teenage mother and her struggle with poverty, sexual and parental abuse, education, and racism. Sapphire essentially writes this entire novel purposefully illiterate, spelling words incorrectly, using lots of grammatical errors, and minimum English. One specific passage that stands out is when Precious reminisces on her life towards the beginning of the novel saying, “I crying for ugly baby, then I forget about ugly baby, I crying for me who no one ever hold before.

    Daddy put his pee-pee smelling thing in my mouth, my pussy, but never hold me. I see me, first grade, pink dress dirty sperms stuff on it. No one comb my hair. Second grade, third grade, fourth grade seem like one dark night. Carl is the night and I disappear in it. And the daytimes make no sense. […] I disappears from the day, I just put it all down—. ” Here in this passage, although her words make no sense grammatically, the use of language by the author reveals aspects of Precious’ personality that play an important role in really understanding her circumstances and developing a theme.

    Precious comes off very bitter and angry towards the world with the types of words she uses throughout the novel, but as it progresses the reader understands why she feels this way and despite her bitterness, she is dedicated to turning her life around and succeeding. A final significance of this passage in The Handmaid’s Tale is the thematic change or doubt that it causes the reader to contemplate as they finish the novel, particularly in respect to the narrative and overall importance of reading Offred’s story.

    With regards to the narrative, the novel goes from being a first person view of a woman who suffers with the inability to live a full life with liberty and equality, to almost a complete turn around when we find out that its actually her records transcribed by men. This in and of itself causes confusion with the reader because one is now faced with the thought that the account could either be man’s way of making fun of how women exaggerate the inequalities they face in modern day society, or whether it is two men taking a stand for women and acting as their voice of reason by transcribing such a heart felt story.

    From the words in the passage and the demeanor of the rest of the speech, the latter thesis seems to be less believable one, but that is entirely left up to the discretion of the reader. When it comes to the overall importance of Offred’s tale, this passage creates an opposition to what seemed to be the message Offred made evident when the novel is read from her perspective, and that involves the matter of gender roles. Up until “The Historical Notes,” we follow Offred through all of these experiences she encounters and we realize the brutality and unfairness that this Republic brought upon these women.

    At the same time, her bravery and steadfastness in being able to leave behind an account of her life despite the oppression and suffering is proof that women still held some power in their own lives at that time. Then when the novel reaches this passage in the Historical Notes, readers see a change in the theme when Piexoto mentions nothing about gender roles in his speech, not even in the title (which is referenced in this passage). In fact the opposite occurs and it becomes later evident that his entire purpose of transcribing Offred’s story was to research the problematic authentication of her account.

    Rather than address the issues that were brought up through incidents she pushed through, he places so much emphasis on Offred’s credibility, making it seem like he didn’t take her perspective seriously. This presents the idea that the narrative is actually Offred’s authentic account, but that Piexoto fails to see the true meaning behind her story and how she explains gender roles, once again reflecting the superior ideology that even men in the future withhold.

    One can safely argue that Atwood’s creativity and use of language in The Handmaid’s Tale, especially within this passage, truly impacts the reader to see many different perspectives when it comes to the themes within the novel. From change of narrative in the Historical Notes, to the added egotistical attitude of Piexoto and usage of words within his speech, to the stress he places on Offred’s sincerity, all of these aspects within this one passage allow the reader to closely analyze not only the literal context of the novel itself, but the underlying message hidden with then passage.

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    Close Reading: a Handmaid’s Tale. (2017, Jan 07). Retrieved from

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