Comment on the way in which Atwood has constructed ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Through the course of ‘The Handmaids Tale’, Margaret Atwood uses an unconventional and ostensibly unordered form of plot construction to present Offred’s tale and certain major themes effectively to the reader. The construction of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is strongly linked to the prime theme of time running through the novel, as well as other more subtle themes such as that of Offred’s passive rebellion.
In this essay I will explore the use of the novel’s structure and its effectiveness in conveying the novel’s thematic threads to the reader. The fragmented progression of plot and seemingly disjointed structure of the novel is made evident from the Table Of Contents where the predominant sections of ‘Night’ are interspersed with various singular sections, implying a cyclic and repetitive dimension to life in the patriarchal Gileadean society.
While the other sections provide a reflection of the mundane nature of Gileadean life, Atwood utilises the ‘Night’ sections in presenting Offred’s reminiscences on the past time, through which the majority of character and plot development takes place. Offred uses the night to express subversive notions such as the theme of re-ownership and independence in the quotation, ‘the night is mine… to do as I will’, as well as the significant reclamation of her body: ‘I sink into my body as into a swamp… where only I know the footing.
Thus, Atwood’s even distribution the ‘Night’ sections across the novel can be seen as a continuous reminder of Offred’s need of a means of escapism from the restrictive society of Gilead. There are also strong links between the construction and time structure of the novel. When Offred’s memories are stimulated by the former gymnasium in the first Night section, she remembers the eras of fashion, from the ‘felt-skirted watching girls’ to ‘spiky green-streaked hair[ed]’ girls, in a linear chronological progression.
This is in stark contrast and irony to the more sporadic time structure shown through the novel, for example, in Chapter 13 where Offred’s memories constantly fluctuate from ‘the time before’ to the ‘Red Centre’ and present day Gilead; the contrast is further highlighted by the fact that Atwood places the scene in the first page of the novel, and is used by the author to stimulate awareness of the significance of structure in the novel.
The predominant sporadic structure also holds its own significance in the fact that it provides contrasts of the past time to the Gileadean society through the novel. Offred drifts seamlessly into these past time periods through this chapter and the rest of the novel, reinforcing the anachronistic nature of her existence in Gilead. In addition, it is clear that as the novel progresses, the fragmentation of Offred’s thoughts and the theme of anachronism within her character becomes more limited, as she drifts less and less into previous time periods.
Atwood uses such a change in structure to present a stronger attachment to the Gileadean society through passage of time, made effective mainly by evolving Offred’s relationships with both the Commander and Nick later on in the novel Furthermore the fragmented structure of the novel is also reflected strongly by the use of atypical language techniques through the novel. Atwood unusually uses the present tense to represent the present period of time, and this provides a stronger contrast against the past periods, where the use of past tense is more highlighted.
Atwood also uses an unconventional feminine style of writing in parts the novel to echo Offred’s struggle for survival. In the reference where Offred ‘sinks into [her] body… a treacherous ground,[her] own territory’ there are strong links between the female body and natural landscapes, implying a detachment from the more corrupt patriarchal societies, such as Gilead. There is also strong imagery relating to the menstrual cycle through quotations such as, ‘I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure’, further clarifying the feminine nature of the section.
Atwood uses this language to present the intensified isolation of females from males – both in body and in mind – on which the Gileadean society thrives. This isolation can also be discerned in the fact that there are relatively few feminist-loaded sections, in the backdrop of male dominance and intimidation. On a final note, the placement of the Historical Notes after the novel also holds great significance in relation to the structure.
The Historical Notes provide a change in the one-dimensional perspective seen throughout the rest of the novel, therefore giving the reader an additional viewpoint to consider. However, the flaws of the character holding this viewpoint are grossly exaggerated by constant references of a sexist nature in quotations like, ‘we are now enjoying the Arctic Chair’. In this way Atwood manipulates the reader into increased allegiance to Offred’s viewpoint.
Also, when Atwood provides a justification of the predominant unconventional structure in the quotation, ‘… he tapes were arranged in no particular order’, she makes a link between the novel’s structure and the thought progression of Offred’s character, inviting the reader to hold increased empathy to her struggle. In conclusion, Margaret Atwood uses the construction of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to effectively present various themes and provide strong reflections of Offred’s lifestyle in Gilead. Unconventionally, Atwood puts increased significance into the structure of her novel, to highlight, more effectively, Offred’s struggle for survival on all fronts.