How does Atwood present Offred’s situation and character to us in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?
‘The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic novel about what could happen if we returned to our original bible-based values. In my opinion it is essentially a fable about fundamentalist Christian America.
Offred is the main character in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood. It is written in first person narrative with Offred been the narrator. It is written with assumed knowledge of the reader, so it reads like it is Offred’s diary. In the first chapter of the book this use of the first person and the use of assumed knowledge makes the reader intrigued and want to read on.
This is always essential in an opening chapter. The first chapter is short, so as not to give much away to the reader. The opening paragraph uses a narrative flashback, which is a commonly used literary device in the novel. This flashback makes Offred seem older than she is as she is reminiscing of the old times and this is a common thing for an older person to do.
She also sounds as though she wishes it was the old times again with the basketball games and the dances. At this stage the reader does not know why she is sleeping in an old gymnasium and there are no longer any basketball games or dances.The reader will be intrigued to why she is there. In the first chapter there are only very subtle clues to why she is there and I think this is because Atwood wants the reader to be intrigued and ask questions.
These flashbacks also show the travel of Offred’s mind, with the use of asides and digressions. This makes the novel seem like a stream of Offred’s conscious thought. The second paragraph in the first chapter suggests sex. But it is in the past tense, as though it does not happen anymore.
It is also referred to as ‘old sex’ which also suggests this.I know from the rest of the novel that sex in the way that is described here is banned. The sex described here is the type that women yearn for, but is not often quite what they expect. The sex that it is Offred’s role to have, as a handmaid, is not something she yearns for and is always what she expects, so this is the opposite.
We can tell from this first chapter that Offred yearns for the ‘old sex’ and therefore her old life. ‘The Handmaid’s tale’ is set in Gillead. This is meant to be the ideal state, but in effect it is a utopia that is actually a dystopia.There are subtle references to this during the first chapter.
For example the Angels, the fact they are called angels makes them seem as though they are from heaven, but in fact they are ‘objects of fear’. This is contradictory, like the fact that the novel is dystopia of a utopia. From this first chapter I also got the impression that Offred is been treated like a child. The first clue to this is the fact that she is sleeping in an ‘army cot’ and has ‘flannelette sheets, like children’s’.
There is also the fact that they are in a controlled atmosphere much like a child would be. However, there is also the more subtle clue in the fact that Offred is been looked after by aunts. Aunts are something that is most associated with the family and they are also stereotypically comforting. In this novel they are evidently not like this though, ‘Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
‘ This is ironic, just as the Angels are. The chapter ends with a feeling of hope; that things could get better.I think Atwood has ended with this to give the reader hope and again intrigue him or her about how things are going to get better. The hope is given to us in two forms.
The first is that they still have some kind of power, ‘we still had our bodies’. This has sexual connotations, as it suggests prostitution. It also shows how desperate they are for human contact to resort to a trade off of their bodies. This desperation is again shown by the use of the word, ‘fantasy’.
A fantasy is in your imagination, which shows that Offred infact has little hope that it will happen in reality.However, this word also has sexual connotations, as in sexual fantasy, as though they are yearning for sex, showing the reader they are been deprived of sex or to be more specific the type of sex they want. The second hope shown to the reader is in the form of Offred’s communication with the other girls in the gymnasium. The chapter ends with the line, ‘Alma.
Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
‘ This is written in an interesting way, implying a lot of things to the reader. The full stops between each name suggest that there has been other information passed on between the girls and also the fact that all the women are in it together, alone.The full stops being the gaps between the women, not just physically but spiritually too. For me, this quote also tells us about female solidarity in a male dominated world.
After the first chapter we do not know much of Offred’s character, as Atwood has not given away much here. This will make the reader more unaware of how Offred will react towards her situation. The reader will also be sure they are going to find out a lot about Offred, as she is the narrator and the reader experiences events and her memories vividly throughout the novel.From the first chapter, however, the reader will have lifted the fact that she is not happy about the situation she is in.
Her tone has a sense of regret to it, as though maybe she herself could have stopped this from happening. In the novel we see how Offred may have been seen to have sinned in her past life, such as been the mistress of Luke. Despite this regret and sadness, there is also the sense that Offred is just going to get on with it and not make a fuss, unlike some of the other characters in the play, such as Moira.She seems quite adaptable and easy going; Offred does not complain about her situation at all in this first chapter, she just seems to make the best of it.
I think the reason Offred is like this is because of her dark sense of humour, which makes her situation almost bearable. This comes through more as the reader reads more of the novel. I think overall Atwood does not give a lot away about Offred in this first chapter, leaving an air of mystery and intrigue. However what it does tell us is very interesting and makes the reader want to read on.
Overall the situation that Offred is presented to be in is shown to be mentally frustrating, as she is been treated as a child and is been deprived of sex. It is also shown to be very frustrating as we can see a few contrasts between her new situation and her old one and they appear to be incomparably different. We do not find out much of Offred’s character, but she seems adaptable with a subtle hint of a dark sense of humour. It is also important to remember how normal she seems, as in my opinion the main idea of this novel is that it could happen to you.