LINGUISTIC APPROACH OF MARGARET ATWOOD'S THE HANDMAID'S TALE
In this essay we will talk about the Language Style and the Narrator Position regarding The Handmaid's Tale (Vintage 1996). We will also talk about the Irony present in the book and its relationship with the authoress, society and the position of women there.
First we will expose a small biography of Margaret Atwood and a short summary of the novel because it's important to know the plot and her life in order to analyse and understand this essay.
Secondly we will talk about the language in the novel and the narrator and his position regarding the book.
Finally we will talk about the irony present in the book.
Margaret Atwood was born on the eighteenth of November, 1939. Atwood went to high school in Toronto, majoring in home economics, but at the age of sixteen determined to become a writer. She received herundergraduate degreefromthe Universityof Toronto and her graduate degree from Radcliffe College.
In 1966, Atwood's first published collection of poetry,The Circle Game, gained critical praise, and in 1969 her first novel was published,The Edible Woman. It was made into a film soon after. Atwood was one of the most sudden literary successes inCanadian history.
In 1986,The Handmaid's Talewas published and became a bestseller. Written during the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s in which feminists were criticized for breaking up the traditional home, Atwood wroteThe Handmaid's Talein an attempt to illustrate the logical extension of anti-feminists statements such as “it is every man's right to rule supreme at home” and “a woman's place is in the home”.The novel is often described as a feminist dystopia, because it is set within an imperfect society of the future, and addresses the misogyny of patriarchal culture.
The Handmaid's Tale received the very firstArthur C. Clarke Awardfor the BestScience-FictionNovel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, in 1987.
Throughout her career Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. She is the authoress of over 23books fictionand nonfiction. Her work has been published in more than 25 countries.
The Handmaid's Taleis set in theRepublic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the United States of America. The narrator is a woman called Offred who was sent to the Rachael and Leah Re-Education Centre, better known as the Red Centre, to be trained as a Handmaid. All Handmaids, whose role is to bear children for the childless families of the Republic, are trained into submission to their new role by a group of women called Aunts; their names are taken from them and they are tattooed whit a number. All Handmaids wear a modest and entirely red outfit except for a white, winged bonnet.
Offred lives most of his spare time reclosed in his assigned room, but sometimes she goes to the kitchen and talks with the Marthas whose role is to do housework.
A Handmaid's routine, considered necessary, is to go shopping everyday accompanied by another Handmaid. Offred is always accompanied by Ofglen -which she believes may be part of a spy contingent.
All handmaids who don't have a baby are exiled to the Colonies to do hard labour with the Unwomen.
Offred feels most of the time like a ghost whose existence has become meaningless.
She attends to a ceremony where the Bible is read and they tell the story of Abraham.
Later that night they have a ceremonial sex. After that encounter, The Commander sets private meetings with Offred in his study, so she begins to think of him in a more complex way.
One day, Serena (the Commander's Wife), offers her a meeting with Nick because she suspects her husband may be sterile. Days after, the commander dresses Offred in a gaudy costume and takes her to a secret club for the elite, called Jezebel's. That night Serena takes her to Nick's apartment and has sex with him. She feels ashamed by her faithlessness but she repeatedly visits him.
During midsummer, all the women are summoned to a Salvaging. All handmaids consent the execution of three women whose crimes aren't announced.Offglen hangs herself after the ceremony when she sees an Eye van stopped in front of her house.
Serena finds the costume she wore in Jezebel's and sent her away in awaiting for her punishment.
Offered wants to kill herself but an eye van comes to take her away. She leaves under Serena's curses.
As for the Language, we have to say that the novel is written in a very plain one which makes the story easy to understand. There are some features which contribute to it. One of this features is the use of short sentences, since the reader doesn't need to understand a dependent clause which is obviously more complex. Moreover, this kind of clauses lead us to think and to realize that we are reading Offred's thoughts and so they aren't subordinated. Let's see an example of this, “But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.” (p.18)
Another feature of this novel is the huge amount of flashbacks existing in it. In these Offred remembers how was her life before the Gilead republic. While Offred is remembering we can distinguish both kind of clauses, the large ones and the short ones. Here we have some large clauses which indicates that Offred is speaking of good memories, since she is relaxed and thus she can organize and coordinate her thoughts: “I would get up early and go to the television set in my mother's study and flip through the channels. Sometimes when I couldn't find any I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour.” (p.26)
However, she uses short senteces when she is talking about unkind memories. Like when she is remembering that Sunday, when her mother lied to her: “To see her friends; she'd lied to me, Saturdays were suppose to be my day. I turned away from her, sulking, towards the ducks, but the fire drew me back.” (p.48)
As regards to the speech which appears in the novel, we can distinguish two kinds of it. Direct speech within quotation marks and direct speech without those marks. In both of them Offred represent the actual words of a speaker without changing any of them.
In the novel, when the main character, that is, the narrator is reproducing a speech which took place in the past she uses direct speech without quotation marks: “Yes, Ma'am, I said. Don't call me Ma'am, she said irritably. You're not a Martha. I didn't ask what...” (p.25).
Whereas when Offred is repoducing a conversation which is taking place at the time of the narration, she uses direct speech within quotation marks: “ “Under His Eye,” she says. The right farewell “Under His Eye,” I reply, and she gives a little nod” (p.54).
It is important notice that, although Offred's real name doesn't appear explicitly in the novel, there is something that leads us to thing that her name is June. At the beginning of the novel the Handmaids say five names: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” (pag.14), and throughout the novel June is the only one which Offred doesn't explain stories about.
Another significative aspect related to language is that of the Narrator's point of view, that changes dependidng on the perspective from which the story is told.
As you may already know, the Narrator is the entity within a story that tells the story to the reader; most importantly, a narrator can only tell the reader things that it has experienced, unless it is omniscient. There are various types of Narrator: first, second, and third person. What we shall focus on is that of First Person one, who is a character in the story, identifiable by the use of the first personal pronouns ‘I' or ‘we', for example: “I am alive, I breathe (...)” (p.18).
Moreover, The Handmaid's Tale is a story of autobiographical fiction, where the Narrator is its character. And if he or she is writing a book -as it happens here in some way- we find the so-called “book in your hands”. “This is what she says (...). I can't remember, exactly, because I had no way of writing it down” (p.255): in these cases, a correlation between the Narrator and the own author is possible, but we have to take into account the levels of accurancy. Whereupon Margaret Atwood cannot be identified with Offred, logically.
The Handmaid's Tale takes place at different moments of the life of the narrator, being Gilead the main “scenario”, where she describes thoroughly all the places and people she meets. Furthermore, each and every physical description of a space or a person comes accompanied by another description of her personal feelings as well: “A chair, a table, a lamp. Above (...) a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space (...) There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you could...” (p.17)
Anyhow, there are many flashbacks, as we were saying before, thanks to which we are able to know the former life Offred had, especially at the chapters called Night; for we are placed in the perspective of the present in Gilead, into Offred's mind, and thus we can reach her memories and even her dreams. During these we meet Moira -who'll be placed at the present of the Narrator further on-, as well as her mother, Luke and her daughter. Offred also remembers her stay at the Red Centre. “I want to be with someone. Lying in bed, with Luke (...). The three of us” (p.113).
In this way the Narrator achieves to pass Offred feelings to ourselves; means, an identification Narrator/Reader, mainly if the reader is a woman. So, back to what we were referring to before, there is no affinity between the Authoress and the Narrator. Because it is us, Readers, who must understand her and condemn the policy of Gilead Alongside Offred, we have, at the Historical Notes, professors Crescent Moon and Pieixoto analysing the story, recorded in tapes. They could be considered as a parallel Narrator, in a manner of speaking, because they give us an end, in some way, to Offred's life. As well as a view into the future, for it occurs two hundred years after, as we can see here: “Did our narrator reach the outside world safely and build a new life for herself? (...) As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes” (p.324)
6. Irony in the book
Continuing with our analysis of this latter epilogue, we find that the book contains tragic irony. The words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation.
This fairly brutal irony about the superficiality of the appearance of the permanence of female emancipation is the heart of the novel, as all dystopias stem from a fear of the removal of liberty.Atwood touches on the passive oppression of women that is present in Western societies today, and is by all means socially accepted.
Atwood draws a parallel between the main character and herself as a female author. Irony can be found through Atwood's use of words to hint at the considerable intelligence of the female protagonist. Offred, as well as Atwood's evident intelligence in a male dominated world further emphasizes Hammer's claim that The Handmaid's Tale is an autobiographical text.
We can see irony along the entire novel, for example in chapter two where the author talks about the Marthas (women whose role was to do the housework): “Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice” (p.20); “With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all? said Cora. Catch you.” (p.20) or “Better her than me, Rita said, and I opened the door…” (p.20)
In The New Testament gospels: Martha was one of two sisters. She devoted herself to housework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus. The irony here is that Jesus praised Mary, not Martha; but the new patriarchy has chosen Martha as the ideal.
Another irony in the book is when Offred sees a pregnant woman in a shop. She instantly feels jealous of her. This is an irony because she actually hates that life but at the same time wants a baby. She actually says: “You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.” (p.170)
The facts that Gilead's centre is in the Harvard University, one of the most esteemed educational institutions today and that it is now closed, presents a great irony, for University is a symbol of knowledge, hence power, choice and freedom. Now, it is the heart of a totalitarian regime that exudes conformity, ignorance and imprisonment.
It is demonstrably an irony in the fact that the Commander -one of the destroyers of the old world and all the social values attached to it- has maintained a sanctity, a territory for himself, that is part of the old world Atwood concludesThe Handmaid's Talewith a climactic moment of irony, exposing the absurdity of certain academic writings that engage in weakness which misses the vital issues.
Atwood soberly demonstrates that when a critic or scholar avoids taking a moral or political stand about an issue of crucial magnitude such as totalitarianism, they will necessarily become an apologist for evil.
After having read the text and analysed it from a Linguistic point of view, we cannot oversee the fact that The Handmais's Tale contains high levels of expressiveness which makes the novel easier to be read. Thus, the reader feels more comfortable with the “company” of the characters and principally shows sympathy for Offred -or June, her real name-. But further the technical approach, what we would highlight the plot itself, for it fits quite well with this close reading mention formerly.
The Handmaid's Tale talks about a not so far future which could raise many debates. But, -and now we reach the point- Margaret Atwood presents it in such a satirical manner that, apart from showing an exaggeration of the patriarcal society, she also -and this we say in a very cautious tone- satiriges feminin competitiveness; because it is women who indeed “control” and batter psichologically other women. Wives feel superior to others because men have told them they are privileged, and cannot see they are just as unimportant.
This is why we found Atwood so interesting: because she achieves to make us think about how wrong totalitarism is carefully, no matter who is leading.
And it is told in such a enjoyable language as if someone would raise an elbow and started: No offence, but...
- Howells, C. A. (ed.). 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge University Press.
- Ingersoll, E. G. (ed.). 1990. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. Ontario Review Press Critical Series
9. Electronic sources