The Importance of Memory in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale.

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For this essay I aim to show the importance of memory and of remembering the past in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is a ‘speculative fiction’ first published in 1985 but set in the early 2000s. The novel was in response to changes in US politics with the emergence of Christian fundamentalism, the New Right. Atwood believed that society was going wrong and wrote this savage satire, similar to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, depicting a dystopia which she uses as a mirror to hold up to society. I will be focusing on the main character and narrator, Offred, “a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime” (book group corner), as she struggles to cope in the oppressive world of Gilead which is slowly suffocating her mind, in which memory is her only way of escape, her only way to keep her mind sane. To show the importance of memory to Offred’s life, I must also look at the changes in the Gilead society and how these changes affected Offred. For this I will give a brief summary of the rules set down in Gilead and their reasons for them. The Republic of Gilead is a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It is a militaristic Christian state that has replaced the former Democratic Government after a violent takeover following the assassination of the President. The rise of toxic pollution and sexually transmitted diseases has “caused widespread sterility and a decline of Caucasian births” (Cengage). The state is now ruled by a dominant male regime and is founded on fundamentalist biblical principles. There is also a social hierarchy which is specifically designed to promote controlled reproduction. In other words, women have become vessels whose main purpose in this society is for procreation. Women who are fertile and unmarried are recruited as Handmaids, a glorified concubine who is sent to a Commander or other high ranking state official and his for whatever reason infertile wife. In its society, women are not allowed to speak in public, have no desire for sex and not think of themselves with rights. Memory plays an important part in the novel. Throughout the entire novel, Offred is reminded of past things by things she sees or smells around her. She remembers the gymnasium in chapter one and wishes to remember its smell. She becomes in a way nostalgic as she recalls the smell of sweat but describing it as a pungent scent as sweat is usually not describe as a desirable “scent”. Offred remembers her life before the coming of Gilead, when she had a job, a husband, a daughter and a life. “She had been a witness to the dissolution of the old America into the totalitarian theocracy that it now is, and she tries to reconcile the warning signs with reality: "We lived in the gaps between the stories."”(Newman). Offred often lapses into past memories. “These memories provider her with relief from the brutality of her new life, in which her body has become a cause of discomfort for her” (Newman) similarly to people in prison (Liebling 320). She has shadowy memories of her former life with glimpses of her university friend Moira, her husband Luke and her freedom. She is reminded of the way she used to dress when she sees some Japanese tourists who are dressed in “skirts [that] reach just below her knee… thrusting the buttocks out” (38 Atwood) compared to the long and heavy red gowns all handmaids wore. She also looks at the high heeled shoes the tourists are wearing, describing them as “delicate instruments of torture” (38). Offred is already becoming used to the ways of Gilead and is slighted shocked by the ‘obscure’ dress of the tourists. To describe the shoes as “delicate” suggests that she once cared for shoes like it. However, describing them as “instruments of torture” suggests that she wants to forget about these type of shoes as she is no longer allowed wear them. This...
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