The narrative style and structure of The Handmaid's Tale' is something very unique to the novel. Atwood has used a complex structure of four different time scales; the most prominent is the first person present tense, where she is a member of the Gilead community and living in the Commander's house:
"Nothing takes place in bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things, thought must be rationed
I intend to last."
This narrative allows experiences to be filtered through Offred's mind, and for the reader to empathise with her trials as she attempts to find confidence within herself and with her new found rebellion. In this way, we get to know her inner-most thoughts ("This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter."). For example, we get to know what Offred thinks about when she kisses the Commander in Chapter thirty-two:
"When I kiss him goodnight
his breath smells of alcohol, and I breathe it in like smoke, I admit I relish it, this lick of dissipation."
Offred has had no physical contact with anyone since being a Handmaid, except with the Commander during the Ceremony. However, the Ceremony was cold and impersonal, whereas this meeting suggests how Offred indulges herself in the Commander's taste, which is almost as addictive as a cigarette. This method of writing also presents the possibility of narrator bias; the fact that Offred is female and Atwood a feminist enables Atwood to mask her ideas, thoughts and opinions within the story and characters. It suggests that women still retain some measure of authority, even within a male-dominated society. In the instance of women in the novel, this power comes from their indispensable role in the propagation of society ("A man is just a woman's strategy for making other women"). Offred also gives a certain degree of detail that the third person narrative would not be able to achieve with effect:
on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out."
The fact that she has time on her hands lets her focus in on things that would normally be considered dismissive, such as the ceiling of her bedroom. Often it shows how bored she is of her life as a Handmaid. The second and third time scales used are the recent and distant past tenses;
Red Centre flashbacks (recent past)
"Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts."
Pre-Gileadean flashbacks (distant past)
"Then Luke got back into the car
he began to drive very quickly, and after that there was the dirt road and the woods and we jumped out of the car and began to run."
The opening sections supply details of life at the Red Centre. Much of the situation described is confusing and unfamiliar to the reader, giving us the impression that the novel is set far in the future. Yet with the addition of the Pre-Gilead flashbacks, the setting becomes increasingly familiar, thereby changing our perception of the time period to closer to the present. Much of Offred's narration is concerned not with events or action, but with her emotional state, which is often affected by the memories that well up from her happier past. Due to her lack of freedom, Offred's life is monotonous and uneventful. Her imagination, however, is still free, so she creates a secret life of sensory perceptions to survive the boredom. This usually happens in reoccurring sections named NIGHT'. Seven out of fifteen sections are named NIGHT', which suggests Offred's frequent flashbacks are important to keep her grounded and is a form of rebelling perhaps ("I want to be with someone"). Here, Offred has time to muse and is at her most philosophical:
"There's nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are...
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