The value of the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, lies not only within the author’s purpose but within its construction and the author’s ability to draw readers attention to these concepts through language. Atwood has carefully and decisively used language and structure throughout the novel to enhance our understanding of the purpose and message she is trying to portray. Atwood aims to caution us about the elements in our world that can give rise to a dystopic society and the dangers of oppression, particularly of women. Atwood challenges her audience to reflect on and consider their own societies and the ways in which people are controlled and oppressed. Her central ideas of feminism, dystopic societies and repression are reinforced through her use of historical and biblical references, non-linear structure and the intimate first person narration given by Offred. These features of language and construction aid us as readers to comprehend her purpose of the novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale aims to caution and warn us about the dangers of oppression and the dystopic societies it can lead to. Atwood has successfully depicted Gilead as a dystopia through the visible struggle and hardships her characters undergo in the totalitarian and theocratic state of Gilead, yet Atwood is able to enhance this concept of a dystopia by using a non-linear structure. Atwood uses flashbacks to contrast Gilead to its past, in this way Atwood utilises the flashbacks as binaries which portray the past as a utopic society suggesting that present day Gilead is a dystopia. “Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house…we would have a garden…we would have children…Such freedom now seems almost weightless.” As Offred recounts another memory of her past we begin to sense the utopic nature of her past, resulting in the idea that present day Gilead is a dystopic and unhappy place for Offred. Through Offred’s listing of all the ‘freedom’s’ she used to have, it issues the idea that those freedoms and liberties no longer exist for her. The imagery Offred uses adds emotion and a sense of reality to her life and story. Atwood has used Offred’s memories to provoke a reaction amongst her audience and intends for them to associate their current life with Offred’s utopic past. By contrasting the past and the present through the non-linear structure, Atwood is successfully able to highlight the ability of a society to become an oppressed and dystopic state, acting as a warning to readers.
This sense of dystopia is further highlighted by the use of textual authority in the novel. Atwood uses this sense of control over literature to portray Gilead as a theocratic dystopic society. Offred’s story challenges the dominant version of the truth presented in Gilead, and instead provides a personal, subjective and female account. In the historical notes Pieixoto aims to control and interpret how the audience views Offred’s story by attempting to portray her as an unreliable narrator. Pieixoto attempts to police our own interpretation of Offred’s narrative and destabilise her story. “Supposing then the tapes to be genuine……..This item- I hesitate to use the word document” Through his confession that he doubts its reliability, Pieixoto is revealing his uncertainty of Offred and in turn this makes the audience further question the story’s credibility. Pieixoto attempts to control how we view Offred and how we view history.
His sexist jokes surrounding her story suggest that he thinks poorly of Offred and has little respect for her story particularly because she was a woman. “What our author refers to as ‘The Underground Femaleroad’, since dubbed by some our historical wags ‘ The Underground Frailroad” (Laughter)”. Pieixoto’s plays a pun on women’s attempt to rebel and free themselves from their situation and in this way Pieixoto undermines Offred’s entire account. The “(Laughter)” from his audience suggests he has been able to manipulate them and control their interpretation of Offred’s story. Yet Atwood has been successful in exposing this textual authority and its dangers and she is able to reinforce the warning portrayed throughout the novel in a different way. Pieixoto’s attempt to establish control through trying to regulate our interpretation, only contradicts his own purpose by conveying the continuation of control and oppression in future societies. Atwood has able to use the structure of her novel to enhance her purpose and add value to the novel.
In the Handmaid’s tale Atwood aims to expose the patriarchal nature of Gilead and the ways in which women are be objectified and oppressed. Atwood has used stereotypical views of women in today’s society and exaggerated and heightened them in the Gilead regime to act as a warning to readers about the patriarchal views that do exist within our societies. Atwood explores the idea of a woman’s sole purpose being to reproduce which is done through the objectification of women throughout the novel. “He looks over us as if taking inventory” this quote establishes Offred’s place in the house and the way she is viewed by the Commander and the Gilead regime. “We are containers; it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled for all they care.” The metaphor which depicts women as containers, only useful for what is inside, reinforces the ideas that in Gilead women have a particular purpose in society, to reproduce, and they are considered objects, useless when they are unable to ‘perform’ their tasks.
Atwood has extended this concept of objectification of women through Offred’s first person narration. This style of narration enables us as an audience to engage further with Offred as a narrator and her story and struggle as a woman in Gilead becomes more personal and realistic. Offred uses stark and brutal language at times to portray the cruel reality of living as a women in Gilead “I wish this story were different…about sunsets, birds, rainbows, or snow.” This direct engagement with the audience aims to provoke an emotional and sympathetic response for Offred from the audience. While Atwood has exaggerated this objectification of women in her novel, she has aimed to challenge readers to consider their current societies and the ways in which women are portrayed. Atwood’s exaggerated portrayal is used as a warning. She aims to caution us, particularly women, of the stereotypical and patriarchal views that do exist within society and uses the first person narration to enhance her warning on a personal level.
Atwood has used the Handmaids tale to draw attention to the views and stereotypes that exist within society and uses the novel as a tool for her warning about the elements that can give rise to a dystopic society and the dangers of female oppression. While her novel is set in an exaggerated setting her ideas of female oppression and the dangers of controlling literature are concepts that are relevant to societies today which makes The Handmaid’s Tale a timeless and valuable text. Her use of complex language and structure within the novel only further provokes our understanding of her warning and awareness of these concepts within our own society.