The Handmaids Tale



Ruth McDermott November 30, 1998
The creation of Offred, the passive narrator of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,
was intentional. The personality of the narrator in this novel is almost as important as the task
bestowed upon her. Atwood chooses an average women, appreciative of past times, who lacks
imagination and fervor, to contrast the typical feminist, represented in this novel by her mother
and her best friend, Moira.
Atwood is writing for a specific audience, though through careful examination, it can be
determined that the intended audience is actually the mass population. Although particular groups
may find The Handmaid’s Tale more enjoyable than others, the purpose of the novel is to
enlighten the general population, as opposed to being a source of entertainment. A specific group
that may favor this novel is the women activists of the 1960\'s and 1970\'s. This group, in which
Offred’s mother would be a member, is sensitive to the censorship that women once faced and
would show interest to the “possible future” that could result.
Offred is symbolic of “every woman”. She was conventional in prior times, married with
one daughter, a husband and a career. She is ambivalent to many things that may seem horrific to
the reader. On page 93, Offred is witness to Janine’s confession of being raped. She doesn’t
comment on how the blame is placed on Janine. Is this because Offred has begun to accept the
words of Aunt Lydia, or more likely, is she silent to create emphasis on the horrific deed? The
answer is easily satisfied when the reader finishes the novel. Offred must realize the injustices if
she feels compelled to reveal her story on the tapes. She must grasp the importance of conveying
the atrocities that were executed during the Gileadian area.
Offred is representative of an average women also because she has experienced no great
traumas. She isn’t just ambivalent because of her tendencies but because she has been abruptly
interjected into a new society. She is stunned and almost numb. She barely shows signs of life.
She doesn’t think there is any use to have a sense of hope. She thinks of the woman in “her”
room before her. Her strong sense of life did nothing to help her earn her freedom. She received
nothing from her quiet rebellions.
Offred is also obviously the perfect narrator because she is a handmaiden. In this new
system, almost a caste system, the role of being a handmaiden is not only of great importance, but
is also considerably better than other positions, such as an “unwoman”, who cleans toxic waste in
the Colonies. Because Offred is characterized as passive, and mostly compliant, she is not as
much in danger as other characters. Moira, her friend from college and the previous life, is
dynamic and full of life. She doesn’t want to be held back, and her resistence causes her both
trouble and distress. Janine, another character, is a “brown-noser” who uses flattery and praise to
achieve a virtually impossible level of hierarchy with the Aunts among her peers. She has to
sacrifice self-worth, though, and her admittance of fault in being raped is disgusting.
The tense that Atwood uses is relative to the narrator also. The shifts from present to past
are frequent. When an author causes the narrator to use past tense, the reader can generally
conclude that the narrator knows the end of the story. This builds a sense of suspense. Using
present tense allows images in the story to be more solid and realistic, compared to past life. Not
all shifts in tense are used for the same reason. When Offred is “speaking” of Luke, she can’t
decide if she is in love with him, or if she was in love with him.
Offred gradually reveals the story, which we are to eventually discover is on tape.
Atwood elects to use leisurely disclosure in order to make the conclusion of the story more
believable. The “Historical Notes” chapter causes the reader to re-examine the book, both
mentally and manually. As the reader recalls the jumble of thoughts, the bouncing back and forth
between the present and the past, and the narrator’s decisions to withhold certain details, they
understand the possibility, though unlikeliness, that this could actually happen.
Contrasts are important aspects in the narration of this novel. The obvious contrasts are
between other characters, such as between Offred and Moira. There also are the images of past
life that Offred creates. These contrast to the new