A-Level header

if you decide to copy my essay instead of doing your own writing, more fool you

Module One

Margaret Atwood once said 'There may be several truths'.
How far does this remark contribute to your understanding of The Handmaid's Tale?

That there are several kinds of truth is surely sufficiently obvious that it does not need a writer of Margaret Atwood’s stature to say so. Although ‘Truth’ is generally thought of as a fixed and immutable thing, there are in practice many different truths.

The truths represented in this novel are multiple and complex. There is what appears to be strict narrative truth: this happens, then that. There is truth that evolves over time. There is emotional truth, to which logic is not relevant. There is the truth that comes from one perspective, and the different but arguably equally valid truth that comes from a different perspective. The different truths all inform the text in various ways, and there can hardly be a line in which at least two levels of truth are not present. It seems that anything which occurs, or is felt, or is understood, may at some point be undermined by a change which casts it into doubt or throws a different light onto the details given. The opening of the novel describes the ‘palimpsest’ of the gymnasium. Layers of different events, superseded through time by subsequent happenings, fill the place with an almost palpable history. The novel works in a similar way, building layers in a chronological sense, but also layers of understanding.

In other words, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a vast number of different, and frequently conflicting, truths, and the way in which these are understood by the reader is essential to the experience of the books.

The difference between individual points of view is the most obvious reason why there may be several truths. Each person’s own experience of life will inform that person’s outlook and interpretation of the world. In the novel, plainly it is the narrator’s point of view which is paramount, and with which we are most likely to sympathise, but there are many other points of view represented, and the truth as perceived by other characters may have equal validity.

As Offred is the principal narrator, the other characters are perceived via her own perceptions of them. Their thoughts may be presented, but are presented as Offred assumes them to be—for instance, she supplies a mental commentary by the Wives upon the Handmaids, which is believable but not necessarily accurate. She attempts to understand and interpret the Commander’s Wife, ‘Serena Joy’, but goes beyond describing Serena Joy’s actions and ascribes motives to her, which are plausible but may not be correct.

Moira—one of the rare characters who is called by name—is probably the individual other than Offred whose character is most plainly represented in the narrative. Many incidents involving Moira are recalled or recounted at different points, either in Offred’s memory or during the apparent present of the text. In them, Moira’s statements and actions are usually recounted as they happen (with the exception of the escape from the Red Centre), and there is scope to learn directly what her point of view is.

It is distinctively different from Offred’s. Moira’s statements about feminism, mostly in Offred’s memories, present a set of attitudes which differ considerably from the narrator’s own. For Moira, for example, men are largely unimportant (until the brutal takeover of society), whereas for Offred they are essential. Moira’s understanding of the new situation in which they find themselves is more immediate and complete than Offred’s, and of course her response to it is quite different. However, although Moira is presented as a heroic figure, this does not mean that her interpretation of events is always more accurate than Offred’s. For instance, it is the man Offred has found to be her lover who helps her to escape from the Commander’s house. Moira, still independent and contemptuous of men, has no-one to help her escape.

The Commander himself has a point of view necessarily quite different from Offred’s. He is in a position of power, and as free as anyone within the society of Gilead can be said to be. Thus he is unaware of the detailed restrictions on Offred’s daily life, he does not understand the extent to which she is watched and curtailed, probably because it never occurs to him to think about it. He believes, or at any rate seems to believe, that the new society he has helped to build is better than what preceded it—from the evidence presented by Pieixoto in the Historical Notes, it is clear that whoever the Commander was, he had a large part in constructing the forms of this new society. However, Offred does not know many details of the Commander’s past or of his life outside the house, and she is puzzled by his motivations, so that the truth from his point of view is difficult for her to understand and convey.

Aunt Lydia is another member of the establishment, although her power is far more restricted in scope than that of the Commander. However, she willingly and forcefully presents the official truth. In fact, much of what Aunt Lydia says can very properly be classified as propaganda. She describes the Handmaids’ situation as “not a prison but a privilege”, which is not how they see it, and assures them that theirs is “a position of honour”. This is ‘official truth’, in essence, a lie. The idea that Gilead represents a return to traditional values isÉ partly true. Some of its values are ‘traditional’, for instance, the indissolubility of marriage, the superior authority of the male; yet these have not been passed in an unbroken line through preceding societies, and they have been selected most carefully in order to fit in with the preferences of those in power.

More particularly, Aunt Lydia’s presentations often rewrite history. During the indoctrination of the new Handmaids, she ofen speaks with disgust about the evils that happened to women in the time before Gilead. Of course, there is indeed truth in what she says. When she describes the birth process involving women wired and monitored and largely helpless in the hands of male doctors, she is presenting a not altogether inaccurate picture, and one which would strike sympathetic chords of revulsion in today’s proponents of natural childbirth. However, it is a partial picture, because she omits to mention such aspects as pain relief, maternal and infant mortality rates and so forth. (Gilead’s stress on the importance of reproduction is similarly partial: it seems that control of fertility and avoidance of science are at least as important as the production of healthy children.) Similarly, the vile representations of pornographic rape and murder that are presented at the Red Centre are not complete lies—every reader knows that crimes and violence are perpetrated against women. However, the reader also knows that this is far from being a complete picture of women’s lives during the 1980s. Furthermore, the reader knows that actual crimes are seldom captured on film, and that the scenes Aunt Lydia is presenting are themselves fictions.

Aunt Lydia is often associated with the perversion of language, and there are many instances in which it is clear that the meanings of words have been changed. The ‘nurse’ Offred sees when she attends the clinic for her monthly check-up is actually an armed guard; ‘Salvaging’, which ought to mean saving, is the name for an execution; the word ‘sterile’ is forbidden altogether, in an attempt to make the concept non-existant. This twisting of language is part of the Gileadan society’s attempt to create a new truth, just as the propagandist versions of the news, and the doctoring of the biblical texts, are part of the rewriting of history. As Aunt Lydia points out, the next generation will know no other truth than the one they are told.

The layering of truth and counter-truth which Aunt Lydia demonstrates in her speeches and opinions occurs time and again within the novel. Hardly any statement is made which is not undermined in some way. For example, when meeting Ofglen to go shopping, Offred notes: “This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers.” There is a layer of ‘official truth’, that the Handmaids walk in pairs for their own protection. Offred describes it as ‘absurd’, but elsewhere, notes that there have been attacks on Handmaids, so it is not completely without foundation. But Offred’s interpretation, that the women are to spy on one another, is far more plausible, and supported by the evidence of the mistrust between them and the general atmosphere of insecurity within their social milieu. Yet it subsequently turns out that the two Handmaids are in fact allies, that the bland, correct Ofglen whom Offred perceives is in reality an active subversive, that the two can exchange useful information, and that in the end, far from betraying Offred, the other woman sacrifices her own life in order not to endanger her network.

A different representation of the different kinds of truth that may co-exist is in Offred’s consideration of what has happened to her sometime husband, Luke. She believes that he is being held in prison; she believes that he is dead; she believes that he escaped, and she will see him again. She is able to believe these things simultaneously because she has no certain information, and because any of them may be true (although the first two seem most likely). (Quantum Lukes. Schrodinger would be impressed.)

Offred’s ability to believe in these three contradicting possibilities at the same time says nothing about which of the three fates has actually happened to Luke, but offers what can be described as ‘emotional truth’ about Offred. Her emotional responses are important to the story she is telling, and the frequent glimpses into her emotions lead us to the truth about the kind of person she is. Pieixoto is not interested in Offred as a personality, but for the reader to be truly interested in the events of the novel, it is necessary to make its narrator an interesting and largely sympathetic person. Pieixoto himself, by contrast, comes across as supercilious and sexist, and his unattractiveness pushes the reader into greater sympathy with Offred, towards whom Pieixoto himself displays a kind of patronising disappointment.

Another kind of truth may be described as ‘temporal truth’: in other words, the perception of what is true may depend upon the time at which is is perceived, and may vary as time progresses, with the opportunity to acquire more information, or with situational changes.

Plainly, this kind of perception applies to various incidents that happen within the narrative. Offred is forced to re-evaluate Ofglen, and Nick, and Serena Joy, etc, by what they do during the course of the novel. Ofglen is no longer ‘a pig on its hind legs’, but a discreet, competent rebel; Nick is not just the Commander’s servant and signalling system, nor just Offred’s lover, but also a member of the team which rescues her; Serena Joy is not just the Commander’s loyal Wife, she had a previous existence as a singer and media personality, and is willing to disobey the system and, in effect, cuckold her husband in order to obtain a child.

Similarly, Offred learns more about different situations the longer she lives with them. She finds out more about her predecessor as Handmaid through a gradual process of discovery; she learns from Moira that her mother, whom she had thought dead, is (or until recently was) working in the Colonies. The birth of Janine’s (Ofwarren’s) baby occasions joy, because the child appears healthy. But later we learn that it was a “shredder”. It is then hinted that the child was deemed unfit not because of its own health but because it was begotten by an unauthorised male instead of the proper Commander.

This kind of ‘temporal truth’ also applies very much to the novel itself. On a first reading, the reader accepts the narrative convention that allows the teller of the story, eventually known as Offred, to convey her tale even though she explicitly states that she lacks the means of recording it. Her story appears to be structurally complex but nonetheless acceptable as a sequence of events.

The Historical Notes force the reader to a re-evaluation of this narrative. As Pieixoto says, “all arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate”. So we discover that Offred, the trusted narrator of the Tale, did not necessarily tell the story in the order in which we are reading it. The essential narrative convention is deliberately undermined. At the same time, the actual means of telling the story have become important where previously they were invisible or irrelevant. Offred’s frequent meanderings along the lines that “this is a story I’m telling” take on an entirely new significance. At first reading, she can be assumed to mean that she is telling her own story, or can be understood as weary and depressed, or of course, as she says at one point, she wishes it were ‘only’ a story, so that it would not be true—which serves to emphasize the horrible truth of her situation. However, when it becomes clear that everything Offred says is being told in retrospect rather than as it happens (with forays into memory), the idea that it is a ‘story’, ie something made up, becomes a more pressing possibility. Can we in fact trust the narrator at all?

The possibility also exists that Professors Wade and Pieixoto have introduced errors by their mistakes in sorting the tapes. Is Offred’s story being presented in the correct order? How much ‘editing’ of the narrative has been done, with no signs left on the text to indicate possible ambiguities? Have the professors really understood the chronological structure of the narrative? There are several moments during which Offred makes statements which are presented as taking place at Night, within her room in the Commander’s house and in the ‘present’ of the narrative, but which could equally be ‘now’ statements when she is recording the story onto tapes. She says: “I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.” Such fragments can apply to the Offred lying alone in her bed, but could arguably be made by the freed Offred who is recounting her story onto tapes. So the ‘truth’ of the novel turns out to be something presented to us by these two professors, separated from its events by many years, and not necessarily accurate.

Yet there is inevitably another layer to the truth. The fact is that while Offred’s narration may be unreliable, the author herself has placed everything exactly as she intends it to be read. The ambiguities and possibilities for disbelief are therefore intentional aspects of the text. If the ‘truth’ of Offred’s narrative is called into question, it is nonetheless a ‘true’ representation of what the author intended to say. The structure of the novel contains the same kinds of question marks as the text itself. Where the narrator muses that she is telling a story, and thereby brings her own veracity into question, the author herself is undoubtedly telling a story, which is not supposed to be factually true but which nonetheless is attempting to convey some kind of truth to the reader. It is this truth, the essence of what the author is trying to say, which is the ultimate truth of the book—and, inevitably, each reader will find a different truth within the book.



Back to Module
A-Level Module Index