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    Lit:Plot summary of The Handmaid's Tale:

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    Rahma Sboui Gueddah

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    Lit:Plot summary of The Handmaid's Tale:

    Post by Rahma Sboui Gueddah on Fri Mar 09, 2007 4:32 pm

    Plot Summary:


    The story is told from the perspective of Offred, a Handmaid. "Offred" is a patronymic which describes her function in the Republic of Gilead; Offred belongs to (or is "of") her Commander, Fred. Offred's real name is not revealed. (In fact, no character is given a surname, something that enhances the somewhat other-worldly quality of the story.) Based on certain clues, some believe that Offred's real name is June (eg. at the beginning of the story, when Offred is in the gymnasium, she recites the names of all the girls; when she later speaks of all of these characters she does not include the name June. (In the 1990 film adaptation, Offred gives her real first name as Kate; however, this name does not appear in the novel.)

    Offred's assignment to the household of the Commander is her third, after she has failed to become pregnant with her first two Commanders. If she fails with her current Commander, she will be transported to the colonies. We are given tiny hints as to Offred's opinion of one of her former Commanders, particularly during the Ceremony. This third assignment differs from her earlier experiences in that she is given, in various disjointed episodes, glimpses that all is not as it seems in the new world and that the people in her life, while paying lip service to Gilead's rigid mores, seek various means of expressing their individuality.


    An American paperback edition of The Handmaid's TaleOffred initially becomes aware of this new viewpoint when Fred oversteps the bounds of her official role by ordering her to visit his study late at night to play Scrabble with him. He also obtains forbidden hand lotion for her and allows her to read books and magazines from the old days. On one occasion, he dresses her up in a sexy costume and smuggles her out to Jezebel's, a nightclub and brothel. He asks that she keep all this secret from his Wife, Serena Joy.

    At the same time, Serena Joy is asking Offred to keep secrets from the Commander. Resentful of having been deprived of her formerly prominent role as a televangelist (loosely based on Tammy Faye Bakker, who, like Serena Joy, often cried and streaked her mascara on television) and right-wing lecturer (loosely based on Phyllis Schlafly, who, like Serena Joy, ironically traveled across the country telling women that they should stay home[citation needed]), she feels that the only thing that can give meaning to her life is a child. Since the Commander is likely to be sterile (his previous Handmaids did not conceive), Serena Joy suggests that Offred attempt to conceive a child with Nick, the chauffeur, later revealed to be a member of the underground Resistance.

    Nick and Offred begin an emotional and sexual relationship which they continue until, in the final chapter, Offred is either caught or smuggled out of the household. By this time, Offred and Nick believe that she might be pregnant. Her fate is not made clear by the ambiguous ending, though since she was afforded an opportunity to make tapes describing her experiences, it seems likely that she was rescued by Nick and his colleagues and possibly was able to leave the country via the "Underground Femaleroad" mentioned in the appendix.

    In fact, the appendix treats Offred's on-tape narrative as a historical document, discussed at an academic conference far in the future. In this respect The Handmaid's Tale is similar to Egalia's Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg, or God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert, and, to a different degree, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Despite the novel's ambiguity about Offred's fate and what may be considered evidence of continued sexist attitudes, the appendix does imply a 'happy ending'. Atwood seems to be saying, "this too shall pass" regarding not only her novel's totalitarianism but also the fundamentalist and fanatical elements of her own time.

    Nevertheless, some critics have taken issue with a wholly optimistic interpretation of the appendix: it is arguable that the academic analyst of Offred's narrative indicates his adherence to an androcentric and dehumanizing grand narrative of major historical events rather than a focus on the very real human tragedies that befall the citizens of Gilead, (though Atwood is likely to have been commenting on certain preoccupations and approaches current in 1980s literary criticism and historical scholarship). Additionally, sexist and chauvinistic attitudes can still be observed (in, for instance, the lecturer's nickname for the "Underground Femaleroad" escape route: the "Frailroad").

    The Handmaid's Tale is similar in theme to some of Margaret Atwood's other books (such as Oryx and Crake) with its post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It makes use of many contemporary motifs, such as the debate over the separation of church and state, the sexual roles of men and women in society, and ultimately the right to individuality within the confines of an increasingly authoritarian government.


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