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Interpreting the Handmaid's Tale

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Interpreting The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is distinguished by its various narrative and structural divisions. It contains four different levels of narrative time: the pre-Revolution past, the time of the Revolution itself, the Gileadean period, and the post-Gileadean period (LeBihan 100). In addition, the novel is divided into two frames, both with a first person narrative. Offred's narrative makes up the first frame, while the second frame is provided by the Historical Notes, a transcript of a lecture given by a Cambridge professor. The distinctions in structure and narrative perspective parallel the separation of Gileadean residents into different social roles.

Offred's narrative is mainly of the Gileadean period, but she frequently interrupts her account of this time with memories of the pre-Revolution and Revolution periods. In her account of the pre-Revolution period, the reader learns of Offred's childhood with her mother, her student days with her friend Moira, and her relationship with her daughter and husband. From her memories of the Revolution, the reader learns of the time she spent at the Red Center, the facility in which women were indoctrinated. The repression and bias that she and other women suffer progresses with movement form the pre-Revolution past to the Gileadean present. When compared with her life before the Revolution, the gross corruption and injustice of the Gileadean period becomes increasingly evident.

Offred's narrative is noteworthy for several reasons. For one thing, it is an act of defiance; by telling her story, Offred refuses to forget the past or reconcile herself to the present. In a society in which women are forbidden to read or write or to speak freely, her tale becomes a protest. In fact, it becomes her "gesture of resistance to imprisonment in silence, just as it becomes the primary means for her psychological survival" (Howells 127).

The fact that the narrative voice of the major bulk of the novel is a woman's is all too significant. 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. As Offred tells her story, she incorporates the stories of other women into her narrative. Her voice "multiplies



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