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The Handmaid’s Tale

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Essay title: The Handmaid’s Tale

1. What extra dimension do the Historical Notes add to the story?

The Historical Notes present a transcript of a talk given by a Professor Pieixoto at a scholarly conference held in 2195. They offer a historical perspective that Offred’s personal, present-tense narrative could not supply. The Notes offer clarification and amplification of the historical circumstances that gave rise to the Gileadean regime and explain the origins of some of its practices. The Notes seem to offer both hope and cause for concern. They offer hope in the narrow sense by clearing up the ambiguity of the novel’s ending, in which Offred does not know whether she is escaping or being taken prisoner. Pieixoto makes it clear that Offred must have escaped, and that Nick was an agent of the resistance, not of the regime. However, the Professor has been unable to unearth any information about Offred’s ultimate fate.

The encouraging news that emerges from the Historical Notes is that Gilead did not last forever. The oppressive regime is now a matter of historical interest rather than a contemporary reality. The message seems to be: everything passes, and in that there is hope.

However, that is not the whole story. Although women and minorities seem to occupy respected academic positions in 2195, the Professor presents an oddly unsympathetic, patriarchal view of the story he is interpreting. He makes it clear that it is not his job to condemn Gilead, and suggests instead that some understanding be given to the difficulties the regime faced. This strikes a discordant note for the reader, who has just finished reading about a vicious, oppressive, cruel, tyrannical regime. The passage may be Atwood’s attack on the notion of cultural relativism, popular with some schools of sociologists and anthropologists. Cultural relativists refrain from make moral judgments about other cultures, based on the idea that there are no moral absolutes and one culture cannot be declared superior to another. But Pieixoto’s unwillingness to censure Gilead is almost as if some future historian were to plead for understanding rather than condemnation of Nazi Germany, which would only be a step away from excusing the Holocaust.

Professor Pieixoto seems far more interested in the Commander than he is in Offred. This suggests that the focus of historical inquiry remains on the deeds and personalities of powerful men rather than on the unknown woman whose story this is. Pieixoto’s remark, “What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer!” betrays his bias. A mere twenty pages from a powerful man would be worth more to him, one senses, than the three hundred pages he possesses that give every detail in the life of a Handmaid. This Professor shows little empathy with Offred’s life. He may be a good researcher on questions of the authenticity of the manuscript and other objective aspects of scholarly inquiry, but he lacks the ability to penetrate the heart and soul of the Tale, which is about the suffering of one woman in a patriarchal regime. He even makes a little joke at the expense of women, when he points out that what Offred describes as The Underground Femaleroad has been renamed by some The Underground Frailroad. This elicits laughter as well as groans from the audience. It appears that even in 2195, the women’s movement still has work to do.

2. How does the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale differ from the novel?

The Handmaid’s Tale was made into a movie in 1989, with a screenplay by the renowned playwright, Harold Pinter. Since it is shaped to meet the expectations of the movie-going public, the film differs from the novel in several significant ways.

Much of the novel consists of flashbacks to “the time before,” and also to the time Offred spent in the Red Center. The film removes the flashbacks and unfolds in a straightforward, linear fashion. It begins with the capture of Offred (who in the movie is called Kate) and the killing of Luke. This differs from the novel, where Luke’s fate is uncertain. The fact that Luke is dead removes from the film the guilt that Offred feels in the novel when she begins her affair with Nick.

There is not a huge amount of action in the novel. Since the focus is on Offred’s isolation, much of it consists of her inner thoughts and feelings. But for a film to attract a large audience, it needs more dramatic action. So in the film version, Offred assassinates the Commander, a thought that does not even occur to her in the

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