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The Handmaid's Tale: Essay Q&A

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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 novel, even though at one point she pretends that it did. This alteration that the movie makes in the plot also has the effect of changing Offred/Kate's character. In the novel, Offred is rather passive, unwilling to risk much to achieve her freedom. But the movie turns her into a more courageous, heroic figure, in keeping with the contemporary popularity of strong female characters in the movies. The movie also adds a car chase, that old standby for keeping audiences on the edges of their seats, even though this does not occur in the novel.
The film also removes the ambiguity in the novel's ending. In the novel, Offred's fate is left unknown. The Historical Notes (omitted in the film) confirm that she probably escaped, but offer no clue as to her ultimate fate. But the film opts for the conventional happy ending. The liberated Kate is shown in some hideaway in the mountains, pregnant and awaiting the return of her lover.

3. What role does Moira play in the novel?
Moira is Offred's best friend. She is a part of Offred's life in all three time phases of the novel. In the "time before" they were easy-going college students together, and they meet again at the Red Center. Moira is a strong-willed woman who is not intimidated by the regime. She possesses an irreverent sense of humor and is like a breath of fresh air in the stilted, enclosed, fearful world of the Center. The first thing she says to Offred when they meet again is simply, "This is a loony bin " (ch. 13). This reveals Moira's down-to-earth nature, her willingness to describe things the way they are. Moira has a strength that makes Offred feel safer just because of her presence. There is something indomitable about her. When Moira first tells Offred about her plan to escape, Offred cannot bear the thought of being without her. But Moira is determined. Unlike Offred, she will not put up with how she is treated. She has the courage to resist. Even when she is whipped on the soles of her feet after her failed attempt to escape, she is not broken. She simply comes up with a better plan and escapes again. It seems as if nothing can break her or stop her from being herself.
After her escape, Moira becomes a kind of mythic figure for the others at the Red Center, a symbol of defiance and resistance. Because of Moira, Offred says, "the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw in it" (ch. 22).
However, it is debatable whether Moira continues in this heroic role throughout the novel. When Offred sees her again at Jezebel's, Moira is still in one sense her old irrepressible self. But in another sense she has changed. She has made her accommodation with the regime, and has no plans to escape from her role as a sex servant. The position allows her to have as much sex with other women as she wants, and she also has access to drugs and alcohol. Offred finds herself wanting Moira once again to act heroically, but it seems that even Moira has her limits. The regime offered her something she found tolerable-even though it is sordid-and she took the opportunity. So eventually the regime found a way of silencing even Moira.

4. "From fear to defiance." Is that a correct characterization of Offred's progress in the novel?
Fear is ubiquitous in Gilead and there is no way that Offred can avoid it. The hanging corpses at the Wall are a sure reminder of what happens to those who dissent or rebel. Since Offred, unlike Moira, is not naturally blessed with courage, she goes along with what she is told to do out of fear of the consequences if she does not. An example can be found in her early interactions with Serena Joy, which show her submissiveness; she is careful to respond in a way that is most likely to keep her out of trouble.
Offred does show some inward or passive defiance. Although she does not show it externally, she resists all the Gileadean propaganda. Her mind is not as malleable as the authorities would like to believe it is. She belittles two of the Commanders, although not to their faces. At the Red Center, she realizes that there are small things the powerless can do to assert themselves against their oppressors: "There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. . . . It's like a spell of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with" (ch. 34).
But Offred does not translate this inner defiance into action. The only time she actively defies the rules of the regime is when she has her affair with Nick, which is a very dangerous thing for her to do. But her motivation is not to defy the regime but to fulfil her need for human warmth and affection. During her affair, when Ofglen tells her that the resistance could arrange for her escape, she says she does not want to go; she prefers to stay with Nick. So what seems like an act of defiance in fact makes her more compliant with the demands of the regime. She will go along with it in order to preserve the one thing she values.
At the end of the novel, when Offred realizes the danger she is in because Ofglen knows she is not a true believer, she is even more fearful than she was at the beginning. She gives up all pretense of defiance, thinking to herself that she will do anything the regime expects of her if it will save her life. All she can think of is the need to survive.
So it seems that Offred does not really progress from fear to defiance, since fear never leaves her.

5. How does the Gilead regime use language, especially Biblical language, to solidify its power?
Language has a powerful influence in shaping how people think, a fact that is fully exploited by the rulers of Gilead. Since this is a theocratic society, the strongest influence on language is the Bible. Terms drawn from the Bible or from the Christian religion are used to create certain impressions in people's minds, which are very different from the reality. Gun-toting paramilitary men at the ubiquitous checkpoints are called Guardians of the Faith, for example, when in truth they are the enforcers of the political power structure. Army divisions and battalions are rechristened, Angels of the Apocalypse and Angels of Light. Racial minorities are referred as the Children of Ham. This is a reference to a passage in the book of Genesis, when one of the children of Ham is cursed by Noah and told that he will be a slave. In Gilead, calling certain groups Children of Ham means that they can be uprooted and forced into "homelands" on Biblical authority. (In recent years this practice of driving ethnic groups from their homes has become known as "ethnic cleansing," which is itself an interesting example of the use of language to disguise what is taking place.)
Not all the language used to control the populace in Gilead is Bible-based, however. The most disturbing examples are the terms Unbaby and Unwoman, which deny the humanity of those who have no place in Gilead society. Once this has been done, the authorities can do whatever they like with such individuals without having to justify themselves, since the victims are by definition sub-human.
Women in particular are the victims of the way the Gilead authorities exert control through language. The term Handmaid, for example, is a pleasant-sounding Biblical word that completely disguises the fact that the Handmaids are stripped of their humanity, used as virtual reproductive slaves, and forced to commit adultery. Their domination by men also extends to their names, since they are identified by the names of the men they are forced to serve-Ofglen, for example-in a way that suggests they are the property of the men. They have no independent existence. Curiously, Offred, although she gives many details of her life in the "time before," never mentions her former name. Even a short while of being "Offred" seems to makes her former identity less real to her, which is exactly what the Gilead authorities want.


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