Narrative Style and Structure

The structure of the novel is discontinuous, fragmentary, revelatory and episodic. There is considerable use of interior monologue.

Rather than following a straightforward chronological narrative, the story is gradually revealed to the reader through narrative and dialogue combined with interior monologue that includes a great deal of flashback and foreshadowing, hint and allusion. It gradually builds a cumulative picture of the setting, the characters, the themes and events of the story. The story needs to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, with the final picture revealed only as the last pieces are put in.

Memories are seldom chronological or organised. Offred fills in gaps in the narrative as she remembers or as events in her current existence trigger her memory. This type of narrative structure is more authentic and vivid. We accept the authenticity of Offred’s experiences because we experience them with her. Interior monologue is characterised by leaps from one idea to another, by the association of different ideas. It allows juxtaposition and thus parallels and comparisons that highlight the themes of the novel. It is more suspenseful – because the story is revealed bit by bit, we are less able to understand the details than if we follow a simple chronological tale. We can never be sure whether Offred did survive.

Offred’s first person point of view gives an intensely personal quality and authenticity to the narrative. She shares her thoughts, observations, memories, impressions, and dialogue, both in flashback and in the ‘present’.

The novel’s tone is dark, and at ties mournful for the lost world before Gilead. Consistently unhappy, Offred finds both refuge and pain in her memories. A sense of fear and paranoia also pervades the novel, living under the totalitarian regime. A very black humour does sometimes lift the tone from a too serious one.

There is also a note of despair that runs through: “How can I keep on living?” She frequently alludes to the possibility of suicide – the only escape she is able to envisage.

Foreshadowing of Events:

  • Offred’s kiss with Nick foreshadow’s their affair
  • the attempted kidnapping of Offred’s daughter foreshadows Offred’s loss of her child
  • the arrest in the street “What a relief, It wasn’t me.’ foreshadow’s Offred’s own arrest
  • the previous Handmaid hanging herself foreshadow’s Ofglen’s end
  • Moira’s ‘underwhore’ party foreshadows her ending up at Jezebel’s.

NARRATIVE STYLE

Short sentences: “History will absolve me.” “I wait. I compose myself.”

Questions: “Does Luke hope?” “Why is it that night falls instead of rising like the dawn?”

Minor sentences: “A chair, a table, a lamp….A window, two white curtains….A bed.””Flash in the pan.”

Long, loose sentences: “From the outside I must look like a cocoon, a spook, face enshrouded like this, only the outlines visible, of nose, bandaged mouth, blind eyes.”

All help create the idea of a narrator talking into a microphone, of ideas being expressed at random, of the process of thinking, reflecting. The questions reinforce Offred as a woman with an enquiring and curious mind, one who is intelligent and thoughtful but rather ideologically dogmatic. The long sentences mean ideas are added, built on, synonyms offered, associations suggested. Loose sentences are more characteristic of informal spoken language.

For Offred, telling her story is an act of rebellion. Offred speaks out to an imaginary reader. Offred’s creation of her story gives her “control over the ending.” It gives her hope for the future, a sense that “there will be an ending…and rel life will come after it.” She can hope that someone will hear her story.

 

IRONY

Irony is an important stylistic technique used by Atwood.

It is ironic that Serena Joy played a part in the creation of the state of Gilead, but her life is now devoid of any affection or comfort, she is the real loser.

The Japanese tourists visit and view Gilead as in the past American tourists would have looked at traditional Japanese geishas etc.

“Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse.” Passports give us a freedom to travel freely. Offred’s tattoo will ensure she does not escape; it denies her freedom, as did the branding of slaves.

Gilead uses only what it chooses out of the Bible for its justification, and is not above making up what it wants.

There are similarities between Offred’s mother and Aunt Lydia, their attitudes and actions. Although the novel offers a feminist critique of the attitudes towards women in Gilead, Atwood occasionally draws similarities between the architects of Gilead and radical feminists such as Offred’s mother. Both claim to protect women from sexual violence, and both show willingness to restrict free speech on order to accomplish this goal. Offred recalls her mother and other feminists burning porn magazines, which the imagery links to witch burning. The Commander’s dismissal of love links to Offred’s mother’s similar dismissal. Aunt Lydia talks of leading men by the nose, similar to Offred’s mother’s rejection of the value of men.

Gilead also uses the rhetoric of female solidarity and sisterhood to its advantage – these points of similarity imply the existence of a dark side of feminist rhetoric, but despite Atwood’s criticism of the feminist left, her real target is the religious right.

 

Posted by Tracey Hames

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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