Handmaids

The true measure of a text’s value lies in its ability to provoke the reader into awareness of its language and construction, not just its content’ The conceptual understanding of a good text revolves not only around its content, but also its language and construction. This notion articulates profoundly within Margaret Atwood’s novel A Handmaid’s Tale as it is, after all, the author’s manipulation of the language and construction which enacts as vehicles towards the reader’s understanding of the content.

A Handmaid’s Tale is a confrontational post-modern work of feminist dystopian fiction; it depicts a protagonist’s struggle to adapt to a totalitarian and theocratic state where language has become corrupted. Without any doubt, language is a powerful mechanism which influence and shape thoughts and the perception of reality, a principle that is used and abused by the rulers of Gilead in order to take total control of the society.

Set in a theocratic civilisation, the Bible has become the strongest influence on language, as shown through the biblical reference of the “snake-twined sword”, where the “snake” in the Bible is a clear symbol of temptation in which Eve got tempted by. By using this imagery as a “symbolism left over from the time before”, it exemplifies how through the entirety of the novel, the Bible acts as a literary device to not only manipulate the minds of the people into believing that women are sinners because they are weak enough to be tempted, but to also allow the reader to fathom the ideas of the story itself.

Incongruously, it is also apparent that language has lost its initial meaning in the Gileadean society as guards, spies and rulers took on the biblical terminologies of “Guardians of the faith,” “Angels,” and “Commanders of the faithful”. The irony of the “Commanders” being “faithful” when, in fact, they are the ones who keeps forbidden texts and magazines and flirts with the handmaids indicates how the Bible is altered in order to pertain to the concept of the society in which the protagonist lives in.

It also shows how, through the power of corrupting and twisting the bible, and aka the language, the leaders can effectively oppress the minds of the individuals into believing the regime as something virtuous and messianic, whereas in reality, they are the opposite of what they are understood to be. Thereby, not only does language mould and shape the story to be the totalitarian and theocratic society that it is, language also assists in putting forward the ideas of a text to the reader in an ingenious and coherent manner.

The aforementioned notion of language links to the construction of the novel, in which Margaret Atwood cleverly provokes the reader into awareness of the non-linear structure that she chooses to write in. With the story being told through the lens of the protagonist, Offred, Offred uses memories as a method to reveal her past. The novel begins with the protagonist’s flashback of “what had once been the gymnasium”, a time where she still “yearned for the future”.

The juxtaposing imageries of her “yearning” creates the notion of a dystopian text, where the people are never gratified with the world in which they live in. This is further emphasised when Offred says, “The night time is mine…as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move”, where through the character’s confinement, the reader is able to express empathy towards her and partially comprehend the notions of a dystopian novel. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s empathetic and non-linear narrative contrasts strongly against the logical and structured historical account of Pieixoto’s.

Atwood very effectively uses juxtaposition of the two accounts to symbolise how although the present society appears to be distinctly different from the Gileadean society, traces of patriarchy still exist, as shown when Pieixoto jokes about “enjoying” the female Chairperson “in two distinct senses”. Through embodying this, it is clear for the reader to recognise how although the constructions of the two accounts are binary opposites, the patriarchal perspective manifests in both.

Therefore, The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of a good text as it provokes the reader into awareness of the construction of the novel as well as successfully putting forward the point the author tries to make without making it appear too apparent. The content, like the construction and language, is an essential device in which put forth the author’s intention of the novel, but in a more direct manner. The main themes held within the content of The Handmaid’s Tale comprise of not just the overall story itself, but also the character and the idea.

The narrator, Offred, is unquestionably the most noteworthy character in the novel where the reader experiences the world of the Gilead through her eyes. However, the reader is not given an in-depth understanding of what Offred truly is like, as her only description of herself is being “thirty-three years old”, “have brown hair” and “stand five seven without shoes”. Through Offred’s vague description of herself, as well as by mentioning that she has “trouble” remembering what she “look like”, suggests the idea of feminism in which Atwood tries to convey.

This is evident through Offred’s depiction on the corruption of language and the non-linear construction of her narrative which evokes the restrictions placed on women, and thus, a perceptible clue which outlines the author’s concern to the rights and identity of women. Hence, although the content of the novel is easier for the reader to recognise and comprehend, the significance of the content is just as essential as the language and construction, as without the idea, story or character, the novel itself will not exist.

In conclusion, through the post-modern dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, it is ostensible that the true extent of a text’s value does rely on its ability to provoke the reader into awareness of the language and construction, as the absence of a clear set out of either focuses will result in the reader to not fully grasp on to the meaning and ideas held within the content.

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