Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood – Consider the way Atwood presents Professor Pieixoto’s conference speech in the’Historical Notes’

The anti-utopian novel, ‘The Handmaid's Tale', tells the futuristic story of Offred, a Handmaid of the oppressive Gileadean regime, a society immune to any form of external influence and governed by an elite. It is the ‘Historical Notes' at the end of the novel that help the reader to put one woman's autobiographical record into historical perspective by acting as an epilogue to the tale of Offred. Although not part of Offred's narrative, the notes are part of the novel, working as an essential supplement to the story in a hope to answer some of the many unanswered questions evoked throughout the novel. The notes stand as a framework with which one can use to reflect on Offred's narrative from a point in the distant future, where Gilead is long gone, along with all of the main characters of story. The ‘Historical Notes' are a transcript of a convention held in 2195, two-hundred years after Offred's existence, taking place at the University of Denay, Nunavit in Arctic Canada. The symposium is lead by a male archivist from the University of Cambridge named Professor Pieixoto, proving the notes to be of a view from outside of America. The introduction to the main text of the notes is light, whilst prefacing the main speaker, along with the works for which he is recognised. The main work for which he is recognised is that entitled â€Å"Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies, as Seen Through Diaries†, Iran being a country that imposed severe restrictions on the freedom of women and so has a direct link to Gilead. It is ironic that Iran and the United States are famous enemies yet impose similar restrictions upon their people. The name of the university has great significance for the reader as although it's set in one of the first aboriginal self-governing territory in Canada, ‘Denay Nunavit' is also a pun of ‘Deny none of it', in reference to the story as told by Offred. It is through this play on words by Atwood, that the reader is advised to believe Offred's story, whatever explanations or misinterpretations may be offered by the professors, in the ‘Historical Notes'. The Chair of the conference is a woman professor called Maryann Cresent Moon, her name indicating that she is a member of the Native people, along with her associate Professor Johnny Running Dog, suggesting that both women and Native people have substantial status at this point in the future. She begins the conference by addressing the students with notices about several other talks and expeditions taking place, and the reader can grasp that the fact the students go on nature walks and can eat fish, â€Å"Arctic Char†, from the sea, suggests an unpolluted environment contrasting that of Gilead. Professor Cresent Moon goes on to introduce the succeeding speaker, prefacing him along with his work, allowing Professor Pieixoto to then take the stand. Although this epilogue is set two hundred years in the future, it is through her speech that the Professor Cresent Moon reveals that the society of 2195 is more familiar to the society of today than the times of Gilead. However, there are also subtle differences to our society, as primarily, the culture that is presented in the future is characterised by non-Caucasian cultures seemingly studying Caucasian culture, the evidence provided through the names of the professors giving talks, such as Professor Gopal Chatterjee and Professor Johnny Running Dog. Traditionally, Western academia has been characterised by Caucasians studying anthropology, eastern philosophy and eastern religions and so much of the beginning section of the notes, spoken by Professor Cresent Moon, hints a mild ridicule of current academic practice by Atwood. Despite the advances in non-Caucasian academia, the male perspective of the Professor Pieixoto is typical of the historical male dominance and perspective in academic research and seemingly, it's through his seminar that Atwood satirises the methodology and manners of a male academic historian. Professor Pieixoto's jokes about ‘tail' and ‘Frailroads', instead of Femaleroads, have a sexist tone, indicating that sexist attitudes have not changed in the two hundred years that have passed since Offred's time. It is in this context that the nature of the professor's name has meaning as Atwood got the name ‘Pieixoto' from a Brazilian novel where it is the name of a character who continually is reincarnated in the same form. It is here that Professor Pieixoto demonstrates the same masculinist characteristics as those who created the Gilead regime, who had modelled themselves on the Old Testament patriarchs. Pieixoto starts by locating a historical context for Offred's story and goes on to tell his audience that the tale, later titled ‘The Handmaid's Tale' in tribute to Geoffrey Chaucer's ‘Canterbury Tales', came in the form of thirty cassette tapes that were discovered in Maine, in a sealed army footlocker near what used to be the Underground Femaleroad. We are told that each of the tapes began with several songs, â€Å"as camouflage, no doubt†, in order to disguise the nature of the recordings and that the same voice speaks on all of the recordings. Pieixoto also discusses the difficulties in reconstructing the narrative as the tapes were not numbered nor arranged in any particular order, along with the problems associated with the speaker's old-fashioned accent. Therefore, the professors transcribing the story had to guess the intended chronology of the tapes and this provides an explanation for the interrupted structure of the narrative. For all of Pieixoto's detailed account of how he came about Offred's story, he seems to lack concern for Offred as an individual and is more concerned in implementing the authenticity of her tale and its worth as impartial historical evidence. He seemingly avoids the moral issues raised by Offred, claiming â€Å"our job is not to censure but to understand† and most obviously, he is more interested in establishing the identity of her Commander than Offred herself. Surprisingly, Pieixoto cautions his patrons against judging the Gileadean regime too severely, as judgements on events in history are â€Å"culture-specific†. Furthermore, he seems to attempt to justify the establishment of Gilead by claiming that it was under a large amount of pressure due to the rapidly declining birth rate and environmental depravity. Pieixoto goes on to talk about the falling birth rate, elaborating on the reasons that caused it such as abortion, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and also miscarriages that resulted from exposure to nuclear waste. Using the Bible as a justification, he explains how Gilead rounded up a collection of fertile women by pronouncing all second marriages and non-marital relationships illegal, confiscating the children of these relationships and allowing the women to take on the role of â€Å"walking wombs†. Similarly, Pieixoto clarifies of how Gilead adopted the regime of what he calls â€Å"simultaneous polygamy† rather than â€Å"serial polygamy†, taking inspiration from the Biblical story of Rachel and Leah. Pieixoto explains that similarly to all new systems, Gilead drew on the past for inspiration in creating its ideology. Specifically, he mentions the racial strains that troubled pre-Gileadean America, which Gilead embodied in its main principles, and later talks of how the idea of dumping â€Å"more than one boatload of Jews† into the Atlantic Ocean was one of the ideas dreamt up by one of the two possible Commanders of Offred. It is here that Pieixoto talks of his and his fellow Professor Wade's interest in identifying the author of the tape, but due to her name being concealed by the Gileadean patronym, he's unable to tell the reader anything new about Offred, her life before, within or after the Gileadean regime. However, it is noticeable to the reader than Pieixoto is more interested in identifying the Commander of Offred, as perhaps by discovering his identity and more about him, he can so do the same for Offred. After attempting to research the names used by Offred in her story, after having no leads, Pieixoto comes to the conclusion that the names such as ‘Moira', ‘Luke' and ‘Janine' must have been pseudonyms, in order to protect those that she loved. The two possibilities that Pieixoto offers as the Commander's real identities are Frederick Waterford and B. Frederick Judd, both men leaders of the early Gileadean regime and instrumental figures in the structuring and establishment of Gilead. He runs through what both men contributed to Gilead, starting with Frederick Waterford, revealing that he was â€Å"responsible for the design of the female costumes† and came up with the idea that the Handmaids should be branded by the colour red. He was also responsible for some of the names of the events practiced in Gilead, such as ‘Particution' and ‘Salvaging', taking his inspiration from events in the past, along with the design for the Handmaids costume, which resembled the uniforms of German prisoners of war during WW2. Judd on the other hand is credited with devising the form of the Particution ceremony, rather than the name, and proposed the idea that the Handmaids should be governed by women as he believed that â€Å"the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves†. He was also responsible for the dumping of the Jews into the ocean. Although both were childless, there is more evidence to support Frederick Waterford in being Offred's Commander as although his wife wasn't called ‘Serena Joy' or ‘Pam', but instead ‘Thelma', he was into market research and was involved in one of the earliest purges of Gilead after being accused of â€Å"being in possession of†¦ heretical pictorial and literary materials†, as well as â€Å"harbouring a subversive†. However, although all of this evidence points towards him, Pieixoto explains that because historical details of Gilead are few due to the fact that the destruction of records was a regular practice during the purge, it's unlikely that they can be certain of her identity of her Commander as Frederick Waterford. Pieixoto concludes on the note that the final fate of Offred is unknown, and that she may have been recaptured, reached Canada or could have even made her way to England. What he notes as surprising is that if she did escape to Canada or England, why she didn't make her story public, although he recognises that Offred may have wanted to protect what family and friends she had left. However, the aforementioned ‘subversive' is thought to be Nick, a member of both the Eyes and the Mayday movement, and that the men he called in at the end of the novel were sent in order to rescue Offred. The final sentence of the speech, â€Å"Are there any questions? thereby invites the reader to question the issues raised, having heard the two opposite perspectives, by Offred's narrative and the addition of the ‘Historical Notes'. It is at this point that the novel undertakes a moral tone, typical of dystopian literature. The ‘Historical Notes' alter the readers perspective of Offred and her tale, as it can be recognised that she is no longer a living human but an anonymous voice. It appears to the reader that Professor Pieixoto seems to doubt the tes timony of Offred and he attempts to discredit her by claiming her not to have paid attention to the more important issues going on at the time. For the reader, it seems as though Pieixoto has not taken notice of what Offred chose to tell, a tale of suffering and persecution within the regime, and this results in the reader feeling as though the professor is not only paying attention to the wrong things but is also belittling her story. Pieixoto's version of Offred seems surprisingly inept in warmth, humour and the genuine human emotion expressed that the reader will have felt from reading Offred's testament and so ironically, as Offred had predicted, â€Å"from the point of view of history, we'll be invisible†, Pieixoto has partly erased her from history. The narrative technique of the ‘Historical Notes' is entirely different to that of Offred's story, in terms of both its form and language, and so the change in voice from the personal account by Offred to the rather generalised and removed version by Professor Pieixoto forces the reader to take a more moralistic view of what he or she has just read. The historical glance back at Gilead, what preceded it and what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time, has the effect of drawing the experience of Offred much closer to home for the reader. It is unsettling to learn that the Gileadean practices were based on real practices formerly or currently in existence and this serves as a warning by Atwood that the reality of Gilead is not as far away as it seemed when reading Offred's account. After the abrupt ending of the main text of the novel with its leap into the unknown, the epilogue follows and the ‘Historical Notes' are simultaneously a welcome objective explanation of the Gileadean society, a parody of academic conferences and offensive to the reader. The notes are a shock to the readers, as they have just gone through the emotional ups and downs of Offred's account, suffering her torments with her, and is therefore shocking, as intended by Atwood, to hear Offred's life discussed in front of an amused audience, joked about and treated as a quaint relic. The significance of the ‘Historical Notes' to the novel as a whole is that they provide an open ending for the journey which Atwood takes the reader on, allowing each reader to have a different interpretation on the fate of Offred and the other main characters of the novel. It is the last line of the novel, â€Å"Are there any questions? † that signals to the reader that the fate of Offred is debatable, and an ending like this causes the story to stay with the reader some time after finishing reading it, as the ending is left up to the reader to decide upon.

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