The Handmaid's Tale

What does history have to do with the story?

why the notes on history chapters 27-30

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The presence and content of the Historical Notes immediately forces the reader to consider the purpose of history with respect to the purpose of stories. The historians are frustrated that Offred's story cannot be fact-checked and verified by independent sources. They are irritated that given her many opportunities, Offred failed to secure some more tangible artifact of the Gileadean government, such as a printout from the Commander's computer. Atwood is subtly satirizing a type of historiography that considers facts more important than narratives - to these historians, information about the government is far more interesting than information about individuals. They look down on Offred's account in the same way that some look down on oral histories, assuming that such subjective tales are far less useful than the written, verifiable opinion of an "expert" or "leader." Though the speaker raises real questions - stating, for example, that the reader obviously cannot know whether Offred is a real person or whether the narrative is "accurate" - this section of the novel serves to spark antagonism in the reader. The question is, of course: to what purpose?

For starters, The Handmaid's Tale presents a slightly biased - yet unquestionably intelligent - case for the importance of storytelling in creating human understanding. Even within the fiction of Gilead, Offred repeatedly stresses that her account is a story. She does not necessarily intend it as a fair or accurate representation of the world she describes; she merely wishes to relate her experiences to someone that she loves and wants to understand what has happened to her. The historians seem willing to listen to Offred's account without attempting to understand her or her experiences. The reader, however, who takes in the story without worrying about its factual validity, cannot help but see things from Offred's perspective. Perhaps the historians have a more accurate picture of life under the Gileadean regime, but the reader seems to have a fuller understanding of the truth of Offred's situation.

The historians' distance stems from their belief in the idea of cultural, or moral, relativism. Pieixoto reminds his audience that they should know better than to judge Gilead by the standards of their own culture. He points out that the Gileadeans created their seemingly barbaric rules to accommodate unique pressures that no longer exist, and that "contemporary" society can thus not fully appreciate their purposes or rationale. Whether or not the reader agrees with this point, it seems likely that approaching The Handmaid's Tale as a fictional account makes one more likely to judge and disagree with the Gileadeans, and more apt to side with Offred. This difference allows us to see first-hand the power of so-called "speculative fiction"; reading a story allows us to examine our judgments and assumptions in a more leisurely and less dangerous manner than when they are tested out on real events and problems.

Atwood's decision to end her novel with the Historical Notes is intended to urge the reader to consider the work's overarching moral and philosophical issues. At the same time, she risks leaving readers deeply unsatisfied if they are unable or unwilling to consider the purposes of such an ending. Throughout the novel, the reader has been caught up in Offred's point of view, and has been granted no access to other characters' consciousnesses. Offred tells her audience what she thinks about Luke, Moira, and the other people who have disappeared from her life. She truly believes in the possibility of multiple "endings" occurring all at the same time. At the end of the novel, it is Offred who disappears for her readers, effectively abandoning them much as she has been abandoned. As the historians point out, she may have been killed, she may have escaped, or she may have escaped only to be recaptured later. Like Offred, the reader has learned to believe in multiple possibilities. It doesn't really matter whether or not Offred escaped. Her words escaped, so she survived. Though no one knows her real name, she is not like Ofglen; she has not been erased from the historical narrative. Whether or not the historians understand the importance of Offred's effort, the reader understands that she has made her story permanent, and has thus, in a way, given herself and her fellow Handmaids immortality.