The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Title: The choice of title is fictionally explained in the ‘Historical Notes’ as an editorial one concocted by ‘Professor Knotly Wade’, but it is also, of course, and primarily, Margaret Atwood’s own title for the novel. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales shares with the novel the peculiarity of rarely revealing the names of its central characters. Personal identity, it is implied, is bound up with an individual’s function in society: one is neither ‘Geoffrey’ nor ‘Eleanor’ in Chaucer’s world, but a ‘Monk’ or a ‘Man of Law’; a ‘Cook’ or a ‘Franklin’. The Gilead regime represents a throwback to the Middle Ages in that people’s social functions are similarly arranged in hierarchies, though its various designations are far fewer than those of Chaucer’s England. Men can be Commanders, Eyes, Angels or Guardians (though there are obviously other social and economic roles available to them); Women can only be Wives (or Econowives), Aunts, Handmaids or Marthas. Outside the core of Gilead, in the Colonies, these elements break down into a literal ‘grey area’, since everyone there, male or female, is forced to wear a robe of that colour.

The term ‘Handmaid’ derives from the Bible: particularly the story of Bilhah and Rachel discussed below, but it also references the Virgin Mary’s designation of herself as ‘the Handmaid of the Lord’ in Luke 1:38. The story of Mary’s complete abnegation of herself in accepting her pregnancy from God is twisted by the Gilead regime into a means of justifying enforced surrogacy on behalf of the powerful.

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