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Memory and Influence

The first four chapters of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale introduce us to a dark, dystopian future of the United States in which fertile women are enslaved and extreme religious doctrine govern every facet of life. The story follows Offred, one of many fertile women enslaved to serve as Handmaids for the families of Commanders. One of the first things I noticed was Atwood’s use of multi-clause sentences, misused or missing punctuation, and extremely rich and detailed descriptions of objects, people, and settings. For me, this writing style suggests that we are not reading a memoir or diary, but rather the Offred’s flow of memories. These detailed images include the descriptions of the gymnasium, Offred’s room in the Commander’s house, the detail of  the faces of Nick and the Commander’s Wife, and even the manner in which the Commander’s Wife puts her cigarette out. We are also unaware of the narrators name even through the first four chapters (unless one is familiar with the story or read the introduction).

The detail in Offred’s memories also suggest a way to cope with the monotony and dread of life as Handmaid. Offred notices small details in her surroundings and often infers or questions meaning and purpose. This could be a method of keeping her mind sharp, active, and constantly thinking so that she does not go mad from her situation and the extreme rules that govern her life. Offred’s attention to detail may also be an indication of the boring, repetitive nature of her life in the Commander’s House. With very little variation in her daily activities, she is bound to become familiar with even the smallest details. Vivid descriptions are also utilized in Offred’s reflections of the past and the way life used to be, suggesting the role of vivid and detailed recollection as a means of coping with lack of freedom by grasping every detail from her past life and the society now gone.

Lastly, a connection is clear between the nature of young Guardians in The Handmaid’s Tale and younger members of Iran’s ruling party in Persepolis. In describing the Guardians, Offred recalls that “the young ones are always the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns,” which parallels Marji’s description of the young soldiers and young members of the Guardians of the Faith as being more fanatical and supportive of the regime. These two images reflect the susceptibility of young people to extreme doctrine pushed by those they look up to and those with the power to influence their education. It can even be seen in the US today with the rise of hate speech and toxic nationalism among some populations of white teenagers in Trump’s America. If anything, both descriptions serve as a warning of the power of influence those in power have over young people still searching for meaning in the world and their own purpose, and just how that influence can be utilized in extreme cases.

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  1. Emma Joaquin Emma Joaquin

    I think your point about the novel being a flow of Offred’s memories in her point of view is an interesting one. I would not otherwise have noticed this, but it could be an important aspect of the novel that alters the way I interpret and understand the story as I continue to read.

  2. Alexander Seeley Alexander Seeley

    I like your comparison to Persepolis, I thought the same thing while reading. This makes you think how in every society there is a sense of oppressions in some sense or form. At the end of the day all of these kinds of oppression seem to be common, yet in some way unnatural and restrictive of free human thought.

  3. Michael Paul Michael Paul

    I love your analysis of Atwood’s writing style! I noticed this too when I began reading, especially her descriptions at the beginning of chapter 2. If you are right about this book being a flow of Offred’s thoughts, I wonder if this style of writing will persist through the end as (I predict) she begins to question her oppression more.

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