Historical Notes, Handmaid’s Tale

Read the excerpt from SparkNotes below and write a $1 summary using each of the following 10 cent words:

  1. Intellectual
  2. Gilead
  3. tapes
  4. professor
  5. commander
  6. Nick
  7. birthrate
  8. Bible
  9. Mayday
  10. Eyes

Summary: Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

The epilogue is a transcript of a symposium held in 2195, in a university in the Arctic. Gilead is long gone, and Offred’s story has been published as a manuscript titled The Handmaid’s Tale. Her story was found recorded on a set of cassette tapes locked in an army foot locker in Bangor, Maine. The main part of the epilogue is a speech by an expert on Gilead named Professor Pieixoto. He talks about authenticating the cassette tapes. He says tapes like these would be very difficult to fake. The first section of each tape contains a few songs from the pre-Gileadean period, probably to camouflage the actual purpose of the tapes. The same voice speaks on all the tapes, and they are not numbered, nor are they arranged in any particular order, so the professors who transcribed the story had to guess at the intended chronology of the tapes.

Pieixoto warns his audience against judging Gilead too harshly, because such judgments are culturally biased, and he points out that the Gilead regime was under a good deal of pressure from the falling birthrate and environmental degradation. He says the birthrate declined for a variety of reasons, including birth control, abortions, AIDS, syphilis, and deformities and miscarriages resulting from nuclear plant disasters and toxic waste. The professor explains how Gilead created a group of fertile women by criminalizing all second marriages and nonmarital relationships, confiscating children of those marriages and partnerships, and using the women as reproductive vessels. Using the Bible as justification, they replaced what he calls “serial polygamy” with “simultaneous polygamy.” He explains that like all new systems, Gilead drew on the past in creating its ideology. In particular, he mentions the racial tensions that plagued pre-Gilead, which Gilead incorporated in its doctrine.

He discusses the identity of the narrator. They tried to discover it using a variety of methods, but failed. Pieixoto notes that historical details are scanty because so many records were destroyed in purges and civil war. Some tapes, however, were smuggled to Save the Women societies in England. He says the names Offred used to describe her relatives were likely pseudonyms employed to protect the identities of her loved ones. The Commander was likely either Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd. Both men were leaders in the early years of Gilead, and both were probably instrumental in building the society’s basic structure. Judd devised the Particicution, realizing that it would release the pent-up anger of the Handmaids. Pieixoto says that Particicutions became so popular that in Gilead’s “Middle Period” they occurred four times a year. Judd also came up with the notion that women should control other women. Pieixoto says that no empire lacks this “control of the indigenous by members of their own group.” Pieixoto explains that both Waterford and Judd likely came into contact with a virus that caused sterility in men. He says the evidence suggests that Waterford was the Commander of Offred’s story; records show that in “one of the earliest purges” Waterford was killed for owning pictures and books, and for indulging “liberal tendencies.” Pieixoto remarks that many early Commanders felt themselves above the rules, safe from any attack, and that in the Middle Period Commanders behaved more cautiously.

The professor says the final fate of Offred is unknown. She may have been recaptured. If she escaped to England or Canada, it is puzzling that she did not make her story public, as many women did. However, she might have wanted to protect others who were left behind, or she may have feared repercussions against her family. Punishing the relatives of escaped Handmaids was done secretly to minimize bad publicity in foreign lands. He says Nick’s motivation cannot be understood fully; he reveals that Nick was a member both of the Eyes and of Mayday, and that the men he called were sent to rescue Offred. In the end, Pieixoto says, they will probably never know the real ending of Offred’s story. The novel ends with the line, “‘Are there any questions?’”

 

 

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