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THE HANDMAID’S TALE


BY LAURA TATCHELL


The writer of a novel summarises and ties together the key ingredients of their argument in the conclusion which is a distillation of the themes and ultimate purposes of the entire novel. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood displays many of her values in the ending which is taken to comprise of the last chapter and the historical notes ranging from page 0 to4. Atwood writes of her beliefs and values, which can be found just below the surface of the events of the concluding pages. She makes comment upon an individual’s position and treatment within a dystopic, and indeed within every society, describing how all individuals can be pigeonholed and categorised without the placement of value upon the individual and their respective personalities and uniqueness. A stark warning is made through the conclusion to heed history’s mistakes, to avoid complacency yet remain astute and to value yourself. Although The Handmaid’s Tale has been labelled as a feminist novel, I believe that Atwood’s values are not feminist, nor are they inclined towards the desire for a return to traditional values and a genderized society. Instead there is a focus on equality among all members of society. Atwood uses the novel as a vessel to communicate these values.


A society is a complex amalgam of many influences and individuals. It is so complicated that it is impossible to define. Society has so much power over a person in restricting and shaping the ways in which they behave, when really there is no one way of how to live. This creates confusion as people don’t really know what they’re doing or where they’re going. They try to please and live the right way, but it’s futile as people are not made to conform to one way of living. The fictitious character of Offred within the fictitious society of Gilead in the final chapter is a metaphor of the position of individuals within societies in general. This can be seen in the thoughts of Offred as her supposed impending doom approaches


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“This could be the last time I have to wait. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for.” (p0)


She sits in her room, pondering her future of which is entirely uncertain. When contemplating escape she says “I could walk at a steady pace down the street trying to look as if I knew where I was going.” (p04)


This recurring sense of disorientation and bewilderment is created by Atwood to show how in the dystopia of Gilead citizens’ freedom of choice and the freedom to be themselves is squashed in an effort to control the republic. This shows how laws and expectations limit individual freedom and creativity and the right to question what goes on.


Symbolism is used to effect in describing the snow falling


“gently, effortlessly, covering everything in soft crystal, the mist of moonlight before a rain, blurring the outlines, obliterating colour.” (p04)


The snow is a representation of a society which masks individuality, blurring the outlines of people who are different and are valued for those differences. Obliterating colour gives an image of greyness, sadness and depression. Living in a society where there is no freedom of choice is not really living, as decisions have already been made for the individual. An intensely critical attitude of a society like the oppressive totalitarian Gilead is implied.


Atwood seems to condemn complacency. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” is repeated throughout the novel but is also one of Offred’s first thoughts in the final chapter. She repeats this to herself but finds it conveys nothing and is sarcastic in saying, “You might as well say, Don’t let there be air; or, Don’t be.”(p0) This pessimistic and sombre tone relays Atwood’s value of keeping on going even when it gets tough, to keep resisting being taken over and to value yourself as an individual who deserves so much. The reader is encouraged to object against her giving up. They want Offred to have faith. Again, the pessimism of Offred’s words is clear “Faith is only a word, embroidered.”(p04) Most of what Offred says in the last chapter causes the reader to react and disagree as they see her gradually giving in and they want her to keep trying, and not let the bastards grind her down. This is a stark example of how the writer instills her values in the reader.


Atwood seems well grounded in not being ignorant of the fact that sometimes it is better to defy conformity and repression in the secrecy and safety of hiding, as Offred does. Offred resists the Gileadean society by recording her story on tape such that it outlasts the regime. If she had of stood up for herself in person, she would have perhaps been cast out as an Unwoman, meeting an untimely death. This is what Atwood purports and the realism of this causes the reader to take these values to heart.


The Historical Notes are an interesting appendage to Atwood’s story. They are a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies taking place two hundred years later in 15. They explain more of what happened to Offred after she stepped “up, into the darkness within, or else the light” (p07) of the black van which took her away from the Commander’s house. Chapter 46s ending is very obscure and the reader is left wondering whether Nick was a traitor and led Offred to her death, or whether he was part of the resistance and helped her to escape. Through the Historical Notes this question is partly solved. We find out that she managed to escape and stay in hiding long enough to record her story on tape. The fact that she managed to get out is seen as a triumph for all oppressed peoples and sends out a positive message.


Atwood utilises the Historical Notes to create satire on the academic rhetorical habit of ‘distancing’, and thus ‘objectifying’ its subject showing Offred’s story two hundred years later interpreted as a dry and lifeless exposition rather than the vibrant living past it actually is. The academics discuss the tale’s historicity, missing the meaning of Offred’s individual experience by committing the historians’ sin of viewing the individual only as an example of the larger, more abstract point. Piexioto assures the other academics


“We must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learnt by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. . . Our job is not to censure but to understand.” (p14 and 15)


The irony of this statement is in the fact that he fails to understand anything of what life in Gilead was like. “It also raises the issue of whether academic objectivity in discussing totalitarianism without taking a moral or political viewpoint makes the scholar ‘an apologist for evil.’” (Malak 187)


Atwood’s critical attitude towards sexism can be seen through the male academics that come into play in the historical notes, namely Professor James Darcy Piexioto. His speech on The Handmaid’s Tale is one which depersonalizes Offred and only focuses on the historical facts and the pains of trying to authenticate it. It is seen as “unhelpful” as a historical document as it does not give all the details. The missing details are researched by the organisation but they do not bother to find out the name of Offred, or any facts about her life, instead they focus on the males as they were the dominant figures of the time. They completely disregard any possible thoughts of sympathy and perhaps admiration for the struggle of Offred and all of the oppressed females.


Despite their role as creators of the monstrous totalitarian society Professor Piexioto praises the two possible Commanders of Offred for their genius,


“It was a brilliant stroke, and confirms us in our opinion that Waterford was, in his prime, a man of considerable ingenuity. So, in his own way, was Judd.”(p1)


Whenever Piexioto refers to the females of the story he makes chauvinistic remarks. The naming of Offred’s tapes which the academics annotated were called “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in homage to Geoffrey Chaucer but also because of the homophone of ‘Tail’ which refers directly to a females behind, and reinforces the way in which females are reduced to their sexual function, which is an example of how individuals, in this case females, are categorised. It also makes light of Offred’s plight, as if it’s all a joke. Ironically they are doing the exact same thing as the men of the Gilead society did by describing women as objects only useful in their reproductive function. It is dramatic irony because no one else at the speech seems to see this, as they all laugh and applause his joke, unaware that repetition of history has already begun. This further instills Atwood’s ethics.


Piexioto also makes another joke at the expense of females in the Gileadean regime,


“We know this city was a prominent way-station on what our author refers to as “The Underground Femaleroad,” since dubbed by our historical wags “The Underground Frailroad.” (Laughs, groans.)”(p1)


This demeans women as frail and is the chauvinism that Atwood seems to despise. It would seem that the women involved in the resistance were anything but frail, for they managed to escape the system from a place of complete inferiority. The fact that everyone laughs, apparently even the female, Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, clarifies Atwood’s view of the prejudices held by societies.


Atwood utilises Professor Piexioto to display her apparent dislike of power and its ability to corrupt. The Professor holds power in his position as a well respected academic, key speaker for the forum, and his being responsible for the transcription, editing and publication of The Handmaid’s Tale. He brings Offred’s story to light, but abuses his power by missing the point of Offred’s tale, and even mocking her.


A comment in the Historical Notes in reference to the Aunts’ role in the Gileadean regime shows how power can corrupt the individual “Where power is scarce, a little is tempting” and this shows why the Aunts took on a role enforcing oppression upon themselves. Piexioto claims that the Aunts were chosen to control the Handmaids based on the precedental knowledge that,


“no empire imposed by force. . . has ever been without . . . control of the indigenous members of their own group.” (p0)


It is clear that by giving power, although limited, people are willing to compromise their own values and rights. Without this perhaps the women may have banded together and overcame the repressive society.


Atwood gives a horrific warning to the reader - that a part of Gilead exists in the future. The chauvinism and devaluation of the individual is seen in the academics without objection. It is so ludicrous, as to grab the readers attention and beg them not to put up with it in their own society for a repeat of Gilead can happen so easily. The next era did not heed the warning but Atwood makes a challenge for the reader to do so, otherwise fade into oppressive dominion.


The convention described in the notes takes place in 15, two hundred years after the Republic of Gilead began and the scholars are looking back on the era, which means that within this time Gilead has come and gone. Atwood makes a significant statement on the nature of totalitarian societies and the assumption that they will never last for long. There is also a reference to the Nazi rule over the nation in the 10s connecting it to Gilead


“Professor Van Buren will give what I am sure will be a fascinating lecture on the Warsaw TacticPolicies of Urban Core Encirclement in the Gileadean Civil Wars.” (p1)


Nazism was meant to last for a thousand years but was conquered after only twelve years. This is demonstrative of the thought that injustice and inhumanity go against decent morals and cannot last.


Atwood highlights her values partly through the dramatic change of point of view from the last chapter to the Historical Notes. She contrasts the personal intimate tone of Offred to the distanced, objective view of Piexioto who Atwood has intentionally made to miss the point of the story and even laugh at Offred which shows he has not seen the importance of her story. The response the writer was probably looking for was one of dissatisfaction and angriness at the way in which Offred’s story was received. This is a clever way of concluding the novel, raising reactions in the reader and causing them to think about the issues raised and their own personal values.


The Handmaid’s Tale is a cleverly crafted novel which uses the conclusion to shed light on Atwood’s values. Underlying the events of the final chapter and the Historical Notes are thoughts upon individualism and how a society can quash the freedoms of an individual with their rules and expectations. Atwood uses Gilead as an extreme example of the oppression of the individual (in this case, Offred) within a society and the confusion and chaos this creates. I think Atwood is critical of the way in which people are judged as being ‘one of those’ and placed into a category instead of placing value on the unique characteristics of the individual. She creates satire on the objectivity of academics in discussing historical events by completely ignoring the human aspects of history and focusing on facts, events and other obscurities. She also warns of a future much like that of Gilead whereby history repeats itself and chauvinism, abuse of power and human oppression reign supreme.


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