Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The first stanza of “Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture” introduces the torture chamber. The voice in the poem describes how the chamber defies the human imagination; it does not resemble a dungeon, it is not reminiscent of a pornography magazine, and it is not futuristic. Instead, the chamber is compared to a dirty train station—a place that is all too familiar. The image of the train station includes a man who cleans the station’s floor. This individual is the precursor to the unnamed man introduced in the third stanza who sweeps the floor in the torture chamber.
The man who cleans the torture chamber must deal with the grotesque smells and remove the remnants of the previous night’s activity. He reminds himself that he is grateful for his job and that he is not the torturer. This man remains unnamed and generic; he could be any man in any country.
Other shocking images in the poem include limp bodies of those who refuse to speak thrown onto the consul’s lawn. Bodies of children who have been killed in order to extract information from their parents are also described. Despite these atrocities, the anonymous man performs his job each day and does his best to dissociate himself. He completes his work because he must provide for his children and his wife; however, he is fear-ridden. In the back of his mind he cannot detach himself from this cruel world, and he knows that he and his family could be the government’s next targets. The poem makes a bold statement about the harsh reality behind political systems.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.
Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.
Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.
Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.