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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
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When did Offred tell her story, during the events she narrated or some time after them? Why?

Offred narrates events during her time as a Handmaid. The use of the present tense makes this clear. She wants to create a record of the atrocities being perpetrated in Gilead, where women have been stripped of their rights and their humanity. Offred's narration establishes a record and also serves as a way for her to come to terms with her situation and either accept it or take action, as she ultimately does.

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Offred tells her story of being a Handmaid in Gilead in the present tense. Her life before that period, as a free person who was married, held a job, and was a mother, is narrated in the past tense. For instance, in describing her room in chapter 2 , she...

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Offred tells her story of being a Handmaid in Gilead in the present tense. Her life before that period, as a free person who was married, held a job, and was a mother, is narrated in the past tense. For instance, in describing her room in chapter 2, she speaks in the present tense:

This could be a college guest room … or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now.

The use of the present tense and use of the phrase “That is what we are now” makes it clear that Offred is narrating events in real time. Her verbs are also conjugated in the present tense. She says, “I walk along the hallway,” not “walked along the hallway.”

She speaks about events that are occurring as she narrates, because they are so horrendous and threaten her so much that she wants to relate them before something happens to her, while she still has the chance to tell her story. She wants to create a record of the atrocities being perpetrated in Gilead. Women in Gilead have been stripped of their rights. Handmaids have been stripped of their humanity. Life is dangerous for them all. For instance, Offred overhears the kitchen staff discussing the accidental killing of a Martha:

Nothing safer than dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her own business. No call to shoot her.

It was an accident, said Cora.

Yet, there is no retribution or punishment for this “accidental” killing of an innocent woman. Women’s lives have little value in Gilead. Even the Handmaids, whose fertility makes them somewhat valuable, can be harmed in ways that will not compromise their ability to conceive and produce offspring.

She also switches between present and past tense to compare her life as a Handmaid under strict scrutiny and Gilead rules with her life before Gilead was created. The technique of incorporating flashbacks also underscores her despair at her present situation.

Offred's narration establishes a record and is also a way for her to come to terms with her situation and either accept it or take action. By the end, she realizes that she

should have taken things into [her] own hands ... stolen a knife from the kitchen, found some way to the sewing scissors. There were the garden shears, the knitting needles; the world is full of weapons if you're looking for them. I should have paid attention.

Ultimately, she does take action.

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