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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Student Question

How do the "manuscripts" present a critical problem for Professor Pieixoto in The Handmaid's Tale?

Quick answer:

In The Handmaid's Tale, the manuscripts represent a source critical problem for Professor Pieixoto in that he cannot verify the events depicted in them. Try as he might, Pieixoto has been unable to prove that the events in the tapes left behind by Offred even happened. He cannot know for sure her real name and identity. Pieixoto's lack of certainty in regards to the manuscripts means that he can only engage in speculation as to what really happened.

Expert Answers

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In the epilogue of The Handmaid's Tale, a history professor by the name of Pieixoto is addressing a learned symposium of fellow academics. In this speech, he emphasizes the difficulties of establishing the veracity of the sources—the tapes left by Offred—that he and a colleague have spent a long time transcribing. As such, he cannot be sure that the events described in the tapes actually happened.

What's more, he has been unable to establish, with any degree of certainty, Offred's true identity. Instead, Pieixoto speculates on the possible identities of the Commandeer for whom she worked. In a typical move, Pieixoto is erasing the identity of a woman from her own story, choosing instead to highlight the contributions of two men, the possible Commanders, to Gileadean society.

Instead of taking Offred's words at face value, the patronizing professor uses the problems involved in source criticism as an excuse to play down the significance of women's voices. Furthermore, he is airily dismissive of the female resistance movement, referring to The Underground Femaleroad, one of the means of escape for women in Gilead, with utter contempt as "The Underground Frailroad." Pieixoto is clearly a chauvinist who regards women as the weaker sex.

The problem of verifying the original source material does not, however, prevent Pieixoto from gushing over the alleged "genius" of Gileadean society. In a prime example of moral and intellectual cowardice, the professor refrains from passing judgement on the Gileadeans' barbaric practices toward women, as he regards any such judgments as culture-specific.

So, in a supreme irony we have a history of women in a misogynist society, written by a woman, presented by a male historian who is at best condescending and at worst downright hostile toward women. In a telling indictment of how history is often written, Offred and the other women of Gilead have been excluded from their own story.

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