Margaret Atwood

Start Free Trial

Student Question

In "Gertrude Talks Back," how does Margaret Atwood use literary techniques to create humor and convey a theme?

Quick answer:

Atwood uses literary techniques such as indirect characterization and irony to create humor and to convey the thematic message that women are just as capable as men, that women know their own minds, and that men ought to keep their opinions about women's lives and choices to themselves.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Atwood uses indirect characterization of Gertrude to portray her as a funny, modern, discerning, and determined woman. Indirect characterization occurs when the author allows readers to come to conclusions about the traits a certain character possesses by allowing us to hear what she says and see what she does. For example, Gertrude says to her son, Hamlet, "I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails." In other words, she is not worrying herself over her dead husband or her disapproving son; instead, she is giving herself a manicure because she likes it. Further, she says that she knows her first husband was nobler-looking than her second, but her second husband is a lot more fun. She says that one doesn't "always have to be tiptoeing around because of some holier-than-thou principle" with Claudius. In other words, she likes to have fun and enjoy herself and her old husband was dull as tombs. Even more, she admits to having killed her first husband herself, showing us that she is rather ruthless and is willing to go after what she wants.

Atwood also employs situational irony, which is created when what we expect differs from what actually happens, when Gertrude admits to killing her first husband. It is also ironic when she talks about sex in front of Hamlet, suggesting that he ought to try it so that he can loosen up a bit. Mothers don't typically tell their sons to go out and have more sex. Usually it is children who think that their parents lead sort of sad lives and don't have much going for them but, this time, it is the mother who thinks her son has a bit of a depressing life. Both of these devices create humor, and they also help point to the theme that sons have no right to meddle in their mothers' affairs or, more generally, that men don't necessarily know better than women.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial