The events in this novel take place at different points in the life of the narrator, but the primary setting, the present tense of the novel, is Gilead, where she has been a handmaid in the Commander’s house for five weeks. The reader is introduced to new characters that she meets from this point forward, such as the doctor and the new Ofglen, while others that she is already familiar with-Rita and Cora for example-are taken for granted and woven into the narration without explanation.
Because the narrator’s life had been designed by the government to be uneventful and to not require independent thought, the tone of the novel is drab, flat, desensitized. Information about how her life came to be this way is conveyed through flashbacks, most of them drawn from two sections of time in her past: her memories of Rachel and Leah Re-education Center inform readers about how she came to be the way she is, and her memories of the time between the government’s fall and her capture at the border explain how society came to be the way that it is.
In the first few pages, the first section called “Night” is told in flashback, establishing the fact that this book takes place at a time when army blankets that say “U.S.” are notably old, in a place where women sleep in a gymnasium surrounded by barbed wire. This sets a tone of danger for the following present-tense episodes, to contrast the passivity of the bland life described there.
The chapters of the novel alternate, with the even-numbered ones naming some place in town that the narrator goes to and the odd-numbered ones named “Night” (with the exception of “Nap” in Chapter V). This emphasized the distinction between the times when the handmaid’s brain is allowed to be active and when it is supposed to be shut down in sleep; ironically, her life becomes more active and colorful during the “Night” sections, usually because she uses her private time to remember, and later to carry on her affair with Nick. It is significant that the trip to Jezebel’s is not placed in a “Night” section, even though it occurs after dark and is a supposedly covert action, indicating that it could still be considered mainstream because it poses no threat to the power structure.
At the end of the novel, the “Historical Notes” section offers a lecture given in the year 2195 by the Director of Twentieth-and Twenty-first Century Archives at Cambridge University. This jump to almost two hundred years beyond the events of the book allows readers to put these events into a larger perspective, offering the hope that an oppressive society like Gilead is not the fate of humankind, but instead is the sort of misstep that civilization is bound to take in its development.
Point of View
Because Margaret Atwood allows each of her characters sufficient motivation to be rounded, reasonable human beings, without relying on exceptional degrees of good or evil to explain any of them, the world of this book would have a different impact if it were presented from any other point of view. If this story were told by the Commander’s wife, for example, the social structure might seem necessarily harsh and even fair, while the Commander might find it slowly improving under the tinkering of social architects.
Because the narrator is a handmaid, one of the most basic contradictions in this situation is emphasized: motherhood is praised as one of the greatest achievements in this world, but mothers are stripped of possessions, dignity, identity, and, ultimately, of their children. Having one of society’s most powerless members tell the story brings out the fear of social authority that all of the characters feel, and it sheds light on the injustice of it all. If the narrator were an angrier handmaid, she might not have gained the confidences of the Commander and Serena Joy; if the character had been more complacent, the members of the resistance may never have approached her. In either case the full story would not have been covered.
Deus ex Machina
This phrase translates from Latin to mean “god from the machine,” and it refers to the practice in ancient Greek drama of having a complex, twisted plot resolved in the end by suddenly having a god character descend from the sky (lowered onto the stage by a machine) to explain all mysteries, punish the bad and reward the good. This is of course a poor substitute for having a resolution that grows naturally out of the plot.
Some readers have charged that the sudden appearance of the Mayday group at the end is a case of deus ex machina, providing a happy ending that the situation did not prepare for. Although the appearance of Mayday is abrupt, it is not done without preparation. First, Ofglen’s knowledge of the activities in the Commander’s house hints halfway through the novel that the movement had a spy there. More significantly, the strength of the resistance group is never made clear throughout the novel because the narrator is kept uninformed of any real news: Mayday could rescue hundreds of people per day from Gilead, making their appearance at the end quite reasonable, but readers would not suspect this activity because it has been hidden from the narrator.
Most of the imagery in this novel does not occur naturally, but has been planted by the government: for instance, the frightening specters of the hanged traitors; the nun-like habits that the handmaids wear; the ominous black vans that symbolize swift and unforeseeable death; the tattered bunny costume that makes Moira look like a cheap, vulgar toy.
There are also symbols that the characters in the novel see in front of them, whether they are aware of it or not: the garden that assures Serena Joy that she is concerned with life and beauty; the chauffeur’s cap, symbolic of obedience to the social order, that is turned askew when the Commander and Offred are to meet as near-equals; and the fixture that was put in the ceiling to replace the chandelier that the former Offred hung herself from, symbolizing both death and also, because it looks like a breast hanging down, life.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Margaret Atwood, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998