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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale Summary

  • This section is described in a headnote as a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" (Historical Notes.1). The year is 2195. Two people speak.
  • The first is Professor Moon, who welcomes everyone to the symposium and says this historical period is important because of the ways in which it shaped their world.
  • She makes some administrative announcements about symposium events, alluding to other historic moments that would have taken place after the events in the Handmaid's story.
  • She introduces Professor Pieixoto and gives his credentials, then he speaks.
  • Professor Pieixoto thanks everyone and says he's going to talk about The Handmaid's Tale, which they have been treating like a manuscript but is actually a series of tape recordings that had been hidden in a footlocker. The tapes were retrieved from a station on the Underground Femaleroad, in what used to be Bangor, Maine.
  • The professor alludes to other, similar memoirs, but says this one is particularly valuable.
  • He and another professor transcribed the voice on the tapes. The story was haphazard and out of order. They determined that it was not a forgery: the tapes were authentic and had been made at least 150 years ago.
  • Professor Pieixoto argues that the narrator made these tapes not as the events were happening, but afterward. He says it would help if they knew her identity, but she could have been anyone. The house where the tapes were discovered was a dead end.
  • All they could find out about the narrator was that she was in the first group of women made to be Handmaids. He offers a scientific description of how fertile women were allocated to powerful men in the Gileadean society.
  • A combination of illness and pollution had led to infertility problems.
  • Professor Pieixoto says people in Gilead used Biblical ideas to reinforce and support their new society. He briefly explains why the society was successful.
  • Then he discusses the problem of names in the society. None of the Handmaids' names reveal their identity, but potentially their Commanders'. The other names the narrator used were probably pseudonyms.
  • The professor did research to try to track down the narrator's Commander. From his powerful status and the use of "Fred," combined with diary readings from someone named Wilfred Limpkin, the professor thinks the man could have been one of two men: Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd.
  • Both of the men were extremely powerful and dangerous, devising many of the ceremonies for the society. One of them possibly had connections to the President's assassination.
  • The professor then speaks briefly about some of those ceremonies. He adds details about how women were selected to act as Aunts and what that involved. It was all deliberately calculated to keep larger populations under control.
  • He says neither of these men were married to a woman named Serena Joy, but one of them – Waterford – had a wife who had been on television. Waterford was put on trial for having books and supporting a subversive, which fits the narrator's Commander's situation.
  • Professor Pieixoto says "Nick" could have been the subversive, and that he was probably a member of Mayday. He might have also been an Eye and was probably there to spy on the Commander.
  • The professor says that's about as far as they can speculate. The narrator didn't get the kind of material that would have helped them more closely analyze the Republic of Gilead, and they don't know what happened to her. Even if she did get out, the trail is cold, and she didn't take her tapes with her. The professor says it's unlikely Luke would still have been alive.
  • Professor Pieixoto states that they also can't tell why Nick helped the narrator or what his help meant, whether the narrator was pregnant, and if saving her doomed him.
  • The professor ends his talk by saying they should be glad for the little history they've gotten. Then he asks for questions.

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