Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Reading, Writing, and Storytelling

By Margaret Atwood

Reading, Writing, and Storytelling

This isn't a story I'm telling.

It's also a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. (7.34-36)

Usually when we're reading a piece of literature, we suspend our disbelief about how that story got to us. In other words, we don't think about how the narrator or character we're learning about got his or her story onto paper. The narrator makes that impossible here by addressing an implied reader. She seems to be telling the story both to herself and to this "someone else" to stave off loneliness.

I am trying not to tell stories, or at any rate not this one. (9.2)

There's a slippage here between fiction and reality. The narrator says she doesn't want to "tell stories," as in falsehoods or lies, but then she adds "not this one." So how much of her story is true?

I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.

These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself. (19.8-9)

The narrator is often thinking about words and their meanings, origins, uses, etc. Even though she's not allowed to read anymore, the narrator clings to words like lifejackets, using them "to compose [her]self." The words and their various meanings remind her of who she is.

When I get out of here, if I'm ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out. (23.3)

Here the narrator provides an excuse for why her story isn't always the absolute truth or "exactly the way it was." She's already creating a "reconstruction" by telling this story, so if she wrote it later it would just be another one. Her statement "if I'm ever able to set this down" is tricky in light of the book's ending, which says that everything we just read has been transcribed from an audiotape. So is what we're reading what's already "set down"? Or did the narrator write it elsewhere, later? Should this be proof of her escape or that she didn't make it?

In fact I don't think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn't. As I said, this is a reconstruction. (23.57)

Here, the narrator undermines the "truthiness" of her narrative. She tells us she did something and then takes it back: "I don't think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards." This admission also takes us out of the present moment of the narrative, making it seem less real and immediate.

This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can't remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down. I've filled it out for her as much as I can: we didn't have much time so she just gave the outlines. [...] I've tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It's a way of keeping her alive. (38.37)

The narrator explains why she tells this part of Moira's story in Moira's voice, rather than in the third person, as she told others' stories earlier in the book. She says this is "a way of keeping [Moira] alive" and of helping her imagine Moira is with her again.

Here is what I'd like to tell. I'd like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or if I couldn't tell that, I'd like to say she blew up Jezebel's, with fifty Commanders inside it. I'd like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn't happen. I don't know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again. (38.69)

The narrator is using imagination as wish fulfillment here. As she tells her audience this story, she invents "something daring and spectacular" that "befit[s]" her best friend. Then, sadly, she has to return to the more prosaic reality: she doesn't know what happened to Moira, and neither do we.

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light [...] I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love [...] (41.1)

In contrast to the moments in the text when the narrator seems unreliable, here she reinforces her reliability by stating what the story isn't and lamenting what it is. She treats it as a real fact that can't be altered—in contrast to moments where she calls it a "reconstruction" (23.57). Because she does so, it seems like she doesn't have the power to change it.

I've only been to one of these before, two years ago. Women's Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so well behaved.

I don't want to be telling this story. (42.6-7)

Even though the narrator doesn't "want to be telling this story," she is. Why? Why is this such an essential element of the story that's unfolding? Maybe this episode is like medicine, included for our own good. Maybe it's included because it's such an essential part of what comes after. Maybe the narrator doesn't want to talk about it because of her fear that she might be Salvaged one day.

I have seen the kicking feet and the two in black who now seize hold of them and drag downward with all their weight. I don't want to see it anymore. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope. (42.27)

Even though the executions aren't something the narrator "want[s] to see [...] anymore," she still includes them in her story by describing a previous one. It's as though even though she doesn't want to watch what happens, she can't escape it. She still has to go to the Salvaging, and because she has to go, we have to read about it too.

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