This week, John Green continues to teach you about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale. In this installment, we’re looking at Atwood’s desire to tell a story from a female point of view, and what exactly it means to tell a story in that way, and if in fact there is an inherently male or female way to tell a story. We’ll also look at why Atwood presents the story’s final chapter from the perspective of a male scholar.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.
So some of you might be familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from the
Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, which is a great show.
It’s especially enjoyable if your favorite emotional experiences are fear, loathing,
and waking nightmares.
But the book is even better.
Now, that’s not always the case–the movie Die Hard was better than the book it was based
on; The Fault in Our Stars was a very good film–but it is true of the Handmaid’s Tale.
So read it!
OK, so last time, we discussed the historical events that influenced Atwood as well as why
she characterizes her novel as speculative fiction.
Today, I wanna focus on the narrative’s perspective–or perspectives.
Although Atwood has said that she wanted to write from a “female point of view,” and
she obviously literally did that, I want to discuss today whether there is a distinctive
or inherent “female” or “male” point of view, outside of just narration, and also
why Atwood presents her final chapter from the perspective of a male scholar.
INTRO The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the reproductively-challenged
Republic of Gilead, where fertile women are forced to have babies with military Commanders.
To maintain her sanity, Atwood’s protagonist, Offred, engages in personal rituals, but also
connects with other women – like her college friend, Moira and a fellow Handmaid named
But let’s face it.
Offred’s life is terrible.
Her husband and child have been taken away.
Her mother is missing.
If she fails to conceive, she will be forced to clean up toxic sludge.
And worse, her Commander appears to be sterile.
A handsy obstetrician offers to “help” Offred conceive.
The Commander’s wife bribes Offred to mate with the gardener/chauffeur, Nick. (which
Meanwhile, the Commander entreats Offred to play Scrabble, to wear some (seriously) old
lingerie, and to visit a brothel called Jezebel’s.
At Jezebel’s, Offred discovers that Moira is working as a prostitute.
And it’s from Moira that she learns of her mother’s fate.
Offred begins to lose her grip.
When Ofglen asks her to become a spy for the “Mayday” resistance movement, Offred drops
The Commander’s wife confronts Offred with the (recently-worn) lingerie.
And right before the novel ends, Offred is arrested.
So, let’s talk about whether this narrative is presented from a “female point of view.”
It’s a tricky question.
The relationship between gender and narrative has sparked decades of academic debate about
how sex (biological designation), gender (social identity), and/or sexuality (orientation of
desire) shape texts and their analysis.
And I’m not going to resolve it today I’m just going to try to introduce it to you.
In the 1960s, the structuralist theorist, Tzvetan Todorov coined the term “narratology”.
It’s a word accustomed to analyzing the themes, and conventions and symbols of a text.
Todorov argued that we should also be analyzing the structure and function of narrative.
Soon, feminist theorists began to explore the implications of gender on narrative form.
Some fought to define a distinctively “feminist” poetics.
Others resisted the idea that there’s a fundamental “female” consciousness or
In 1975, the French theorist, Hélène Cixous, coined the term écriture féminine (loosely
translated to mean “women’s writing”)—And yes, I know that my french pronunciation is
Cixous maintains that misogynistic culture has “driven” women from exploring their
She encourages women to use their bodies as a source of inspiration.
But she also recognizes that femininity is a social construct, defined as much by cultural
convention as by biological characteristics.
Cixous associates “féminine” writing with “openness.”
For her, women’s writing isn’t the exclusive provenance of women; it’s a non-exclusionary
approach to exploring that which is different, or “other.”
It’s a way of regarding the world accessible to all genders.
So, let’s explore the degree to which The Handmaid’s Tale exhibits this kind of “openness.”
We know that Offred often presents her bodily experience by cataloging physical sensations:
Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood,
in narrow strips, highly polished [….] [A] chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to
I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.
Now This is a tiny moment of expressing bodily autonomy–putting her own unfolded hand into
the sunlight–but it is still real.
Offred–robbed of her name and her freedom–still finds ways to express her existence using
her body–including, by the way, in her relationship with Nick.
And she also expresses her existence by telling stories:
…if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
You can’t tell a story only to yourself.
There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
(39-40) This is storytelling as a survival technique,
as a way of establishing one’s humanity when the broader culture is denying it.
Those needs to testify and connect are human desires, not restricted to a particular gender.
But pay attention to the way Offred writes about her body and her bodily experiences.
Sometimes, she describes her body from an external perspective:
I know they are watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women.
They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt
sway around me [….] I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.
(22) Offred’s ability to view herself from the
outside here is manifestation among many of her “openness” to imagining the perspectives
At other times, Offred describes her body from a different perspective:
I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing.
Treacherous ground, my own territory [….] I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object,
the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent
Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red
rather than black.
Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars.
(73-4) Sinking into her body, Offred explores a territory
that is inaccessible to others–a “more real,” vast “space” within, huge as
Her own territory.
She says its treacherous ground, but still–her own.
It’s also worth considering that Offred chooses to have sex with the gardener, Nick,
and states very clearly why: I went back to Nick.
Time after time, on my own [….] I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely.
(emphasis added, 268) So, Offred’s descriptions of inhabiting
a female body, her “openness” to external perspectives, and her exploration of desire
exhibit the qualities associated with écriture féminine.
But here’s the wrinkle: Offred recorded her story on thirty unnumbered cassette tapes,
and it was two male scholars who used “guesswork” to arrange her “blocks of speech” into
In other words, it was male editors who created the structure to Offred’s narrative that
So, to use an analysis word, that problematizes a bit what sex, gender, and/or sexuality have
to do with narrative structure in this novel.
There’s this theorist Peter Brooks who famously describes the classic plot as a trajectory
of desire that mirrors the sexual experience of a normalized “male” subject.
Like, in Brooks’ reading, the start of a story requires arousal; the middle entails
expectation, frustration, and suspense; and the end involves a climactic release from
Now many readers, including I must say, myself, feel this theory leaves a bit to be…desired.
Some feminist theorists have argued that women’s stories are “patterned”: they emphasize
detail and repetition; focus more intently on the relationships between events; contain
circular plot structures; and involve multiple moments of climax.
But I would argue it’s just too simplistic to say that sex, gender, or sexuality dictate
what kind of plot you “can” write.
All narratives are the product of a complex series of choices, some conscious and some
Men write circular fiction that doesn’t resolve; women write books with classic plotting;
and all attempts to put story, or for that matter gender, into dichotomous boxes are
That said, Offred’s story as we read it has the plot structure that mirrors the classic,
so-called ‘male’ plot trajectory–but is that inherent to her story or created by
Thinking about that,other questions emerge: how might her story be different if presented
in an alternate order?
And why did Atwood include the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” chapter
in the first place?
Well, Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
So like the final chapter of Orwell’s 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” “Historical
Notes” assures us that the dystopian regime will eventually be overthrown.
And, of course, this is good news.
But, we have not left a dystopia for a utopia.
In this chapter, we learn that the conference chair is Professor Maryann Crescent Moon,
Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavut.
Apparently, women will regain the right to education and Caucasians may be marginal to
But Crescent Moon works for a fictional university, while the (male) keynote speaker, Professor
James Darcy Piexoto, is affiliated with a historic bastion of Caucasian-ness: Cambridge
University in England.
Also, some readers have posited that Pieixoto’s unusual name is a reference to Pope Pius IX,
the nineteenth-century Vatican pope known for repressing liberal values.
So, that might say something about the kind of society that will dominate 22nd century
(1) Piexoto’s lecture (and its reception) suggest that the culture studying Gileadean
Studies is still profoundly misogynistic.
(2) I mean, Piexoto objectifies Crescent Moon with some lame pseudo-flirting; he refers
to what other historians have called “the Underground Femaleroad as “The Underground
Frailroad,” a joke that is met with laughter, and he says of Gilead, “our job is not to
censure but to understand,” which elicits applause.
But really, can’t your job be both to understand, and to censure?
Piexoto even credits Gilead for its “effective totalitarian system.”
so he may fancy himself above the injustices of Gilead, but it’s not like the structure
of patriarchy has been dismantled.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
Pieixoto also critiques Offred for not having the “turn of mind” that could benefit
his own research: She could have told us much about the workings
of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy.
(310) That is to say, he wishes she had approached
Gilead as a prototypical male historian, writing about great men and empire-building, but of
course, we as readers recognize the tremendous value in the way that Offred has told her
story, and the true heroism telling it required.
And then after Piexoto receives his final applause comes the novel’s wonderful final
line: “Are there any questions?”
(311) There are many, of course, but the ones that
reverberate for me are: Could this happen now?
Could this happen here?
I think what makes the Handmaid’s Tale so upsetting is that it shows exactly how it
could happen here and now.
It reminds us that the battles for equal opportunity and equal protection under the law are never
over, and they are never won.
And that we all must heed Offred’s mother’s warning: do not take your freedoms for granted.
Let us not be complacent.
Next week, we’ll continue our look at dystopian novels with Voltaire’s Candide.
Thanks for watching.
I’ll see you then.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video