Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

The Hysteric as a Chronicler in Margaret Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

The Hysteric as a Chronicler in Margaret Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale

Article excerpt

Survival, a signature theme in Margaret Atwood's works, is once again celebrated in The Handmaid's Tale (1985) wherein the narrator protagonist transforms herself into a chronicler and using her narrative sustains herself in a fictionalized dystopic world-Gilead. The present paper claims that the protagonist, Offred, in negotiating her agency as a chronicler in a totalitarian phallogocentric world, adopts the role of a 'hysteric'. This argument is premised on Juliet Mitchell's psychoanalytic concept of the hysteric which claims that for a woman to produce her narrative in a phallogocentric world, she has to be a hysteric. Furthering this thesis, Offred's past and present in the novel are compared to the Lacanian Imaginary and the Symbolic, thereby demonstrating that the narrator protagonist's life is never free from the dictates of phallogocentric law. In order to survive such oppression, Offred, in The Handmaid's Tale, becomes a hysteric chronicler whose narrative simultaneously becomes the symbol of her resistance and her means to survive.

Offred, the narrator protagonist of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), has been variously analyzed by critics. For instance, Roberta Rubenstein describes her as the symbol of "multiple inversions and violations of 'nature and nurture'" (Rubenstein, 1988, p. 103), Arnold E Davidson calls her the keeper of the 'secret account' of Gilead with "its use and abuse of women" (Davidson, 1988, p. 113) and Neuman posits her as "a fictional product of 1970s feminism, [who] finds herself in a situation that is a fictional realization of the backlash against women's rights that gathered force during the early 1980s" (Neuman, 2006, p. 858). Others like Finigan compare Offred to Spivak's 'subaltern' (Finigan, 2011, p. 452), thereby problematizing the efficacy of her narrative. Chadha defines Offred as "a metaphor for all the vulnerable and powerless people of the world" (Chadha, 2009, p. 30), and Weiss claims that because of her "complacency, complicity and selfish concern[s]", Offred "certainly does not represent Atwood's ideal in how to respond to totalitarianism" (Weiss, 2009, p. 140). While the multitude of critical voices have often sympathized with Offred's subjugation under Gilead's dictatorial rule, criticized her for her apparent passivity and complicity, or viewed her as a symbol of the marginalized, an analysis of her agency as a chronicler of the pre- and post- Gileadean times in The Handmaid's Tale appears relatively scarce and seeks attention. Accordingly, the present paper examines Offred as a historian and a chronicler, specifically a hysteric chronicler, of Atwood's fictionalized fascist American state-Gilead. It argues that in The Handmaid's Tale, Offred survives inhuman repression through her narrative and in turn leaves behind a tale that becomes the only historical document available to academic symposiums exploring Gileadean times two hundred years later in 2195.

As her narrative begins in The Handmaid's Tale, we find Offred in the Republic of Gilead, a regime of theocratic and patriarchal totalitarianism. Under Gileadean law, she lives the life of a Handmaid, a woman whose only function is to breed to make up for the births of deformed children and declining birth rates caused by increasing infertility post nuclear accidents. Rebelling or defying law in Gilead results in either execution or banishment to the colonies where one is forced to clear nuclear waste. The text, however, reveals that despite all its oppression, Gilead fails to relegate Offred to servitude. More important, when observed closely, Offred's narrative informs that the Gileadean regime in many ways replicates the cultural mores of its preceding era of 'freedom' where autonomy is actually sanctioned by the existing hegemonic forces. Gilead, in comparison, functions by tremendously intensifying the nature and execution of these forces. Interestingly, Offred survives both worlds by simultaneously accepting domination and rejecting it through her narrative. …

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