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KAREN F. STEIN Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Scheherazade in Dystopia Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by a Scheherazade of the future, telling her story to save her life. But whereas the Sultan of the Arabian Nights asks for Scheherazade's stories, Atwood's handmaid is locked into silence; to tell her tale is to risk her life. Her narrative itself is a criminalact, performed in secret and lost for many years. By narrating the story of the repressive republic of Gilead, the handmaid inscribes both her victimization and her resistance. Built on a woman's desire to tell her story, the novel is a provocative inquiry into the origins and meanings of narrative. Among the issues it explores are, first, the narrator's relation to her tale: the simultaneous fear and desire to narrate one's story, and the attempt to create a self through language; second, the nature of narrative itself: the ambiguity of language, and the multiplicity of interpretation. In the novel Atwood brilliantly juxtaposes the feminist project - the desire to 'steal the language' of/from patriarchy - and the postmodern critique of language. The novel emphasizes the constraint and limitation Gilead imposes, and the narrator's growing resistance. The novel begins by describing two enclosed and silent living spaces, the 'reeducation center' and the handmaid's small room. The narrator, Gffred, speaks of herself as 'in reduced circumstances' (10). (In a text where puns carry a weight of meaning, the similarity of re-education and reduction in Gilead is noteworthy.) Just when the narrator's tale seems to promise larger possibilities, it is silenced. Thus the dilemma ofScheherazadeis revised, revisioned . Feminists are particularly interested in stories, because, as a marginal group in society, women have often been the objects rather than the creators of narrative: their stories have often been untold. People on the margins of societies often find they are denied access to the discourses that confer power and status. A substantial body of work focuses on the theoretical and practical implications of women's problematic relations to these discourses. Adrienne Rich writes of women's need to explore 'how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative' (35). Elaine Showalter describes women's writing as a 'double-voiced discourse' that draws from both the 'dominant' men's and the 'muted' women's 'social, literary, and cultural heritages' (263). According to Linda Hutcheon, both Blacks and UNNERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 61, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1991/2 270 KAREN F. STEIN feminists have 'linked racial and / or gender difference to questions of discourse and of authority and power that are at the heart of the postmodernist enterprise in general and, in particular, ofboth black theory and feminism' (21). To speak, to write, is to assert one's personhood, inscribe one's subjectivity . According to Emile Benveniste, 'the basis of subjectivity is the exercise of language' (226). Hence, to lose language is to lose subjectivity. Not surprisingly, feminist dystopias often deal with women's loss of language. The Handmaid's Tale participates in the current theoretical debate about women's vexed relation to discourse. The narrative is both shaped and threatened by political repression, interpretation, and the fundamental instability of language itself. Atwood's novel begins - with the handmaid's narrative - exploring silence and speech, oppression and resistance. The novel ends- with a male scholar's narrative - questioning the limits of narrative and interpretation. The subtexts of both narratives are the respective narrators' (handmaid's and scholar's) meditatioM on storytelling and meaning. Both face the storyteller's paradox: they are eager to communicate, but anxious about the limits of communication; they find language simultaneously empowering and constraining. This article is a critic's tale that rereads and reinterprets the novel. OFFRED Atwood's novel inscribes a contemporary nightmare,the erasure ofspeech. Government restriction ofspeech and storytelling is an important theme in twentieth-century dystopian fiction, as in George Orwell's Nineteen EightyFour or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit Four Fifty-One. Gilead, the patriarchal, fundamentalist society in Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, has silenced women and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 269-279
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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