What I learned from Margaret Atwood

This is by no means a comprehensive discussion of all the elements and style that I admired in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s merely meant as a sort of reminder for myself of what I admired and hope to possibly incorporate in my own storytelling.

In my previous post I talked a lot about the element of truth in story. There’s a phrase used to describe the type of narrator Atwood used. She’s a mildly unreliable narrator. Mainly because she does not deliver basic facts (like actual names, places, details). Sometimes she’ll get most of the way through the story and then admit that she really has no clue and has only imagined the details of the story she shares. It makes for a fascinating narrator. Especially if this device is used well.

Offred’s unreliability is established near the middle of the novel after enough of the story has been told, yet I didn’t feel betrayed or annoyed by the shift. It seemed organic. Atwood created a situation that allowed Offred to reveal her story realistically, in pieces, as she grew more trusting of her audience.

This brings me to an element that I admire so much and hope that I’ll figure out how to do. Revealing the story. Or one of those words that work-shoppers hate “pacing”. It’s a struggle.  A common critique of books and movies is, “Well it slowed down somewhere near the middle, but the ending was really good.” Or as my friend Pam puts it, “Once I hit the denouement, I’m over it.” I didn’t feel that way about Handmaid’s Tale. Offred only offers glimpses of her history, yet the narrative is not hindered by these flashbacks.

(I’m sorry if that last paragraph may make no sense because I’m distracted by Stacy & Clinton on television. The woman on this show is unbelievable. )

Finally, Atwood has guts. Or maybe it is the nature of dystopias to have a dangling, open to the imagination ending. So, Offred, true to established form, doesn’t tell the end of her own story. But the reader is given a consolation prize in the form of an academic discussion of the Gileadean Coup and Offred’s transcribed memoir. It offers several possible endings for Offred and the other characters. And the thing Atwood has striven to make clear throughout the novel is that all three of them could be true, or not, but either way we’ll be prepared.

How do you feel about hanging endings? Unreliable narrators? Dystopias?

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