What, ostensibly, is the function of the Historical Notes?

  • Highlights that everything in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened before (ie drawing historical parallels between the Underground Femaleroad and the Underground Railroad)
  • It is a transcript from a convention for historians, who are studying aspects of the Gileadean regime. In this particular lecture, Professor Pieixoto discusses the recordings/tapes telling Offred’s story. Essentially, the notes create a framework for the testament of Offred as a whole.
  • Historical Notes serve as an epilogue.

What additional information is provided?

  • We know that Gilead has fallen, it is no longer in power (by 2195).
  • Some information on what could have caused rising infertility – nuclear power spills, AIDS, birth control etc. But none of this is conclusive.
  • Information on the colonies is given too; how Aunts wished to escape them, about cotton-picking and nuclear spills etc.

What might be problematic about this section of the novel?

  • The Professor examines the utility of The Handmaid’s Tale to the point of undermining it. He says ‘we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans’, claiming they attempt ‘not to censure but to understand’. Atwood satirizes this; academics try to be so open-minded but all have their own biases. This could also be a gentle mockery of how historiography has traditionally been male-dominated (and female historians tend to be more focused on personal stories and experiences).
  • There is casual sexism in the way Pieixoto dismisses Crescent Moon and Offred’s story – he is interested in the macro-level – the Commander and how the regime functioned.

How is this section of the novel both an epilogue, a warning and a critique?

  • Atwood could be highlighting the dangers of disregarding personal stories? Personal stories are political – not just about facts. She explores the limitations of academics studying history (historiography); who gets to tell the story?
  • The University ‘Denay, Nunavit’ is satirical and humorous – Atwood suggests that even though there is evidence, people will still try to deny it. She raises the question of what we learn from history – what lessons do we take from it?
  • The audiences in a clean conference room – learning about the Gileadean regime, just as we, nowadays, learn about the Nazis (for example) – detached and disassociated. It parallels what Offred was saying in the novel about ‘it can never happen here’, and feeling that all the bad things happening were happening to other people. Perhaps about the ability to forget the personal experiences: students/historians/academics learn about the horrors of the Gileadean regime (safe, self-righteously refraining from passing judgement) and then go and continue. We do not learn from history (which does repeat itself).