The Postmodern Functions of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Epilogue

S. Vaishnavi
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopian novel set in the totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist regime of Gilead. Based on extreme Christian Puritan teachings, Gilead is a country that has denied women fundamental rights of freedom, and freedom of expression; and has forcibly reduced all the fertile women to baby-making machines known as handmaids. The novel is a first-person narration from its protagonist Offred, who is a handmaid. After forty-six chapters of her narration, the novel ends in ambiguity leaving Offred’s fate unknown. Following Chapter Forty-Six is an epilogue titled “Historical Notes”. This epilogue is set 200 years in the future when the dystopian society has fallen. The epilogue informs the readers that the narration they just read was a reconstruction of Offred’s audio tapes by the male historians who discovered them. This paper studies the epilogue using a postmodern framework and demonstrates how the epilogue performs the postmodern functions of decentralizing the novel’s narrative and subverting the reader’s expectations. The epilogue performs these postmodern functions in three ways. Firstly, by introducing the voice of a male scholar in the epilogue, which clashes with the oppressed female’s narrative presented until that point. Secondly, by employing a pseudo-documentary device that frames the narrative. As opposed to typical science-fiction texts that use a pseudo-documentary framing device to establish validity, Atwood uses this device to challenge authenticity and validity of the narrative. Thirdly, the epilogue subverts the readers’ expectations by avoiding the presentation of a clear utopian ending and by presenting degrees of dystopia. The Handmaid’s Tale is a postmodern novel that pushes the reader to critically engage with questions regarding the formation and acceptance of historical narratives as well as recognize the cyclical nature of dystopian conditions. 

Keywords: The Handmaid’s Tale, postmodern, epilogue, Margaret Atwood