A close reading of a sentence from Chapter 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale (extract), with reference to CAIE A-Level English Literature 9695 marking criteria.

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In my last post, I discussed the importance of being able to perform the task of ‘Close Reading’ on a text. This is especially important if you choose to do a passage-based question such as the one in Paper 4 of 9695 A-Level English Literature (Pre and Post 1900 Poetry and Prose).

When we do this in Year 13 / A-Level English Literature (as opposed to AS Literature) there is one extra trick we need to be able to pull off: considering the text through a range of critical perspectives and opinions.

The mark scheme for this paper describes it like this:

AO5 (O) 

  • Perceptively considers and evaluates varying opinions and interpretations which work to support an assured argument consistently relevant to the question, with support from the text.

This can be a hard thing to achieve. Especially when you consider academics in universities still have arguments about which critical perspectives are valid and which are not. 

By the time you are ready to sit your examination, you need to be able to approach a text from a range of approaches. This might be a feminist perspective, a Marxist perspective, a psychoanalytical perspective, a structuralist / post-structuralist perspective, a post-colonial perspective, a New Historicism perspective, or any other number of recognised schools of thought on the topic.

It’s probably easier for me to show you what I mean than try to tell you abstractly though, so let’s use an example based on Maraget Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I am currently studying with my Y13 Literature class.

Imagine you were faced with this as a potential essay question:

Analyse the following passage, showing in what ways it is characteristic of Atwood’s presentation of Gilead in the novel. You should refer to language, tone and narrative methods in your answer. [25 marks]

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

From Chapter 10

OK, so this is an incredibly rich section of the novel to analyse. So I’m just going to focus on the first 2 sentences, and consider how I might pick them apart from a range of critical perspectives. (see diagram below)

Ok, so now we have annotated the quotation, let’s have a look at how this might look when placed into a paragraph.

Example paragraph:

Atwood presents Gilead as a society that has risen from the banality of every-day American existence, undetected by those who would ultimately lose the most. In the sentence ‘We lived, as usual, by ignoring’, Atwood show’s Offred’s self-reflective, self-critical examination of how she was complicit in the circumstances which lead to a tyrannical theocracy. The collective first-person pronoun ‘We’ would seem to indicate Offred’s identification of women as a collective allowing their own subjugation to occur. It is grammatically constructed as an active verb, enacted by the ‘we’, and so there is the direct sense that Atwood’s protagonist feels culpable for Gilead’s tyranny.

From a feminist perspective, this gets to the heart of Atwood’s recent conflicts with commentators who feel she has been misguided in suggesting that women may share some blame in patriarchal violence. In her 2018 afterword to the novel, Atwood iterates that the novel is feminist in so much as her female characters have agency and nuance, but not that they are uniformly innocent victims.

From a Marxist perspective however, the reading of ‘We’ may be seen as a reference to Offred’s pre-Gilead existence as part of the bourgeois. The ‘ignoring’ that makes up her life, is arguably the ignoring of proletariat suffering under a Capitalist system. It is the wilful choice to ignore the suffering of others, according to a Marxist reading, which would lead to such an ideological revolution as Gilead. Whilst Atwood has never claimed to any Marxist affiliations, her novel can credibly be cited as a Canadian critique of American Free Market Capitalism in the 1980s and the culture of commodification it encouraged.

Phil Brown, 2021

Thanks for reading! If you find this useful, take a look at our other English Literature and Language courses.