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Margaret Atwood

Jacques Leclaire
Jean-Michel Lacroix

Characterizing the Narrator: Narratee as Alter Ego

Marlene Dolitsky

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1Just as the author of a fictional work must be differentiated from the narrator, so the narratee must be differentiated from the reader, and even from the model reader, especially in the case of first and second person narrative fiction. Readers are those whose eyes Scan the lines of the pages of a written text. Clearly, there is no way that the narrator in a fictive novel, an inexistent character such as Offred, could have known this flesh-and-blood human being holding the volume being read, particularly when it is considered that today's reader is living in a historical era before the events that take place in the novel.

  • 1 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 7.
  • 2 Ibid. p. 10.

2Nor is the narratee the model reader who was «foreseen by the author1» although, like the characters of the novel, the model reader is «inscribed within the textual strategy2». However, the model reader’s role is at the level of the text, not of the narration. In The Handmaid's Tale, the model reader would seem to be a woman living at the end of the 20th century, who is open to hearing the message of the author and able to take heed of the direction the world is being led by the male-dominant, industrialized USA. She is probably in need, but ready, to increase her awareness of the concepts that lurk in the rules regulating the relations between men and women, even after the first stage of the women's liberation movement, so aptly named, as complete freedom from male supremacy is feminism's avowed goal.

  • 3 Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, p. (...)

3The narratee, on the other hand, exists within the narrating situation3. The narratee is constructed through the narration itself and is an integral part of it. In first and second person narration s/he determines the narrative effect. S/he is implicitly outlined in broad strokes by the way in which s/he is addressed or referred to by the narrator.

  • 4 Helmut Bonheim, «Narration in the Second Person». Recherches Anglaises et Americaines. 16, 1983, p (...)
  • 5 Brian Richardson, «The Poetics and Politics of Second Person Narrative. Genre 24, (Fall) 1991, pp. (...)
  • 6 e.g. Michel Butor, La Modification. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957; H. Hood, «Getting to Williams (...)

4A second person narration is one in which «you» as a participant in the narration predominates to the point that the narrative effect is essentially altered4, enabling it to pass onto a lyrical plane, «you, you like an old love song» (p. 50). In this way the perspective is suggested as being valid for spheres of humankind greater than merely the lyricist/narrator. «Second person narrative... is an extremely protean form...; the «you»... designates (the protagonist) the narrator and the narratee as well, though there is frequently some slippage in this unusual triumvirate5». Often, second person narration takes place within the mind of the narrator6.

  • 7 Brian Richardson, Ibid., p. 307.
  • 8 Bonheim, Ibid., p. 78.
  • 9 Cf. both Bonheim and Richardson.

5Second person narrative is a relatively unusual form of narrative and is comparatively new. Butor's La Modification is considered to be the incipiative work of this narrative strategy. Since that time, however, it «has occupied a prominent position in innovative fiction7» and «has bloomed with particular profusion in the Canadian short story8». It has been noted that Margaret Atwood makes extensive use of this second person convention in her poetry9.

  • 10 It should be noted that the book, The Handmaid's Tale, invokes a model reader. However, the book's (...)
  • 11 Bonheim, Ibid., p. 76.

6 The Handmaid's Tale 10 appears at first blush to be written as a first person narrative with an over-abundance of second person address. However, a closer inspection shows that most of the uses of the second person are less in a form of address than as the subject-agent of a phrase or sentence. The Handmaid's Tale, then, can be considered a second person narrative given the frequency of the «you» form, both as agent and object, suggesting a «sloppy identity»11 between potential witness and protagonist, with constant movement among first person singular, first person plural and second person narration. It can be argued that the form a narration takes, depends on the narratee and the narrator's relation to this narratee. Offred's main narratee being her double, allows for self-questioning and introspection, leading to the heavy use of modals and constant presence of the narrator throughout the story, allowing her to exteriorize her doubts and queries. It is the only escape from herself that is allowed by her «reduced circumstances» (p. 18) whereby she is not a snake biting her tale, but turning herself inside-out toward greater understanding.

7On the other hand, the comprehension of relationships implies taking into consideration the point of view of the Other and demands a non-I narratee. When this is the direction of her thoughts, Offred gives to «you» a non-counterpart referential identity.

Plotting the story

8 The Handmaid's Tale is the story of a story, both as fiction (story*) and as «a reconstruction» (pp. 144, 150) (story2) of her/history.

9Offred, a handmaid of the newly proclaimed Gilead seated in front of a tape recorder, most likely in hiding, has been prevailed on to tell her story. About 200 years later, a set of «approximately thirty tape cassettes... was unearthed on the site of... the State of Maine» (p. 313). While the academics of the «Historical Notes» try to piece together his(s)tory, the reader is left to sift through the text to make sense of herstory.

10Accepting the conjecture that these tapes «could not have been recorded during the period of time it relates, since, if the author is telling the truth, no machine or tapes would have been available to her, nor would she have had a place of concealment for them... It has a whiff of emotion recollected, if not in tranquility, at least post facto» (p. 315); the question arises, for whom and for what purpose were they recorded?

11The reasons for the telling remain obscure: perhaps as an appeal for help from other countries, as a testimonial for history, as a way to pass the time in hiding... The narrator makes use of this story-telling opportunity to make sense out of the antithetic worlds of her life: the United States she came into at birth which was reeling from the effects of the women's liberation movement, including the backlash of the religious right, and the Gilead she was catapulted into by a return-to-traditional-values insurrection. The narrator has difficulty reconciling the events of Gilead and of her pre-Gileadean life; if one is fact the other must be fiction. In her simultaneous relating and denial of events she leaves room for doubt as to whether her story2 is a faithful reconstruction, or whether she is constructing, once more, a story1.

I would like to believe this is a story1 I'm telling... I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories2 are only stories1 have a better chance.
If it's a story1 I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story1, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn't a story1 I'm telling.
It's also a story? I'm telling, in my head, as I go along. (p. 49)
If it's only a story1, it becomes less frightening. (p. 154)
«I am trying not to tell stories1, or at any rate not this one2. (p. 60)
I don't want to be telling this story2. (p. 237, 285)
I don't have to tell it2. (p. 237)
There is so much pain in this story2. (p. 279)

12The story2 is sometimes as strange and as unbelievable as a fairy tale. Rather than her story2, Offred would like to be telling «a fairy tale» (p. 224), which needn't be believed and whose pain is only momentary.

13The story may be part of a resistance effort «to be smuggled back for use by the Mayday underground» (p. 318), to get outsiders to (re)act against Gilead, or simply a bottle sent into a sea of time in the hope the future will understand these events better than she does.

14Stories must be told to someone and the form of the story depends on who it is told to. Offred recognizes this, «You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. Even when there is no one,» (p. 49). «Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are (p. 279). She realizes that she may only be imagining a friendly listener, «I'll pretend you can hear me. But it's no good, because I know you can't» (p. 50). «A story is like a letter. Dear You, I'll say. Just you, without a name» (p. 50), just as Offred has lost her real name. Because she is telling the story at least partially for herself, «you» is also her mirror image, who will hopefully reflect back a clear picture of the puzzle pieces of her life. Hearing her story2 voiced, it becomes a story1 that might be analyzed sensibly. This narratee is the friend «it's hard to imagine, now» (p. 35), whose role is to help her to find answers to the «Steel question marks... set into the brickwork of the wall» p. 42). even as she resists the telling, «I don't have to tell anything, to myself or to anyone else» (p. 237).

Time and Voices

15Three times of reference can be distinguished: 1) the time of the story in Gilead, 2) a time before Gilead and 3) the time of the narration. The story is related in both the preterit, clearly delineating the time of the narration from the time of the event being described, and in the narrative present, whereby Offred seemingly «step(s) sideways out of... time» to «go» (p. 47) to the scene of the events. Offred situates and recounts them clearly and concisely, making them as real as they had been. Having returned to these events, she can relive her feelings questioning and commenting on what is happening, remaining just this side of passing judgement as she gropes for knowledge, «I would like to know...whatever there is to know... what’s going on» (p. 198). The final judgement is left to the narratee.

16The voice presenting facts, might be called the «chronicler»; it might be describing to someone outside Gilead, in either time or space, what life is like. With this voice Offred dissociates from herself, «One detaches oneself» (p. 89), taking on the perception of a spectator, looking at the scene she is part of: «He looks us over as if taking inventory. One kneeling woman in red, one seated woman in blue, two in green, standing, a solitary man, thin-faced in the background» (p. 97); «We must look good from a distance» (p. 224).

17However, the pretence of objectivity cannot be kept up for long, and the narrator intrudes into this detached discourse through the use of modals and first and second person pronouns, both singular and plural, e.g.

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath... There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you could tie a rope to.
A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat... I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat. (p. 17)

18The story opens with a first person plural narrating voice, determining the group adherence that will serve as reference, naming some of the members:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium... We had flannelette sheets... We folded our clothes neatly. (p. 13)
We learned to whisper almost without sound... In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. (p. 14)

19In spite of a relocation in time and space in Chapter Two and the narratee's solitude, the reference group remains fixed: «Does each of us have the same print?» (p. 17). Even when asking the Commander for hand lotion for herself alone, to Offred's own surprise she explains her need in a collective voice, «Our skin gets very dry. For some reason I said our instead of my» (p. 167).

20This «we» voice, then, recounts collective experience; Offred thinks and speaks for the Handmaids as a group; «We can feel (the Wives') eyes on us as we walk... We are being looked at, assessed, whispered about; we can feel it, like tiny ants running on our bare skins» (p. 225). «That's what we're thinking» (p. 287). And Offred knows, «There is an us then, there is a we» (p. 177).

  • 12 Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, I. Paris: Gallimard, 1966, p. 233.

21The «I» voice is reserved to speak of events and thoughts as they are experienced specifically by Offred. It is with this «I» voice that she directly addresses her «others» (p. 205), recognizing their separateness from herself. Speaking as «I», Offred affirms her unique experience. As «we», she speaks for the Handmaids as a group. However, as Benveniste12 points out, the «I» dominates «we» in that «I» is a necessary constituent of «we». «We» then extends the subjectivity of «I» to combine it with a «non-I» that is assumed to take on a subjectivity which is identical to that of «I».

I, We and You

  • 13 Richardson, p. 314.
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations. London: Virago, p. 31.

22Both «I» and «we», draw the narratee into the action and involve her (necessarily feminine because men and their dominant society are referred to as «they»), thus often eradicating the differentiation between first and second person. For, inevitably, if «us» includes womankind, and «you» represents at least one woman (maybe even thousands, p. 50), «you» is one of «us». «You», then, plays «on the boundaries of (the) other narrative voices13». The «you» as a second-person narrator, bringing with it as it does, its own element of instability, it confirms the «absence of clarity14» expressed through the shifts between first person pronouns and the over-abundance of modals accompanying them. It is in this way, that the narratee can be considered the narrator's «counterpart... the mirror reflection of yourself15». her «Siamese Twin» (p. 174), her alter ego.

  • 16 Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin; The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P (...)
  • 17 Ibid.

23The role of this counterpart narratee is to help Offred to verbalize her incomprehension, and to take the first step toward comprehension, for it is «expression that organizes experience, that... gives it form and determines its direction16». She believes the narratee «into being» (p. 279). «Should there not be an actual interlocutor, one is presupposee!... in the form of a generalized other17». This narratee allows Offred to present, comment on, and question the events she relates. This is the addressee of Offred's seemingly rhetorical questions:

how could they have overlooked the hooks? Why didn't they remove them? Too close to the floor? (p. 62)
In Hope. Why did they put that above a dead person? Was it the corpses hoping, or those still alive? Does Luke hope? (p. 116)
Have I become, suddenly, one of those who must be appeased? (p. 219)
His posture disapproves of me, or am I imagining it? Does he know what I've got on under this cloak, did he procure it? And if so, does this make him angry or lustful or envious or anything at all? (p. 244)
The man's head swivels groggily around: has he even heard her?... He staggers — is he drugged?... One corner of his mouth moves up, incredible — a smile? (p. 291)

24as if the other side of the looking glass will give her the needed answers.

25Rather than being addressed directly as «you», the narratee «you» is integrated into the story as an actor. Just as the Handmaids are «doubled» (pp. 33, 36), Offred takes «you» on as another Handmaid, as her «own reflection in a mirror» (p. 54):

I can see their faces, against the dark, flickering like the images of saints, in old foreign cathedrals in the light of the drafty candies; candies you would light or pray by, kneeling, your forehead against the wooden railing, hoping for an answer. I can conjure them but they are mirages only (p. 113).

I've been at the Birth all day, you lose track of time... That's how tired I am: as when you'd driven all night into the dawn (p. 138).
The narratee is her peer, her alter ego, who after all you've been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth. I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it (p. 279).

26Monitoring and correcting her own narrative expression, Offred is her own narratee. «Luke wasn't a doctor. Isn't» (p. 43) she tells herself. «She was still my oldest friend. Is» (p. 181). «Is,I say. Is, is, only two letters, you stupid shit, can't you manage to remember it, even a short word like that?» (p. 239). Her correction is communication to herself, to inform herself how to think of the world, i.e. that the room she stays in is or isn't hers: «The door of the room-not my room, I refuse to say my» (p. 18). «Was he in my room? I called it mine» (p. 59), or that her loved ones are alive, that she must think them alive, to keep them alive.

27She is her own interlocutor, too, as she commands herself to correct her behavior, to save her life, or at least life enough «to last» (p. 17):

Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head. You must remember how. Let's get this over with or you'll be here all night. Bestir yourself. Move your flesh around, breathe audibly. It's the least you can do (p. 267).

They as oppposed to We and You

  • 18 Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres. Paris: Seuil, 1989, back-cover, my translation.
  • 19 Benveniste, Ibid., p. 230.

28Taking on the «you» narratee as an ally, Offred divides the world into «we», «the socio-cultural group to which one belongs» and «they», «those who are not members of that group18». The abstract third person plural, which is not personal at all, but impersonal19, opposes the personal pronouns, «I» «we» and «you». «They» «are those in power» (p. 234), such as the Guardians / Angels:

The Angels stood... with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us...If only we could talk to them (p. 14).

29or the Aunts, those women who went over to the masculine cause «to control women for reproductive and other purposes» (p. 320), where a single Aunt stands for the group:

the Aunt wasn't there... they were more confident about us; sometimes they left us unsupervised (p. 227).
In the afternoons we lay on our beds for an hour... They said it was a period of rest and meditation. I thought they did it because they wanted some time off... But now I think...they were giving us a chance to get used to blank time... But maybe not... You could tell yourself you were saving up your strength (p. 80).

30or any abstract adversaries:

It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge (p. 18).
They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby (p. 183)

31«They» are those who torture the handmaids:

They took her into a room... where none of us ever went willingly... They used Steel cables... They didn't care what they did to your feet and hands (p. 102)

32who deprive Offred of her daughter:

I know I lost time... You have had a shock, they said... They showed me a picture of her. (p. 49)
They must have told her I was dead. That's what they would think of doing. They would say it would be easier for her to adjust (p. 74)

33of the truth:

They show us only victories, never defeats (p. 93)
I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong (p. 100)

34of her freedom:

They look, I said. They look in all our rooms.(p. 167)

35«They» can be the wives who are excluded from Offred's set:

We are containers, it's only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled for all they care, like the shell of a nut. This was a decree of the Wives, this absence of hand lotion. They don't want us to look attractive. For them, things are bad enough as it is. (p. 107)
I see the two of us... in the brief glass eye of the mirror as we descend. Myself, my obverse, (p. 271)
Odd, to hear her whispering, as if she is one of us. Usually Wives do not lower their voices. (p. 272)

36That, for Offred, «falling in love» is a woman's thing, can be seen in the way «we» (i.e., womankind, Offred's reference group before the new Gileadean regime recruited its Handmaids) fades into «you», who together become «everyone», an «everyone» that excludes those of male gender:

We all did it then... It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that... We believed in it. (p. 237)

37The men that the women are in love with are not perceived by the women as being one with them, of sharing their subjectivity; they are not perceived as being on their side:

Or sometimes, even when you were still loving, still falling, you'd wake up... and you'd think, Who knows what they do, on their own, or with other men? Who knows what they say or where they are likely to go? Who can tell what they really are? (p. 238)

Interlocutors: Interrogation and Introjection

38Offred discourses with specific Others: her husband, Moira, her mother, other Handmaids... and God. She wants them as interlocutors, and relates to them as a speaking «I» to a «non-I», interlocutive, «you», when she can.

39Offred is sensitive to her specific position in the Handmaids'order. She is on her third posting (p. 25), and is not Commander Fred and Serena's first Handmaid. She is one with the Handmaids of this house, discovering her predecessor as «someone like me» (p. 60), taking for granted her successor, extending her friendship to both. She refers to the former as «my friend with the freckles and the good laugh» (p. 107) and feels the need to leave something behind «for the next woman, the one who cornes after me, to find» (p. 109). As narratee to her predecessor's false Latin message, «Nolite te bastardes carborundorum» she enters into discourse with her as narrator; she questions her at the most difficult of times, «Is this what you had in mind? (p. 102)

40In reaction to her mother's gender ideology which she did not totally embrace, she ironically indicates the woman's station in Gilead, «Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies» (p. 137). When she finally knows «we didn't do badly by one another, we did as well as most» (p. 190), she does not address her mother directly in her absence. The importance of this realization does not allow her to cheat in her communication.

41In the deep desire to know whether men and women, including lovers, are or are not inevitably separated by the gender gap, she appeals to Luke, «what I want to ask you no, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn't afford to lose you.» (p. 192). But Luke does not answer back. The only type of response she has integrated into herself from others, is one of scorn. Seemingly, she cannot perceive herself as seen any way but contemptibly from the point of view of the two gender extremes, man: «Bullshit» answers the Luke within her when she attempts to explain away her faithlessness to him with Nick (p. 110), and lesbian: «Chickenshit» (p. 244) says the Moira, her friend cum heroine, in Offred as she goes through checkpoints with the Commander; «Idiot, says Moira» (p. 245), as Offred enters Jezebel's.

42To the opposite sex, and truly in opposition Offred does address Man once, «But if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future... please remember: you will never be subjected to the temptation of feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman» (p. 144). This contrast provides a dramatic screen to the plight of Woman. It might be considered that Pieixoto and Wade answer to the description that Offred has foreseen of a man in the future. Although her message «washed itself up» (p. 62) in an attic and has been opened and read, it has not been understood. Perhaps, Woman's language is to remain forever bottled up.

43Offred situates God both within her and without. He gets directly addressed, pleaded with and questioned. Offred separates herself, as I, and differentiates a true other as «You», who is God, from the «you» allied to handmaids, whereby, «we» becomes all of humanity:

My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.
I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will do as well as anything.
I wish I knew what You were up to...
You might even provide a Heaven... We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves».
I think about the chandelier too much, though it's gone now but you could use a hook, in the closet. I've considered the possibilities. All you'd have to do, after attaching yourself, would be to lean your weight forward and not fight.
Deliver us from evil...
I feel very unreal, talking to You like this... I wish You'd answer. I feel so alone...
Oh God. It's no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living? (pp. 205-206)

44As the pronouns shift their signification, this parody of a prayer presents a question of life or death of the singular «I» that needs a separate «you» to find a reason for living. For «I» caught in a collective I/you/we is insignificant, and need not be; it would be a life with «no meaning. No use, that is. No plot» (p. 227).

45Out of Offred's confusion, as witnessed by the profusion of modal forms, is created an ephemeral, separate You, an interlocutor. In this incantation the alter ego is raised to the level of a significant Other and Offred's story2 becomes a sacrificial offering.

46The meaning Offred creates and then finds in her own story2 is derived from her communion with her various narratees. She calls them up as she does the events of the story2. Through the contrast created by the few shifts in interlocutors, the main narratee of the story2 is clearly shown to be Offred's counterpart in all the features that she shares with womankind across time and political regimes. It is as a woman that Offred approaches and evaluates life and death, and it is as a member of the woman race, and through other members of that race, that she is to be fully understood.


1 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 7.

2 Ibid. p. 10.

3 Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, p. 259.

4 Helmut Bonheim, «Narration in the Second Person». Recherches Anglaises et Americaines. 16, 1983, p. 73.

5 Brian Richardson, «The Poetics and Politics of Second Person Narrative. Genre 24, (Fall) 1991, pp. 311.

6 e.g. Michel Butor, La Modification. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957; H. Hood, «Getting to Williamstown», 1971. In: Atwood and Weaver, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1995.

7 Brian Richardson, Ibid., p. 307.

8 Bonheim, Ibid., p. 78.

9 Cf. both Bonheim and Richardson.

10 It should be noted that the book, The Handmaid's Tale, invokes a model reader. However, the book's division into two separate sections, set 200 years' apart clearly implies different narratees for each section. This paper only discusses the narratees of the preponderantly main section of the novel, The Handmaid's Tale.

11 Bonheim, Ibid., p. 76.

12 Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, I. Paris: Gallimard, 1966, p. 233.

13 Richardson, p. 314.

14 Ibid.

15 Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations. London: Virago, p. 31.

16 Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin; The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1984, p. 43.

17 Ibid.

18 Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres. Paris: Seuil, 1989, back-cover, my translation.

19 Benveniste, Ibid., p. 230.


Marlene DOLITSKY est Maître de conférences à l'I.U.F.M. de Paris. Spécialiste en Linguistique, elle est l’auteur de plusieurs articles sur la théorie de l'énonciation et de la pragmatique appliquées à l'humour et à la littérature. Parmi ses responsabilités à l'I.U.F.M., elle organise le C.A.P.E.S. blanc et elle anime un cours qui s'intitule, « L'Humour et la Nouvelle au C.A.P.E.S. d'Anglais ». Elle participe aussi au bureau de rédaction du Journal of Pragmatics.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998

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