Andrew Newman: Captivity Narratives and The Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2

Allegories of Encounter: Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities by Andrew NewmanToday we welcome the second of his two-part guest post from Andrew Newman, author of Allegories of Encounter:  Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities, just published by UNC Press and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Presenting an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to colonial America’s best-known literary genre, Andrew Newman analyzes depictions of reading, writing, and recollecting texts in Indian captivity narratives. While histories of literacy and colonialism have emphasized the experiences of Native Americans, as students in missionary schools or as parties to treacherous treaties, captivity narratives reveal what literacy meant to colonists among Indians. Colonial captives treasured the written word in order to distinguish themselves from their Native captors and to affiliate with their distant cultural communities. Their narratives suggest that Indians recognized this value, sometimes with benevolence: repeatedly, they presented colonists with books.

Allegories of Encounter is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Captivity Narratives and The Handmaid’s Tale
Part 2: “The Past is a Great Darkness”

In the first installment of this blog post, I discussed the implications of my analysis of colonial captivity narratives in Allegories of Encounter  for the reading of dystopian fiction, especially Margaret Atwood’s neo-captivity narrative The Handmaid’s Tale, in the so-called “Age of Trump.” Allegories of Encounter is also about methodological considerations in the interpretation of nonfictional narrative accounts, and this second post takes up The Handmaid’s Tale’s suggestive treatment of this subject.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first person account of Offred, formerly June, a handmaid or procreative slave who risks death by recording her ongoing story. Her explanation of her motives for doing so expresses Atwood’s insights about the roles of narrative in organizing one’s perception of experience and also in affiliating with one’s community. Such effects, Allegories of Encounter suggests, can be produced by reading as well as writing (or otherwise narrating). Offred explains that she records her spoken testimony (on cassette tapes) “because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden.” She consciously indulges in a discursive illusion: “If it’s a story I’m telling,” she suggests, “then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.” Moreover, “if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” Thus Atwood emphasizes what devotees of literature necessarily find to be a sympathetic language ideology, one she elaborates on in a 2017 essay on “What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump”: With reference to Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, and the Rwandan genocide witness Roméo Dallaire, she argues that producing “the literature of witness” is “an act of hope”: “Every recorded story implies a future reader.” Thus keeping a journal, or even mentally composing a narrative, anticipates survival.

Yet this function is not necessarily conducive to reliability as historical evidence: Offred repeatedly and paradoxically allows that she’s an unreliable narrator, whose story is shaped not only by the course of events but also by impulses such as shame and wish-fulfillment. Moreover, part of the conceit of the novel is that there is some basis to doubt the authenticity of its narrative voice. The Handmaid’s Tale cleverly raises questions about authorial integrity, mediation, and interpretation that similarly attend many of the narratives discussed in Allegories of Encounter. (This epistemological dimension is altogether lacking from the Hulu television adaptation.)  An appendix presenting a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” held in 2195 in Nunavit, reveals that the seemingly intimate relationship between the confessional narrator and the reader was an illusion.

In a partial transcription of his keynote address, “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale,” Professor James Darcy Piexoto, the Director of “Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Archives” for Cambridge University, explains that what we are actually reading is a transcription of a supposed cache of cassette tapes, “unearthed” at what was once Bangor, Maine – possibly, a waystation of the “The Underground Femaleroad” – nearly two centuries after the events it purports to describe. The appendix plunges the reader into epistemological uncertainty: it turns out, our vantage point is in the distant future; we’ve been reading a written representation of supposedly authenticated voice recordings conveying the account of an unidentified woman who admits to her own unreliability. How can we possibly know what actually happened?

In her recent essay, Atwood suggests that generations to come may similarly rely on unascertainable voices from the past to understand the events of our current political crisis. She imagines that in our present, when “democratic institutions” are seemingly under threat of extinction, “it is a certainty that someone, somewhere – many, I would guess – are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.” Thus she envisions a parallel to Offred’s discursive action in The Handmaid’s Tale, and suggests that these eyewitness accounts, too, might likewise one day come to light as found artifacts: “Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?” She adds: “Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.” Yet it is interesting to pursue this speculative scenario and consider how such an archive of the present might be interpreted some 200 years later. Possibly, given the allegorical parallels, researchers might suspect that the nonfictional representations were influenced by fictional portrayals of dystopias, just as scholars have determined that captivity narratives were modeled after Biblical stories.

The temporal distance between Professor Piexoto and Gilead is approximately the same as that separating us from our colonial past. Accordingly, his remarks about historical interpretation at the close of his 2195 keynote address are relevant to early Americanists and other historically-minded scholars. “As all historians know,” he observes, “the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.” This figure of the past as a vast, dark echo chamber – it works. As for the supposedly “clearer light of our own day,” though, Atwood evidently meant to convey the scholar’s presentist arrogance. The light is brighter rather than “clearer,” a necessary, distorting illumination.

As an archivist like Piexoto might recognize while trying to attend to a single voice from the past – a first-person narrator of a nonfictional account – some of those other voices resounding around it are more discernible than others. One of the methodological interventions of Allegories of Encounter is to shift the emphasis from the discursive context of the narrative – the world of words in which the author wrote – to the ethnohistorical context in which the captivity took place.

While the discursive context may seem quite illuminating, the ethnohistorical context can be quite dim. Yet just as it would be a mistake for future historians attribute the parallels between accounts of our present and dystopian fictions to literary influences, it’s wrong to assume that the allegorical parallels between colonial captivity narratives and exogenous texts – the Old Testament, or lives of saints, or even Shakespeare’s plays – are the effects of the writer’s reading, rather than the captive’s experience. Most importantly, we should consider how historical Native Americans influenced their own representations. We cannot know what actually happened, and we should factor this uncertainty into our understanding. Interpreting our sources may require holding them away from the light.


Andrew Newman is associate professor of English at Stony Brook University.  You can read the first part of this blog post here.  Follow him on Twitter.

For more information on the Omohundro Institute, please visit their website, and check out their full list of books published with UNC Press.