The narrative becomes key eyewitness testimony in the suffering of others.
Memories of a more personal nature, such as of Offred's ex-husband and child, also permeate the present and affect identity construction. Although neither Morrison nor Atwood create novels of nostalgia, memory and nostalgia do go hand-in-hand. "Nostalgia," notes Greene, "is a powerful impulse that is by no means gender specific," (295). Nostalgia provides the emotionally uplifting links between past and present and can be used to create possible futures. The feminist elements in both Beloved and The Handmaid's Tale do present a more pessimistic picture of female nostalgia than male. After all, patriarchal social, political, and economic institutions are the root causes of trauma in both novels. Slavery is a theme in common to both Beloved and The Handmaid's Tale. The institution of slavery is directly linked to female sexual, psychological, and physical subjugation. Rape and political oppression are the unfortunate realities faced by Sethe and Offred. Women like Sethe and Offred understand that "women especially need to remember because forgetting is a major obstacle to change," (Greene 298). Paul D. In Beloved also understands the power of memory to motivate change. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred's memoirs become historical legacies that are used to understand the pitfalls of societies built around patriarchy and social oppression.
In both The Handmaid's Tale and Beloved the concept of multiple generations and procreation are used as a means of providing symbolic or actual hope for the future. By remembering the past, Sethe and Offred are sure to refrain from recreating the past. The future generations will be armed with the knowledge, wisdom, and possibly the wherewithal to resist patriarchal oppression, slavery, and psychological subjugation. The stories of both Sethe and Offred, told in The Handmaid's Tale and Beloved, serve as guideposts for future generations. The title character of Beloved represents the potential of the past to shape identities of future generations. Offred's daughter has been estranged but is not affected by Gilead.
Memory as a return home is a theme explored well by Morrison in Beloved. For Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, though, returning home is no longer a possibility. Offred must re-create new concepts and structures of home in Gilead. Her memories fail to provide a solid foundation, as so few elements of her past are contiguous with the present. Likewise, Sethe has little to draw from in the creation of her future. Her desire to return to a semblance of home is manifest in her relationship with Beloved and to a lesser degree, with Paul D.
The act of remembering is more important than the veracity of detailed memories. Remembering rape, slavery, and infanticide allows Sethe to grieve in ways that are spiritually and psychologically meaningful. Sethe's memories are indeed real, but even when they are blurry they are meaningful. The mother's grieving in turn impacts the social and psychological development of the child. It does not matter what the mother remembers; it is her reaction to those memories and her ability to communicate them that create chance and influence the future. Patterns, systems, and structures are the crux of memory. In The Handmaid's Tale, too, Offred reluctantly confronts the past not in the interests of presenting some great "truth" but to draw on a wellspring of hope and strength.
If elucidating the problems with patriarchy is a theme shared in common by both Morrison's Beloved and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, then memory is the primary means by which patriarchy can be obliterated. Rape begets children who are empowered to resist patriarchy. Escaping slavery underscores the value of freedom. Memories of slavery and oppression generate the anger and fear that provide motivation to change. When the past is silenced and absorbed stoically, the future is doomed. Death, rape, torture, and pain are the sacrificial memories that allow for more constructive futures. Both Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison urge readers to resist the whitewashing of the past. Especially as the past relates to patriarchal structures and their impact on all forms of political oppression, painful memories and their reconstruction provide hope for personal and collective transformation. Memory is the only means by which to retain an identity strong enough to withstand resistance to change.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Anchor, 1998.
Greene, Gayle. "Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory." Signs. Winter 1991; 16; 2.