Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Devil’s in the Details

“Specific, definite, concrete details—these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness.”(i)

Details and Psychic Distance in Fiction
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway makes a point of emphasizing that details in fiction must be both sensual and significant.(ii) Additionally, she points out that the reader is dependent on the details for story meaning and ownership of understanding. Details are essential to engaging and involving the reader. A higher level of significant and specific detail brings the reader into the story—the sharper and more sensual the detail, the less psychic distance, ergo the greater the intimacy. This relationship of detail and intimacy can be seen clearly in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story not only built on details but dependent on them.

Reader Intimacy in The Handmaid’s Tale

It is clear that Atwood aims to engage the reader intimately in Offred’s, the main character of Tale, story. This can be determined by the use of first person narrative and the immediate density of sensory detail. Take, for example, the first three sentences; sentences which clearly intend to provide the reader with a complete sensory immersion:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in one place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.(iii)

This vivid use of description is coaxes the reader into the story, and the continual use of detail, particularly to regard to places and things that evoke olfactory or kinesthetic responses, holds the reader firmly in the fictive dream. That the intimate connection with the reader is intentional is further made clear when the character addresses the issue of audience.

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, 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.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
…But 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.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say.
You can mean thousands.
I’m not in any immediate danger, I’ll say to you.
I’ll pretend you can hear me.
But it’s no good, because I know you can’t. (iv)

While it is later revealed that the story is a pieced together recording of Offred’s tale, when the reader encounters this passage it works as a direct link between Offred and the reader. This intimacy forces reader involvement.

Details in The Handmaid’s Tale the Link to the Reader’s Intellect

It is apparent that the details in Tale constantly engage the senses, but with close reading it can be seen that Atwood does more than tap into the senses; she intentionally juxtaposes the senses and intellect by contrasting images and ideas. The result of these frequent contrasts is a reality that is as clear and understandable as it is unreal and disturbing. This impossible contrast of truths is achieved through well crafted and carefully selected details and a circular narrative that works through the time the story action is taking place, shifts to the past, then comes back to the time of the story action. This unusual narrative is necessary for the intent of the novel to be fully realized.

As an idea driven story, it is essential for Atwood to engage the reader’s intellect, something that can only be accomplished through the skillful use of details. Speaking as a reader, Burroway states, “…if you (the writer) let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”(v) This type of response-based participation is Atwood’s intent. The beginning of Chapter 16 is one of many examples that show Atwood’s:

• continual use of sensory details to engage the reader.
• dependence on reader intellect to achieve full intent.
• use of a circular narrative that takes the reader through the unreal and disturbing, to the real and known, and then back to the unreal and disturbing.

The ceremony goes as usual.
I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cotton underdrawers. What I could see, if I were to open my eyes, would be the large white canopy of Serena Joy’s outsized colonial-style four-poster bed, suspended like a sagging cloud above us, a cloud sprigged with tiny drops of silver rain, which, if you looked at them closely, would turn out to be four-petaled flowers. I would not see the carpet, which is white, or the sprigged curtains and skirted dressing table with its silver-backed brush and mirror set; only the canopy, which manages to suggest at one and the same time, by the gauziness of its fabric and its heavy downward curve, both ethereality and matter.
Or the sail of a ship. Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems. Bellying. Propelled forward by a swollen belly.
A mist of Lily of the Valley surrounds us, chilly, crisp almost. It’s not warm in this room.
Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.(vi)

The impact of this scene in which the Offred is taking part in a bizarre sexual ceremony is dependent the very specific details which pull the reader into the fictive dream and force intellectual engagement. Then, as in many other such passages throughout the novel, the narrative contrasts the disturbing new world with the “before world” by moving from the action, into the past, and then back into the action. The resulting juxtaposition delivers the intent of the novel.


There is very little action that takes place during the events of the book; much of the story has actually already occurred before Offred’s telling of the tale. As a result, the success of The Handmaid’s Tale relies on evoking an emotional response from the reader. That emotional response, made possible by the full immersion into the fiction dream, is dependent on the details—details in this instance that are truly eerie and disturbing. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the devil is in definitely in the details.

End Notes
[i] Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction. (New York: Longman, 2003), p75.
[ii] Ibid., p 76.
[iii] Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’sTale. (New York: Random House), p3.
[iv] Ibid., pp39-40.
[v] Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction. (New York: Longman, 2003), p76.
[vi] Ibid., pp93-94.

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