One of my favorite parts of this book was the Historical Notes section following the conclusion of the narrative. Normally, I look over sections at the ends of books, as it is often full of acknowledgements, Q&A’s, or strange comprehension questions that add little value to the narrative. I was very surprised when this addition was actually an integral section, presenting much appreciated context to the complex society presented in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In this Historical Notes section, I was struck by a statement on page 300-301. It read: “The superscription ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer…I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail…” This statement sparked my curiosity to delve into an extensive Wikipedia search of the similarities between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Canterbury Tales, as well as an explanation the pun intended by the use of the word tale/tail in the title. (Anecdote: I have an appreciation for references to Chaucer not because I have read his work though I’m sure it is wonderful, but because he is represented in one of my favorite movies, A Knight’s Tale, and is probably one of the funniest characters in the whole movie).
I will explain the pun first, as it required a much shallower dive into the depths of the internet. The word “tail” derives from the latin word for “penis” which is “cauda est”. I thought that was quite punny, if you will, given the societal framework of Gilead’s foundation on the male genetalia. This explanation was included in the continuation of the quoted statement, however the etymology contributing to the humor was not explicitly explained.
Further googling and Sparknotes skimming revealed some similarities between The Canterbury Tales and The Handmaid’s Tale that were interesting (disclaimer: I have never read The Canterbury Tales so my interpretation is limited). The most obvious is that no one knows the actual order of either story, as in both cases the stories were found in fragments (The Canterbury Tales in actuality, while The Handmaid’s Tale fictionally). This could possibly be the only similarity that the Professor was referring to when naming The Handmaid’s Tale, but my limited research revealed some additional similarities. In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (the widely accepted beginning), there is a focus on the storytellers who will be telling the stories. An aspect of this can also be seen in the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, as Offred lists the names of four people (assuming she lists herself, June) who play a role in the story to come. Lastly, both are frame tales, where there are stories within the main story timeline. So while these are just surface similarities between the two, it interested me nonetheless.