This was an essay I wrote for my IB Mock exam in English. It got a good grade, so I thought of posting it here.
Authors often choose titles for their works that are highly personal to the protagonist. Also, these titles often gain deeper meaning or change meaning completely as the narrative progresses and the relationships between characters and their environment become clearer. Two excellent examples of this are Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. In both of these novels the meaning of the title is at first progressively deepened and at some critical point abruptly altered, to dramatic effect.
The first impression of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one of joy. The name of a person followed by laughter is quickly associated with childhood games, innocence and fun. Indeed, as assumed, the novel is about Paddy Clarke himself; a boy of ten growing up in Ireland. The novel is told from Paddy's own viewpoint. This gives further support for the choice of title. Indeed, the first impression the reader gets of Paddy's life is of this kind of childish, innocent fun.
The choice of title for The Handmaid's Tale is not as obvious, however. The question the reader asks himself at the outset is "What is a handmaid?" and this is Atwood's purpose. By providing a strange title for her work she sets the reader's mind questioning from the start, making for an interesting development of the plot. Furthermore, by having a strange and unfamiliar term in the title is an indication of a strange and unfamiliar setting and course of events.
Paddy's life in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the main focus of Doyle's novel. All events occur through him, as he is both the protagonist and narrator. This specificity in the title and the focus of the work allows for the co-development of the character and the meaning of the title. Slowly, the reader becomes aware that Paddy's life is not all happy. At first family fights are infrequent episodes in the novel, but the frequency of these conflicts increases as the novel progresses. These episodes clearly affect and frighten Paddy who takes his stress out on his brother.
Similarly, the Handmaid Offred's life is the focus of The Handmaid's Tale, as also indicated by the title. In fact, the novel is quickly revealed to be a highly personal account of a woman caught in a system that humiliates her. This account, told in stream of consciousness, develops the character of this Handmaid (whose previous name is not revealed) to give a personal, definite meaning to the title. Hence, the definite article is used in the title, meaning a specific woman, in this case Offred. Also, the fact that the title of the novel contains the word "Tale" implies that it is a personal account, and its validity can thus be questioned.
The episodic structure of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha allows Doyle to insert numerous enjoyable and genuinely funny scenes into effective order. By changing the frequencies of pleasant scenes and oppressive, unpleasant scenes, Doyle is able to manipulate the mood of his work effectively. Though Paddy is telling his story in the novel, he reveals much about the conditions around him as well. As the story progresses, the pleasant scenes become few and far between as at first the children must accustom to less playing space and later Paddy must bear being ostracised from his group of friends and the crisis at home. Indeed the reader begins to wonder where all the "Ha Ha Ha" has disappeared.
The Handmaid's Tale is made interesting by the method chosen for the storytelling. As only bits of the reasons for the state of affairs in the novel are revealed at a time, the reader is continually held in attention and kept aware. Indeed, in essence the novel is a tale, a story about a person's life. The tale deepens and gains more meaning as the story progresses, retaining its literary meaning but new aspects about Offred the Handmaid and her society are continually revealed.
There is a dramatic change in the meaning of the titles of both works, however. Expectations and ideas in the reader's mind are turned around and a new meaning is introduced much more abruptly than the reinforcement for the initial conception of the titles was presented.
As Paddy's father leaves the Clarke household leaving the mother alone with the children, Paddy is in fact left without a male role model. The true, final meaning of the title Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha becomes apparent at the end of the novel, when Paddy describes a taunt the other boys sing: "Paddy Clarke ha ha ha, Paddy clarke has no da." Instead of the innocent, joyous and happy meaning thought of at first, the title is a taunt, a mocking laughter. This really comes as a shock to both the boy and the reader, indicating a well-chosen title.
The Handmaid's Tale concludes with a transcript of the events at a conference a significant length of time after the events in the main body of the story. Indicating that the entire tale was a mere transcript itself of magnetic tape recordings of a woman speaking, it changes the tone of the story. While at first it is read as an immediate recounting of events, The Handmaid's Tale is actually presented as the actual memoirs of a person in the future (in terms of our present-day society.)
Thus, the apt choice of title is critical in these works. Indicating personal events in the named characters' lives the novels are given an initial meaning by their titles, which they proceed to modify in terms of meaning after events and descriptions in the narrative. This cyclical, co-evolutionary nature of the relationship between title and body of the work is fascinating material for study, as the authors' intentions become clear upon examination of this relationship.
Node your homework!
Thanks to dutchess for suggesting the questionable validity of the Tale.