I plan to examine how separation can actually be a liberating and empowering quality. In many of the texts we’ve covered in class, separation from society, in one aspect or another, is constructed to be a crippling feature that the characters have to endure, but I feel this concept is not absolute. I want to write about this topic to present an alternative to a prevalent standard. Separation has continuously been depreciated, but the benefits and freedoms have not been greatly addressed. Isolation is what allowed Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest to be free to perfect his craft, empowering him to be able to control an army of spirits. In Wells’ The Island of Dr. Mereau, Dr. Meareau is in a similar situation, where he is on his own island, free of the laws that prevented him from exercising his passion. To present and refute counterarguments, I plan to examine the film Far From Heaven directed by Todd Haynes. The film is set in the 1950’s, when segregation was socially and lawfully still very much intact. The film follows a white suburban housewife who, after a fall out from her homosexual husband, has fallen in love with an African-American man. However, in order to remain a respected white member of her town, she ends her relationship with him, which refutes the counterargument that normality and conformity is what is best, and it presents how restricting these qualities can be.
I already know that there is a prevalent assumption that separation is feared and subject to prejudice, and that social normality seems to be what is desired. I would like to further understand:
1. Is there a cost for such freedom, and if so, what?
2. What are the factors that keep people desiring to fit in?
3. Do the pros of conformity outweigh the cons?
A fear plagues the women of the society and that fear has led them to cling to security over freedom. The appreciation of security is furthered by citing everything that the women are to be given “freedom from” (24). This is most evident in some of the old pornographic films that the women were shown during their time in training with the Aunts. The films featured “women being raped, beaten up, killed” with sound included in order to create the greatest fear and trauma in the women watching (118). Now the women are protected to the point that they are suffocated by the security and lack the “freedom to” which they held back before the collapse of the government and decline of the birth rate. The protagonist often flashbacks to little moments of freedom that she never realized were so precious, such as having a job and having possession of her own property. These freedoms were steadily traded for security as the people stopped the marches, due to the men with machine guns and poor attendance, then stopped trying to escape. The quote from page 24 highlights the transition that the society has taken from freedom to security without allowing the characters to think about what they have sacrificed by defining both as a type of freedom. The quote is given early on, before the audience receives details on how the society was constructed, and uses the early time to show the audience the dualism present in the novel and how it affects the mindset of the characters, allowing them to continue with the suffocating and oppressive regime.
The first half of The Handmaid’s Tale is centered on a loss of freedom that has occurred as a result of a change in society. But as Aunt Lydia points out, “There is more than one kind of freedom”. (Atwood 24) The idea of freedom and loss of freedom continues to be an important theme within the first half of the novel. Offred and the other women affected by the Republic of Gilead’s laws have lost many of the freedoms they previously knew. They are now enslaved for their uteruses, and with the sighting of a pregnant woman they are reminded “showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved”. (Atwood 26) The fact that the only thing that can save the woman is the same thing that is enslaving them is highly ironic.
The handmaids should take Aunt Lydia’s advice and not “underrate it”. (Atwood 24) Most of the time Offred, does not keep this in mind, but rather reminisces about the ways things used to be. However she does realize the freedom she has within her own mind, as she partakes in plays on words and pleasure in the cross-stich pattern.
Chapter 5 serves as an appropriate place to do a close reading because it is a culmination of the many themes we have seen in the novel thus far as it accounts for Offred’s mere existence. Analyzing the passage on freedom allows the book to open up because it forces us to not only consider the loss of freedom that has occurred, but what freedoms do still exist for these women? Perhaps this could foreshadow what the handmaids plan to do utilize the freedoms they have now to gain back their freedoms of the past as well. When discussing freedom it is important to take into consideration who is it defining freedom and what is freedom?
This passage is important because it reveals a basic foundation of the new society in which Offred lives: individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech, must be sacrificed in order to create a “safer” society that does not contain many of the uncertainties of the previous society. Everyone has an assigned place within Gilead – they are Handmaids or Marthas or Wives or Angels or one of the many other positions created and maintained by the society. There is not the uncertainty of being unemployed or of finding one’s calling in life. They are free from fear of attacks that are common in today’s society: rape, mugging, random acts of violence, etc. As Offred says in reference to having to go shopping in twos for “protection”: “the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers.” (Atwood 19). The fear of being out alone, left over from life in the previous society, is being played in order to disguise the fact that the women are not trusted on their own. These freedoms they have, the “freedom from”, come at the expense of the “freedom to”, of their natural human rights and others we take for granted. If the women were not spied upon by each other, they might try to run away, to seek out those freedoms they are denied. This passage opens up the book by prompting the reader to examine the differences in the freedoms that Gilead offers and the freedoms it has taken away, and to consider which is more important to have – freedom to or freedom from.
Freedom can be defined in many different ways, and used for many different things. In our society, and the society that Offred used to be a part of, we have “freedom to”, freedom to do what we want with our time, money, and bodies. The Republic of Gilead, however, is a society based on “freedom from”, freedom from fear, choice, and control. This is what Aunt Lydia was referring to with the passage “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24), and this is the central idea in the first half of this novel.
Offred’s narration of her life shows that she is now part of a society where she has very little freedom, but those adjusting her try to make it seem beneficial that she has freedom from control over her own body and actions, as well as freedom from thought. Offred describes how she “used to think of (her) body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… one with me” (Atwood 72) but now she feels as if her body isn’t even hers. This shows how even the very basic freedom to control one’s own body has turned into a “freedom from”. She subjects to this control that is telling her this is right, thus turning herself into an object. She thinks back throughout this narration on her previous life, before The Republic of Gilead, when she had freedom to do with herself whatever she wished. As a young adult, she might have been promiscuous according to some standards, but she had the “freedom to”. I feel like Atwood’s message is everyone, especially women, should appreciate the freedoms we have over ourselves, because it can be too easy to turn the “freedom to” into the “freedom from”.
When looking at this passage, it’s interesting to consider the concept of freedom and how it plays out and is considered in the rest of the novel. Aunt Lydia claiming that Offred is “given freedom from” is an odd ideal when thought of it in the standards of her society. So far in the novel, Offred is restricted in many ways, making it hard for the reader to see her life as anything but free. Perhaps this type of “freedom to” that Aunt Lydia is talking about refers to the freedom for women to protect themselves from danger and question male figures. Offred describes a time in her past life when women could “keep the locks on and keep going” (Atwood 25). In her past life, she had control—“freedom to” control perhaps; however, now Aunt Lydia claims that she has “freedom from” the life of the past. The classification of her current life as freedom is difficult to understand for the reader because her life seems for confined than ever. Although she doesn’t have to worry about being attacked by men, she is merely a servant in the Republic of Gilead. The current controlled way of life that Offred faces may be considered freedom from worry by some people, but when read in present day, I thought that her current state was completely away from a state of freedom. This passage gives an opening to the rest of the novel in that it shows the oppressive viewpoints of the other women in the republic who are trying to make the best of their current situation, as it is the only option they are left with.
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, seems so far to be a novel about a protagonist (Offred) who is restricted in almost all aspects of her life. She must censor her speech, wear clothing that hinders her movement and line of sight, eat only what food she is given, and speak only to a handful of people. This is why Aunt Lydia’s statement is so interesting: “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24). It seems as though the “freedom to” during the days of anarchy refers to Offred’s freedom to do anything she wanted; she didn’t have to worry about any of the previously mentioned restrictions. Now, in the days of post-anarchy, Offred has the freedom from certain things. For instance, Offred reflects on the differences between her previous life and her life now as a handmaid. Perhaps she now has the freedom from having to be concerned for her safety. She reflects, “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles” (Atwood 24). Now, Offred is free from the burden of being careful around the opposite sex. She has no concern with her own safety in this respect. Aunt Lydia’s statement seems to suggest the differences between Offred’s current and previous lives. There is a tradeoff, however unwanted it might be, between what she was free to do in her past life and being protected in her current life.
“Freedom from” in “A Handmaid’s Tale” is just a nice way of saying “under control.” Aunt Lydia was just trying to get the girls complacent by saying that instead of “freedom to,” they had “freedom from”: freedom from all the things that before they actually had freedom to do. As Offred remembers in her past life; “I think about laundromats. What I wore to them . . . what I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.” (Atwood 24) Now she has no control. In the past, these women had the freedom to do certain things, and these things granted came with such danger as there is danger for everyone—such as going certain places at night alone, motorists who are really criminals pretending to be stranded, etc.—but at least the women had a choice in the matter as far as what they could do, where they could go. Now they are being controlled and liberated (according to Aunt Lydia) from those things they did before. This new government of the Republic of Gilead obviously decided that they knew what was best for people and assigned living “slots” that people could fit into (men and women). The Aunts were really trying to brainwash the girls into thinking that this new way of life was actually better than the life they had before. In some ways the life women had before could be debated as to whether or not it was really good in some aspects, but so could the life of all men, women, and children be considered not good in some aspects. Unfortunately in the Republic of Gilead, the new option for women wasn’t really an option at all, and it wasn’t better but worse.