Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

The Use of Sexuality by the Female Characters and Government in 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood’s construction of A Handmaid’s Tale takes a lot of influences from the world of 1984 in order to construct that world from Julia’s perspective.  I wished to take into account my reading of 1984 to see just how this affects the portrayal of the characters and the government in both of the novels.  Due to the length of each of the novels, I will focus on the specific aspect of sexuality and how the women use it to either connect with society or be isolated from it.  Furthermore, there is the connection of the government, specifically how they control the people, through the use or limitation of the peoples’ sexuality.  The topic of this paper owes a lot to the construction of Julia in 1984, predominantly how she is a secondary character who has the majority of her scenes focused on her sexually connecting with the novel’s protagonist.  The difficulty of this paper will come from isolating the scenes in A Handmaid’s Tale that would best contribute to how the government uses sex to isolate the people; this is due to how the majority of the novel is focused on sexuality.  Though this problem is circumvented by focusing on the following questions:

1.)    Does the act of marriage contribute to a powerful connection between the two people involved or does the government have a negative effect on it?

2.)    How does the government in each novel differ in their procedure for controlling sexuality and how does that affect the mental and societal statuses of the people?

3.)    What connections do Julia and Offred form with the people around them and does the use of sex hinder or help these connections?

 

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It could happen…

Humanity’s stress of history derives from the ramifications it has on the present, as well as model of what to avoid for the future. By including the “historical notes”, Atwood anchors a grim sense of realism to her story. These professors have names that are unfamiliar to the present, such as Crescent Moon and Piexioto. Piexioto establishes that the Republic of Gilead was demolished, and by doing so, Atwood dismantles any preconceived notion that civilization can remain static, no matter how perfect it may seem. This was dabbled in the book by the insinuation of Offred being a part of contemporary United States of America, which by a series of realistically possible events, get overthrown. Nationalism and social esteem cannot keep a country from changing. There is an instance where Professor Pieixoto elicits how the polygamy practices of Gilead derived from “early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century” (Atwood 305). Here, Atwood presents how tangible this aberrant behavior can be, because it was something actually practiced in humanity for ages, instead of just being a work of Atwood’s imagination. The professor goes to to say that Gilead acquired racist policies that were “firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed” (Atwood 305). This racist quality was common, and was what advanced such detestable events in history, such as slavery and the Holocaust. Even though this is a work of fiction, Atwood manages to relate the disquieting story to that of non-fictional events to arouses a discomfort for how conceivable these events could occur, deriving from events of the past.

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

The “Historical Notes” section at the end of The Handmaid’sTale helps set the novel apart from any other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Most other novels (as well as movies) of the same genre have very ambiguous, open-to-interpretation endings; here, however, Margaret Atwood makes the novel even more of a mystery by adding the notes at the end. We know the novel is fiction; the notes state that the narrative could be fiction, too. The notes essentially “break the fourth wall,” a theatre term that refers to a play directly addressing the fact that it is, indeed, only a play. The way Atwood presents the Historical Notes, she breaks the fourth wall with her readers in a way to make them really think about what they’ve just read.

The lecturer in the notes brings to attention many of the common tropes and topics discussed when analyzing a novel. The lecturer speaks at length about the reliability of Offred as a narrator, the conveniently ironically named females in the story, and the puzzling abrupt ending of Offred’s story . It seems as though this is Atwood’s way of winking and tipping her hat at the readers. By directly addressing the issue of narrator reliability within the novel itself, Atwood is forcing her readers to find something else to discuss about the novel; in other words, she is eliminating the easy way out of discussion. The brilliance of it all is, though, that we as readers can look at the novel as a whole under a different light – the light of the Historical Notes.

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The Only Hope is in the Historical Notes

The historical notes acts to create a sense of hope for the dystopian society described by Offred through use of the freedom of the future setting to take note of the people that were able to escape and tell their story.  The historical notes mentions “various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time”, thus showing the reader that not the entire world was overtaken by the Gilead regime and there were still people working for women’s rights and freedoms (304).  The historical notes also prove that the society was unable to continue and faded into obscurity to the point that future historians are left with a few articles and diaries to piece together what happened.  The author uses the historical notes to frame the story in a way that best explains the use of the first person perspective that is telling the story in the past tense along with the protagonist’s despairing and frustrated tone.  The historical notes placed after the story allow for there to be an element of hope without detracting from the tension present in Offred’s story.  The two separate tones in the novel allow the author to add hope without detracting from the danger of the regime or adding any positive elements to the society.  Their presence also leaves Offred’s fate shrouded in mystery, allowing the reader to infer whether she escaped or even received anything close to a happy ending.  The historical notes with its less suspenseful tone are able to delve into the possibility of Offred’s escape and the decline of the regime while still preserving the previous segment’s atmosphere of hopelessness and danger.

 

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A Story vs A History

The historical notes in The Handmaid’s Tale give the book an entirely different feel by offering unusual insight into Offred’s life after her escape, and the fate of the Gilead society itself. First, it provides a frame for the story – the conversational tone of the story becomes clear when it is revealed that it was recorded on tape. This frame makes the story seem more real, in a way, more than just a story: it is an actual history. Professor Pieixoto also reveals to us that Offred did change at least some names (if not, possibly, all), and suggests this is because either she is afraid for her daughter or she herself is in danger. Both options take from the reader the hopeful, happy ending that was suggested by Offred’s escape among the Mayday rebel group in her retelling.

Something I found interesting was that the people in the Historical Notes were not white – the convention is held in Nunavit, and the introductory speaker is “Maryann Crescent Moon”. Crescent Moon also mentions another professor at the university – Professor Running Dog. Both have names that are clearly not “traditional Christian”. They are part of the “Department of Caucasian Anthropology” (Atwood 299). That there would be a department dedicated to Caucasian Anthropology suggests that something significant happened to the Caucasian race.

Pieixoto mentions a decline in birth rate, attributing it to many causes, such as the “widespread availability of birth control of various kinds” and diseases such as “R-strain syphilis” and the “infamous AIDS epidemic” as well as environmental factors, such as nuclear waste plants, toxins dumped into the water supply, and biological warfare (Atwood 304). That these things, products of our modern society, might cause such a drastic change in the population is a scary thought, and one that adds another dimension that it would not have without the context of the Historical Notes.

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Historical Notes: Making the Handmaid’s Tale Real

I think the Historical Notes section in The Handmaid’s Tale is a very “interesting” conclusion of the book, to say the least.  I feel as if this ending is a little anti-climactic to the previous 300 pages of the book.  Before this epilogue, Atwood leaves the reader on the edge of their seat(s); for we do not know what happens to Offred.  I am however a little “torn” with my opinion on this closing section of the book.  While I think it detracts a little from the suspense of not knowing what happens to Offred, I also think it provides a little bit of closure with giving extensive background information on the origins of the story.

I believe the function of the prologue of the book is to make the story seem more believable.  Reading the book from Offred’s point of view makes the story a little bit more real (as opposed to hearing it from a narrator’s point of view), although there is certainly some doubt that the story could ever be real since life is so different in the story than ours.  Hearing the (bulk) of the epilogue from Professor Pieixoto makes the story much more believable (for he could very easily be a real person), and in my mind it makes Offred sound like she actually lived, and it helps her story become even more realistic.  One example that I rather like of the prologue making the story seem realistic is the very last sentence of the book.  “Are there any questions” (Atwood, 311) shows that Professor Pieixoto is addressing a specific audience.  I rather like this ending because of its sense of finality, also because I felt like he was addressing the audience, straight from the book.

 

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Safety vs. Oppression

In this story, Offred is a girl who is living in a world of safety.  The life she leads is different from our lives in countless ways, however, it is all veiled in the idea of being safe and under protection.  The individuals in this story are being protected, it would seem, against their own will and to such a degree that it is no longer just protection and has moved so far to the extreme it has become negative.  Margaret Atwood’s story “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an intriguing discussion of the difference between being protected and being oppressed.

The women, and especially the handmaids, in this tale are confined to incredibly stringent rules that the concept of their safety has in many instances become a secondary concern to the need to reevaluate the freedoms that have been lost.  The women in this story used to have “freedom to” act the way they pleased and dress in a manner they wanted, whereas now due to all the oppressive protective measures that have been taken, they are able to “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).  Although these women have been given the “freedom from” men such as the ones who would yell at them on the street, they have lost much more than they have gained it appears.  While there may be less crime and this may be a safe place for them to exist physically, oppression is never a good place for individuals to exist.  The women of this novel will never really feel free because “freedom from” is being obedient and allowing someone else to make your decisions whereas “freedom to” is an individual making their own decisions and learning to be safe in the process.

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Dehumanization of Women

In the city of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, women are protected from violence but at a horrible cost- their absolute freedom. Women are no longer raped or abused by strange men but must submit to the state-sanctioned rape by their commanders. In chapter five Aunt Lydia speaks about freedom: “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).

The “freedom to” she is referring to is the freedom to choose. In chapter eleven we can see how Gilead has taken away Offred’s ability to choose. The doctor has given Offred an escape and yet she is horrified at the thought of such freedom, of being able to make her own decisions: “Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation” (Atwood 61). Offred has become accustomed to the prisoner lifestyle of Gilead. When she bears her chains well they are almost comforting for her and she does not dare to do otherwise.

The “freedom from” that Aunt Lydia talks about is freedom from violence. “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). In chapter thirteen Janine testifies about how she was raped and had an abortion at fourteen, something that would never happen now in Gilead. However, with this freedom from, another freedom is taken away. In the society of Gilead, women are always the guilty party as is shown when the women in the group chant that the rape is Janine’s fault for leading the men on. The next week Janine admits, “It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserve the pain” (Atwood 72).

Through a close reading of Aunt Lydia’s quote in chapter five, we see that in Gilead women are protected and given freedom from many evils but at the cost of their own free will and choice. Furthermore women are dehumanized in this society as shown in the quotation: “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” (Atwood 73). Before, Offred’s body was an extension of herself but now she is no longer the master of her own body. Her body is now only the covering of the only thing that matters in Gilead- her womb. Offred is no longer a woman or even a human being-only a womb.

 

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Security at the Price of Freedom

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.

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Vocabulary Oppression

The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale rules with words. The theocracy takes words and twists them to their own meanings so that it can justify the oppression that takes place. In the passage, the word “freedom” is mutated into a frightening, highly-structured ideal.

Aunt Lydia’s (as well as all the other Aunts’) constant insistences that the Handmaids are free and happy are sign enough that what they are saying is false. By constantly stating that Gilead is good, Gilead saved women from oppression, the Aunts themselves are oppressing the women (but especially the Handmaids) out of the freedom to feel unhappy. Aunt Lydia’s statement of “freedom to and freedom from” then takes on another meaning: Women now have the “freedom from” unhappiness. This is also illustrated at the end of the chapter when Offred and Ofglen encounter the Japanese tourists. When asked if the Handmaids are happy, Offred feels as if she has to answer yes because, “I have to say something. What else can I say?” (29.) For most modern readers, the word “freedom” connotes endless choices; however, Offred implies that the freedom offered by Gilead leaves no room for interpretation. No one in this society has a choice, not even the men. Everyone has their own place and their own function for the sake of Gileaden’s twisted freedom.

This idea that one word can be forcibly evolved to suit an agenda is chilling. The passage is the fast way for Atwood to show the terrifying power that Gilead holds – not over people’s bodies and places in society, but also their minds.

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