Eliot: the Leader of the Modernist Movement

Be honest, you’ve searched for an article regarding T.S Eliot after you’ve read some of his poems, to gain a grasp on how you’re expected to arrive at a deeper meaning beyond the words written on the page. Eliot was quite isolated compared to the other poets of his time, as he would stray from the fading idea of realism and instead, would confront disturbing and absurd topics while utilising a variety of elements. These aspects include fragmentation, self-reflection, and symbolism, to make up the idea of modernism in literature. Eliot was not just considered a modernist poet, he was the most influential modernist writer of the 20th century, from the time he moved to England at the age of 25 in 1914 from his hometown, St. Louise, Missouri, up until the time he passed, in 1965. In today’s society, Eliot is still commonly referred to as the leader of the Modernist movement, utilising a variety of elements from the modernist period in his poetry. Through these elements, a reader is able to establish meanings and interpretations that are not always understood, because “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Fragmentation:

Viewing fragmentation from a literary essay standpoint, this characteristic is an extensive topic to discuss, as there are many different interpretations of the idea, that any explained change in form is accepted as fragmentation. The aspect of fragmentation was a part of literary Modernism, normally used to break down the characters, plot, setting, and any other element in writing. Eliot commonly used fragmentation in his poetry to disrupt any of the reader’s familiar context, which may have been a large reason for the many misinterpretations of Eliot’s writing. One of Eliot’s most well known pieces, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Love Song), sees a lot of fragmentation throughout, beginning with the title. The term “Love Song” implies to the audience that it will be a supposed delicate poem featuring a common romantic story between two characters, but boy are you wrong. The poem starts off with, “Let us go then you and I, / When the evening lies stretched out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The first line invites the idea that there are two characters with a type of connection, setting up the audience for an expected romantic fantasy between these two unintroduced characters. The second line applies a metaphor supported by personification, that says the “evening is stretched out against the sky” the importance of these techniques is to guide the audience into a state of assumption, and allow them to interpret the “evening” and the “sky” as metaphors of the characters and their physical connection between each other, therefore propelling a romantic feeling onto the audience. Then in the third line, Eliot applies the thought of a “patient etherised upon a table” for the audience, which manipulates and changes the tone and rhyme of the poem, from a classic romantic setting to a sudden surgical environment,  to break free from the audience’s expecting grasp. The lexical choice of “patient” implies a medical setting, while the word “etherised” suggests a dreamlike state, where Eliot is able to juxtapose the ‘classical poetic’ and ‘modern literal’ world in order to develop and set a new realm of literature. Through the opening three lines to ‘Love Song’, Eliot is able to correctly implement an element of modernism into his work to enhance the effect of the poem, and cause the audience to view the text without any preconceived ideas involving context or genre. Eliot’s five-part poem, The Waste Land is considered by some to be the epitome of the modernist era. Being published in 1922, only four years after the end of World War 1 (WW1), utilises the element of fragmentation to represent the now broken empire of Europe, and the uncertain society of England during this time period.  In Eliot’s first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’,  the form of the poem is manipulated to deter the reader’s understanding by disrupting the setting and language to represent the feeling of division in post-WW1 Europe.

“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,”

The multiple settings in this passage, support the interpretation that there are a number of speakers at once, all talking in a disruptive and uncooperative manner with each other, as a way for Eliot to represent the state of Europe after the devastation of WW1, and put the reader into a position of confusion, similar to the feeling of England after their loss. The repetition of “and” reinforces this understanding, as it is an attempt to connect each disjointed sentence into a fragmented reality, even going as far as to use the German language, (which in English says “I’m not a Russian, I’m from Lithuania, really German.”) to strongly separate and break the form of the poem. This statement can also be read as a representation of the newly fragmented world, as the Russian’s and German’s were enemies during WW1, and the disparity felt by both countries leaves a long-lasting impact, even after the ending of the first World War. Eliot was able to express the feelings and concerns of his country about a topic so wide-spread, through a type of writing that was never really seen before. He did this in order to communicate messages through not just the words, but the emotion that the form in relation to the text produces, and how that impacts the reader on a level that is deeper than a romantic metaphor. Through Eliot’s insightful understanding of fragmentation, the reader is provided a ‘blank canvas’ of sorts, in being given the ability to interpret Eliot’s work in a way that has never been seen before. This has been done by Eliot manipulating poetry to suit his own ideals of modernism, and disregarding the assumptions and ‘rules’ of poetry before him.

Self-Reflection

As a topic, discussing self-reflection in an essay relies on the knowledge of context that a reader can apply to a particular writer in relation to their work. As a poet, Eliot utilises self-reflection in his poetry, to express his personal feelings about an idea or state of society, by aligning the character’s personality with his own in a way that allows for a stronger representation of argument or opinion within writing. Importantly, a writer by the name of Dante Alighieri, commonly referred to as Dante, was an Italian poet during the late Middle Ages who died in 1321. Eliot seemed to have many views and opinions that corresponded with Dante as a poet, which led to Dante being Eliot’s most prominent influence in poetry. Dante’s positive impact is specifically noticeable within Eliot’s ‘Love Song’, as each text seems to have an interconnecting suggestion about their immediate societies and social constructs in which they lived.  At the opening of ‘Love Song’, Eliot includes an epigraph, which is an excerpt from Dante’s three-part poem, Commedia (Divine Comedy), in particular the first part, ‘Inferno’. This poem features a man, who has committed many wrong-doings throughout his life, and an ancient Roman poet is sent from Heaven named Virgil, to come to Earth and guide him on the right path. Virgil takes the man to Hell for a ‘tour’ of the 9 circles of Hell, in an attempt to scare him away from any further sins or treacherous actions. They find a soul at the eighth circle, and the man asks him what he did during his life to deserve to be that deep in Hell. The souls response was the excerpt that Eliot uses as the epigraph to ‘Love Song’, which was;

“S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.”

In English, this says “If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.” This relates to Prufrock as a character, because he is also concerned about his appearance in the eyes of the public, as he continues to fret about how people view him, which is evident when he says to himself, “Time to turn back and descend the stair– / (They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’) / … (They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)” This can relate to Eliot himself in less of a physical way, but more of an expression of emotion or idea about the world they live in. Therefore, it can be interpreted as a metaphor, explaining that both Eliot and Dante were in positions of criticism from the societies in which they both lived, as a result of particular viewpoints or actions that were negated in their time periods. The importance of prefacing ‘Love Song’ with this specific epigraph, can be a reinforcement of this metaphor, meaning that the audience is only able to read Prufrock’s ‘Love Song’ because they are trapped in a “gulf” from which they can never return, which in a literal sense, refers to the perceived reality that they are trapped in.  Eliot is able to orchestrate the idea of self-reflection in his poetry to strengthen connections between his writing and the real world, in order to express interpretable ideas that can be derived from societal actions during Eliot’s time.

Symbolism

One of the most commonly used elements of modernism in today’s style of literature, and one of the most frequent examples used in a variety of essays involving literature, is the aspect of symbolism. Eliot took this convention and moulded it into a specific style that suited the many associations for his writing, to support the vast interpretations of his poems. Eliot is well-known for his poem The Waste Land, but the third part in particular, ‘The Fire Sermon’, features symbolism that dates back to the Arthurian era of the 5th and 6th century. Eliot incorporates the story of the Fisher King, which involved the narrative of a King who was crippled from the waist down, rendering him unable to do anything except fish. The King was in charge of the Holy Grail, but as a result of his injury, the land around him was barren and void of prosperity. Eliot makes multiple references to this tale, with the persona in the text revealing that he is “Fishing, with the plain arid behind [him].” The action of “Fishing” in this particular sense, can be interpreted as a direct reference to the story of the Fisher King, to prepare the audience for the connection between the “plain arid” land behind him, and the King’s land that was also a deserted “Waste Land”, thus having a connection to the title of the poem, The Waste Land. Eliot’s reasoning behind the obscure connection to the Arthurian era and the Fisher King in ‘The Fire Sermon’, may be the result of Eliot’s perceived admiration towards Medieval culture. Eliot was known to appreciate the organic and spiritual community of the Medieval era, but in turn, also commonly expressed elitist and formalist outlooks in a variety of situations. This gained Eliot the label of a “Medieval Modernist” which was given to him by critics of his work. Another poem of Eliot’s that expresses extensive symbolic references which presumes a position within The Waste Land, is the second part, ‘A Game of Chess’. This text incorporates the story of Philomela, a tale dating back to Greek mythology, which involves two sisters who are separated after one of the sisters, Procne, marries a Thracian King, Tereus. Procne soon begins to loathe being away from her sister Philomela, so she asks Tereus if Philomela can live with them. Tereus agrees, and travels to Athens to retrieve Philomela, but during his expedition, Tereus falls into a deepened lust for Philomela. Once their voyage is over, Tereus takes Philomela to the woods, where he rapes her and then cuts out her tongue as a way to prevent her from revealing his atrocity to anyone. Now that Philomela is without speech, she weaves the story into a tapestry that she then sends to her sister Procne. Upon reading the message, Procne kills her son, Itys, and puts his dismembered body in Tereus’ dinner. When Tereus asks to see his son, Procne tells him that Itys is inside his stomach, and then Philomela appears, holding Itys’ dismembered head. In a heat of rage, Tereus attacks Philomela and Procne, who are turned into a nightingale and swallow respectively, and Tereus is turned into a hoopoe. Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’ openly references the story of Philomela, when he positions the audience by “a window… upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale / Filled all the desert with inviolable voice.” The term “sylvan” refers to the woods where Tereus violated Philomela, followed by the direct reference of the “change”, implying the loss of her virginity, by the “barbarous king” who can be interpreted as Tereus. Another direct symbolic reference follows in the next line, claiming that “there the nightingale / Filled the desert with [an] inviolable voice.” This can be interpreted as the juxtaposition between Philomela as a person, being speechless, and her reincarnation to a nightingale, who has an “inviolable voice” which also can be interpreted as irony of the story. The importance of Eliot making this symbolic connection between the story of Philomela and his writing, may reside with his perception on oppression and how difficult expressing traumatic events may be for certain victims, which is where the symbolic reference of Philomela’s inability to talk may be derived from. Since Eliot has been presumed as homosexual by many of his audience as a result of many hints in his work, a reader can realise where his disdainment of oppression may come from, and how he understands the difficulties of speaking up about specific traumatic events in a society that is against you. Through this adapted style of symbolism, a reader can interpret deep and meaningful associations between Eliot’s texts and historical events. From these examples, it is evident that Eliot was able to utilise symbolism as a feature of modernism, and create a new pathway for literature that was not readily available during the era of Realism.

Conclusion

Literature is an ever-changing subject of writing that accumulates aspects of different styles as time progresses. As a result of this, Eliot was able to incorporate inspiration from different era’s combined with his alienated views, to include certain elements such as the perception of a fragmented reality, the idea of self-reflection, and the involvement of deep symbolism. This was all in order to create a new style of writing and lead the literary world through a new poetic era of modernism. 

J.M

3 Historical Inspirations Behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale That’ll Keep You up at Night

If you haven’t read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you must be living under a rock. But at least you aren’t living under the rule of an ultraconservative patriarchal theocracy, am I right? Well Margaret Atwood will have you know that this isn’t actually too far from reality, and if society isn’t careful, you’ll be wishing you were still living under that rock. Anyway, rocks aside, I know what you’re thinking – you’ve never heard a boulder claim before; Western culture is shifting toward respecting women, and y’know, not being a theocracy, right? Atwood herself has referred the novel as a “speculative fiction,” which is backed up by her promise that she “would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some place or some other time, or for which the technology did not already exist.” This separates the novel from a dystopian drama, and a true reflection of the terrible things humans are still capable of doing if we don’t learn from our mistakes. In the following article I will guide you out from under your rock, help you learn from some of recent history’s greatest mistakes, and of course transform you into a chronic insomniac; here I’ve put together the chilling ‘3 Historical Inspirations Behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale That’ll Keep You up at Night.’

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#1 Decree 770 – Romania

As I’m sure you gathered from the subheading, one of the events that inspired the Handmaid’s Tale was the result of Decree 770 in Romania. This was a law passed in 1967 that banned the use of contraception, or any form of abortion. It was issued by the country’s new dictator (a man) in order to rapidly increase the population to satisfy his obsession with state autonomy. The government had already introduced a 6% income tax on married couples if they didn’t have children while between ages 25 and 50, but it was proving ineffective. During the 60’s, abortion became the most common form of birth control, as there weren’t really any other options; this resulted in a sharp dip in birth rates, which ultimately prompted the enactment of Decree 770. Without any form of birth control, that year birth rates soared higher than ever before, approximately double those of the previous year. There were financial incentives offered to families who bared many children, however, they weren’t enough to properly raise a child; this resulted in countless women dying by attempting illegal abortions, and tens of thousands of horribly mistreated orphans, which was covered up for over 2 decades through state propaganda. Heavy surveillance of the population evoked fear of expressing any discontent of the decree. Now I know driving women into extreme circumstances, and mass neglection of children are messed up on a whole bunch of levels, so I’ve left this picture of a puppy here to cheer you up.

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Aww, look at him – he just wants a lil pat ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

Uh, anyway, the point is not everyone gets what they want; in this case, Romanian women were denied their want of control over their own bodies. Not only had the government literally assigned all women as compulsory baby-makers, but they had invaded their personal life. A Romanian woman was quoted as saying, “When the state usurps the private, the body is undressed in public,” which to me is just a fancy way of saying the state should mind their own damned business; their breach in privacy was comparable to stripping women in public. We see Offred in the novel shares a similar situation, except she copes by placing herself in a “state of absence, of existing apart from the body,” which is perhaps even more horrific. In Gilead there is no privacy to begin with; after performing ritual sex with a stranger, it is unlikely Offred would use being undressed in public as a comparison to the state’s control over her body.

Contraception is also banned in the Gilead, but not quite for the same reasons. Romania was looking to boost its economy with population growth, whereas Gilead was trying to do everything it could to just re-establish its population. We see Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids everything will be better “when the population level is up to scratch again,” to give them a sense of purpose within society. Another similarity between Romania and Gilead would be the heavy surveillance. Gilead is riddled with surveillance; there are the ordinary guards, the Aunts, the Eyes, and even the handmaids themselves, who are used to spy on each other. Because of this Offred has thoughts such as “perhaps he is an Eye” upon meeting someone, and she won’t express herself to her partner handmaid in fear that she is loyal to Gilead.

So how does this all relate to us? The key takeaway is that there are people in power (politicians) who think it’s alright to make laws controlling the bodies of others. Don’t believe me? Of course you do, look at the Trump administration. Trump’s sexist language has sparked fear in many he would revoke women’s rights such as the right to use contraceptives, the right to an abortion, and the right to taking maternity leave. If America can go as far to make this man their president, who is to say it can’t be taken a step further?

 

#2 The People of Hope – New Jersey

“Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,” said Atwood as she showed her research notes to journalists. And out of the paper she happened to clippety-clip an article on a 1100 membered religious sect gaining control of a Roman Catholic Church. Established in 1975, they called themselves the ‘People of Hope;’ from this one might think-thinkety-think they prayed in hopes for the betterment of society. Well, not quite; a better description of them would be a fundamentalist cult. The sect had reportedly indebted residents using financial leverage, such as buying them houses to entice them into joining, and later prevent them from leaving. They subordinated women, and treated them in a “very Islamic” fashion; they discouraged social contact with non-members; they pre-arranged the marriages of children; they prevented children from dating; and they placed their teenage disciples in “households” for indoctrination. Ex-members of the sect described it all as a form of “subtle brainwashing.”

TL;DR they’re manipulative misogynists disguising themselves as Catholics.

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The wives of the sects’ coordinators were called “handmaidens,” which Atwood had underlined in the news article for obvious reasons. Outside of the use of the word in the title of Atwood’s novel, ‘handmaiden’ or just ‘handmaid’ isn’t a very common word anymore (thankfully). You can probably partially guess its meaning on your own, but its literal definition is just any subservient woman. The sect ironically used this term as a compliment to these women, as they were the servants of God. Funnily enough (not really) they were also the servants of their husbands, who in turn gave them power within the group. Because of this they were less similar to Atwood’s handmaids, and more comparable to the Commanders’ wives, whose titles also define their subservience.

The controlling theocratic structure of Gilead is also comparable to the structure of The People of Hope. Both of them use the Bible as an excuse for their authoritative, misogynistic crap. In the handmaid’s tale religion mostly resembles puritanism, as the handmaids are told they are chosen by God. Their ‘ritual,’ aka state-sanctioned rape, is directly justified in the bible’s verse, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” The People of Hope’s fundamentalist ideologies mean they take the bible at face value with no further interpretation, though it also means they ignore passages that don’t suit their ideologies, which reminds us of the Gileadean “modified” bibles. A passage relevant to the sect’s actions would be “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent;” this refers to women’s authority within the church (which is stupid enough on its own), but fundamentalists can extrapolate its meaning to be all women are subservient.

This is especially relevant to Atwood’s message on the fragility of democracy, as she has stated in interviews that “nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.” America has a “deep foundation” in Puritanism, therefore it’s reasonable a theocracy could possibly be formed given chaotic circumstances. The People of Hope are a proof-of-concept miniature-scale example of this happening, a fundamentalist ideal building itself on top of a Catholic one. Oh, and by the way – they still exist to this day

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#3 Soviet Uranium Mines – Soviet Territory

We’ve all heard about the Soviet Union, lovely group of people no? Okay maybe not. Well then you probably wouldn’t find it hard to believe that during the 1970’s they forced prisoners to perform manual labor in heavily radiated uranium mines. This aimed to gather materials for the soviet’s growing arsenal of nuclear weaponry. Prisoners were expected to live no longer than 2 years, as their bodies would fall apart thanks to radiation poisoning. I would provide some imagery into what that would look like, but I’m only trying to keep you up at night over here, not traumatize you (let’s just say it isn’t a pretty way to go out). The camps were allegedly used as a death sentence, which is backed up their “almost 100%” death rate. Many prisoners that collapsed with exhaustion had their skull smashed open with hammers to ensure they weren’t faking their deaths to escape; their bodies were then thrown down a mineshaft and covered with dirt. More prisoners were brought in via train every few months; all the walkways and buildings were fully enclosed to hide the movements of prisoners, and the existence of the camps. Prisoners with especially deadly sicknesses were taken out of the camp to be studied so that the Soviets were aware of the effects their bombs would have after detonation.

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This of course partially inspired Atwood to create the colonies, which are “toxic dumps and radiation spills” where they sent “old women […and] Handmaids who screwed up their 3 chances […] discards].” Other less brutal colonies were mentioned, but Atwood didn’t dedicate very much ink to describe them. She likely chose toxic waste instead of Uranium because it was much more relevant, and likely to happen in America at the time, as there were worries surfacing about the U.S. congressional hearings on the regulation of toxic industrial emissions. They are both similar though in the sense that they are used as death sentences; the colonies primarily consisted of old women and infertile handmaids because they are no longer of use; they had been disposed of. Offred tells us, “They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to,” so they clearly weren’t expected to live long, probably even less then the Soviet prisoners.

A big difference between the colonies and the Uranium mines is that the mines were a hugely kept secret. It took years for vague pictures of them to be smuggled out of Russia, and even now not much is known about them. Alternatively, the colonies were well known by every man and his handmaid, why is this? This is because the colonies served a second purpose, to subjugate through fear. Offred says the Aunts “showed me a movie” about them, where they purposefully excluded footage of the “not so bad” colonies. Atwood would have added this detail to add some stakes to the narrative, there needed to be some sort of connection between Offred and the colonies to make them relevant to the plot.

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Anyways I have a question for you after my little comparative analysis: which sounds worse, the colonies or the Soviet mines? And then on top of that, how did you feel while reading about the conditions in the mines? Were you quivering in disbelief? Did you get bored? Go back and look at them. No, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty; it’s easy to separate yourself from this sort of thing, to you it’s just a story. Offred herself reinforces this in her recollection, “newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others […] they were awful without being believable.” And to me this is exactly what the Handmaid’s Tale is about, it cautions us on the desensitization to the horrific shit we should be afraid of, which leads us into a sort of apathetic complacency, allowing the sluggish, detrimental changes in society to be dismissed. And now you, the reader (yes I’m talking to you) have demonstrated this process yourself. If that won’t keep you up at night, I don’t know what will.

(or maybe I’m just projecting and was completely wrong, who knows?)

 

Conclusion

We might not be living in the Stone Age, but society certainly isn’t perfect at the moment, and honestly I doubt it ever will be. By taking inspiration from history, Atwood has legitimized her criticisms of society by demonstrating each separate aspect of her novel is possible on a smaller scale. By linking a seemingly fictional dystopia with real life, we have found ourselves examining the true nature of humans once given power, and the mechanisms by which we nonchalantly let them abuse said power. If you’ve developed crippling insomnia and can no longer function as a regular human being, look, ok I’m sorry but I warned you in the title didn’t I? On the other hand, if you’re still enjoying a good night’s rest be sure to complain in the comment section, I look forward to it.

Oh, and one last meme…

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by J.D.

4 Reasons Why Margaret Atwood Hates Her Protagonist

 

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the controversial dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. In early 2017, a television adaption hit the screens, renewing it in the eyes of the modern consumer. In the first episode, Margaret Atwood, the original author, cameos as one of the tyrannical Aunt figures. And what did she do, you ask?

Literally slap her protagonist across the face. That’s it. A good, firm slap to wake her character to the reality of her new life.

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In all fairness, Atwood has to put her through some tough times, otherwise why would we bother indulging in anything without a little suffering? … Or a lot, in this case.

Margaret Atwood has presented a plot where her protagonist, Offred, endures a number of wrong-doings, with suffering and dehumanisation around every corner. With only one option- to breed, the mono-theocratic society of Gilead is one of misogyny, religious fanaticism, classist social hierarchies, but is basically just a living hell for poor Offred.

Looking for 4 ways that you, a budding author, can be assured to completely screw with the sanity of your protagonist? Atwood sets the best example around.

 

  1. The sex wasn’t great.

First and foremost, there is simply no way I can ignore THAT sex scene. Yeah, you know the one. I can confidently say it was two minutes of my most nauseating reading experience. The Commander doing his *ahem* “duty”, Offred lying on the bed blatantly describing the encounter, and just to make things even weirder, Serena Joy gripping the handmaid’s arms. When the Commander finally finishes, he removes himself from this messed-up threesome of sorts. With as much grace as one could possibly muster, he exits the room, leaving the two women together. Instead of resting for 10 minutes like she is supposed to, Offred is commanded to leave the room by a very impatient Serena Joy. As Offred quickly leaves, she feels the “juice of the Commander [as it] runs down [her] legs”.

Okay. Ew.                           JC2

But let’s crack down to it, to see why Atwood pulls this major dick move. Oh no, the innuendos…

In a society where reproduction is of the highest priority, the legislative alterations that support the goal of population growth are heavily enforced through strict consequences (like, you know, death). Through the tyrannical nature of Gilead, a focus on banning abortion, artificial reproductive technologies, and converting the nature of modern sex are entwined with puritan ideologies to deliver a return to traditional ideals.

In this quotation, Atwood presents her protagonist as enduring a ceremony that is neither pleasurable nor painful, due to her ability to remove her emotions from the situation. This emptiness she portrays creates a stark juxtaposition with the reader’s pre-determined mind set in regard to the elements pertaining to sex.

Normally, we are shown a romantic scene. Delicate rose petals, scented candles, and probably a Boyz II Men song. Comparatively, the horrific recounts of rape usually feature intense fear or even survival mechanisms. Offred consents to all sexual encounters, admitting that it’s what she “signed up for” when she choosing to become a handmaid. The alternate option of becoming an ‘Unwoman’, banished to the lands of nuclear radioactivity, ensures that she is forced to choose between life as a dehumanised womb or certain death. Now that’s living!

Instead, this chapter falls into a no-man’s land of sorts, belonging to no traditional sex scene genre. This is achieved through its hyper-realistic descriptions and all together atypical, dystopian context. Offred settles on the label of “fucking” to accurately describe the sex, highlighting her resistance to Gilead and Biblical discourse (

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which, TBH, still doesn’t really seem that much better). The use of profanity employs a candid and blunt effect, rather than one of provocation, adding to the absolutely nauseating encounter. It’s the inability to relate as a reader that makes the chapter so confronting in the abnormal content it presents.

But seriously, “juice”? Bleugh.

 

 

  1. Do you have this in any other colour?

First of all, Atwood limits Offred’s options to the point where constitutionalised rape is literally the best option available. To add to this pain, she makes her endure this in a colour that she says she has “never looked good in”.  Damn, Atwood. Harsh. And to rub it in Offred’s nose even more, she goes and gives those nasty wives a delicate blue. Yet, underneath all these ‘wOmanLY iNjuStiCEs’, Atwood’s intricate symbolism and manipulation of colour can be seen as the true intention. JC4

In this novel, red is used as a continual reference to the handmaids, and because of this, acts as a reminder of fertility – their defining characteristic. Mimicking that of menstrual blood (because dressing up as a period is super in right now), the handmaids are constantly presented as a national resource, prompting the sole purpose they serve.

Intertextual links can be drawn between the red of the handmaid’s and that of the ‘A’ worn by a woman in the Scarlett Letter. Spoiler, women are about to be demonised… shocker. Used to shame those who commit adultery, red portrays these characters as demonic and shuns them from society. As the handmaids technically commit adultery, these novels can be viewed as parallel. Despite being told they are valued and important, the other characters openly scorn the handmaids and the duties they perform.

Throughout the ages, red has been a colour symbolic of power, worn by the likes of kings and rulers. When applying this to the handmaids, their only possessed power is that of child rearing. Even Offred’s name, whilst designed to be “Of Fred”, demonstrating their objectified nature, can also be seen as “Off Red”, no doubt of simple coincidence there, hey Atwood?

Yet, we shouldn’t be so dismissive. It is, after all, the most valuable possession – to control whether the population continues or not.

As wretched as these wives may seem, you’ve got to have a little sympathy for them. Their ovaries are all shrivelled up and they have to “share” their already distant husbands with a younger, fertile woman. Their designated blue attire corresponds with that of the Virgin Mary’s (it’s no wonder their heads are so far up their arses), and just like this Biblical figure, are presented as the exulted motherly symbols. Which, mind you, is pretty damn unfair considering their contributions to this process. Unlike the wives, handmaids must perform Ceremonies, carry the child during pregnancy, give birth, at which point their child is taken away and given to these purported ‘great mothers’.

At one point, Offred compares her red dress with that of a nun’s habit, of which I’m sure you can detect the blatant irony – because nothing says traditional puritanism like a pregnant nun.

 

  1. Weird Freudian Penis Stuff.

On top of all the extremely awful sex scenes, you just had to go adding in that whack Freudian business. Honestly, at this point I don’t know who is worse off, Offred for having to live in Gilead, or me, about to unpack this quotation. Okay, fine its her, whatever. JC5

During one of Offred and the Commanders’ clandestine rendezvous in chapter 29, Offred asks the Commander for the translation of a Latin phrase she found etched into the corner of her wardrobe, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”. Eventually, he tells her that’s its just a school boy’s joke – “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. Okay, first of all, low blow. Atwood gives Offred this hope of some deeper meaning, which she lives by until the moment she discovers it’s simply a joke.

But in order to do this, Offred asks to initially write the phrase down. After being deprived of the ability to speak freely, read or write, this is played out as a rather significant moment. It is here, that she fully understands the power of the written word, realising that, “Pen Is Envy”. Which looks absolutely nothing like penis envy, right Atwood? How subtle.

Penis envy is a psychosexual stage theorised by Sigmund Freud (the founding father of all zany shit) regarding the development of young females. This is the resulting anxiety of the realisation they do not have a penis. Yep, weird. The gist of it is that females become jealous of masculine features that are associated with power, domination and status, leading us straight back to the core of this issue – the patriarchy. Despite some women possessing more power than men, such as the Serena over Nick, Gilead is ultimately orchestrated by [TRIGGER WARNING FOR ALL FEMINIST READERS] male supremacy. Women can only marry into power, which men have attained by climbing the ranks. It presents males and the essence of masculinity as one of dominance, and therefore deserving of the reign they hold over the Gileadian society. Atwood places us in an interesting position, where we acknowledge Offred’s desire for power to improve her diminished social status; however, I naturally frown upon this whack-job’s theory that this suggests a craving to be male.

Now that the obligatory phallic reference is over, we can move on.

#OnlyLitKidsWillUnderstand

 

  1. Adam and Leave.

Ahh yes, religion. A faith in deities which has led to endless bloodshed throughout history and seems to bring destruction wherever it ventures. Offred’s new life is no different. Atwood creates a society where the Old Testament reigns, and with it, its archaic and misogynistic values. Margaret Atwood demonstrates the dangers that come with legally reinforcing religious extremism. Again, the patriarchy is all up in this business – is anyone even surprised? JC6

The dystopian trademark of theocracy and its purpose can be surmised by the concept that a woman’s role in life is to bear children and serve a male. This is featured in the epigraphs and repeatedly throughout the book, reinforcing its validity as a social norm. After being unable to conceive, the biblical Rachel says to Jacob, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees”. Okay someone get my girl Bilhah the heck outta there.

During the “Women’s Prayvaganza” in chapter 34, a Commander begins his speech to open the event. Whilst, young women are blindly married off to men, he states, “let the woman learn in silence with all subjection”, because after all, “Adam was first formed, then Eve”. Seems legit. In Gilead, legislation is designed to place men in positions of power and dictate citizens lives. Atwood presents its role as tyrannical and oppressive, acting as the architect in a fearful society. The ability to force “silence” upon a person demonstrates true power, yet not one worth admiration. A population of mind-numbingly repressed females is the direct consequence of removal of speech and expression of thought, especially when raised in this environment. But if you ask me, what’s the point of a growing population if all the citizens are the same? By drawing the parallel of Adam and Eve, it links these ideals back to religion, and how it is used to legitimise its subjugation of women. This reminds us of the power that religion holds in Gilead, and how its puritan values control its citizens through the mechanisms of fear and loss of freedom. Old testament-inspired fanaticism and fundamentalism provides a direct pathway to a society filled with backward ideology and stunted progression.

This age-old gendered prejudice is cemented in the premise that essentially men are the superior being, and I mean who couldn’t argue with that logic? After all, both God and his son (a white male named Jesus who was left to die on a crucifix) are males, so why wouldn’t they be better? JC7

(P.S. check out this link about Jesus to see why he would be a she: https://youtu.be/VknatF-Ddtw )

#FightForEqualRibs

 

To end this blogpost, I wish to leave you all with the reminder that no one is inherently good or bad, no matter how evil they, *cough* Atwood *cough*, may seem. Serena Joy and her fellow wives, whilst malicious and spiteful, have reason for their jealousy toward the handmaids. The Commander, a curious mixture of ignorance and intellect. Offred, the protagonist we so often sympathise with, just as flawed an individual as any other character in the novel. So, in the immortal words of the infinitely bad-ass, Moira, “everybody shits”.

 

by J.C.

 

but if the GIFs don’t work you can blame Barton.

 

What Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ can teach you about the human experience

“To me the human experience does involve a great deal of anguish. It’s joyful, but it’s bittersweet. I just think that’s life”- Amy Grant.

The human experience is defined as a term that incorporates all the realities of human life including the mental, physical and emotional characteristics. All elements of an individual’s life no matter how significant build up to form the human experience, for example birth, aging, fear or joy. When reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ it demonstrates the full context of the human experience through not only the positive interactions but through the vast number of negative elements of the protagonist Offred’s life. But it’s through these negative interactions that a better lesson can be learnt and a greater individual mental and physical experience can be formed.

 

Summary

Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is an epistolary novel written from the protagonist Offred. She finds herself in the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States of America, due to critically low reproduction rates. Offred serves as a Handmaid, whose sole purpose is to bear children for choice couples who have trouble conceiving. The handmaids are offered limited freedom as they are only permitted to leave the house on shopping trips, cannot sleep with the door shut and all their public moves are watched by the Eyes (Gilead’s secret police force). The novel continually visits flashbacks to the reassemble the events that lead up to the creation of Gilead. Through these flashbacks it is understood that the figureheads responsible for Gilead used the military to murder the president and members of the congress, before taking control of all power. Once they gain power they remove basic human rights away from woman such as owing a job, owning property or holding money. After attempting to cross the border into Canada with her then husband, Luke, Offred is captured and drugged before waking up in the Centre. At the centre the women are removed of their names, their voices, their rights and anything that made them individuals before being brainwashed into the religious ideologies of the new society they live in. As the book progresses some of the rituals that are run within the society are presented such as:

Pravvaganza: This is an event where all women in a district (Wives, Marthas, Econowives and Handmaids) congregate to view weddings for the Wives’ daughters, where young girls get married.

The Ceremony: Is a ritual performed by the Handmaids, a high-ranking male and their wife where the intention is for the Handmaid to conceive a child. More or less is a form of institutionalised rape.

Particicutions: This is a portmanteau on the word’s participation and execution, where the handmaids perform an execution. This is a compulsory event for all handmaids and can also be referred to as the Salvaging.

 

Physical Experience

Within ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the physical experience that the protagonist Offred experiences is quite clearly exhibited through Atwood’s depictive and graphic language use. By creating a highly visual novel Atwood is able to better represent the intense scenes that make up the physical experience Offred struggles with. She leaves the interpretation of these scenes up to that of the audience and allows readers to garner there own understanding of the events but manipulates her language to create a bland and passionless tone which can be interpreted as a distaste towards the events. The main way in which the differing physical experiences is shown is through the two titles that incorporate the sexual encounters that Offred has. One of these is within Chapter 16 of the novel where the idea of the ceremony is properly introduced to the reader. In this chapter Offred explains it as neither making love, copulating or rape as ‘nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for’. Although that is stated to the reader the idea of having forceful sex without being offered any form of saying no other than being forced into the colonies to die is classed as institutionalised rape. An author who discussed this issue of consent was Susan Estrich who released a book called,  ‘Sex and Power’ in 2000 talking about rape cases during the 1980s, which was around the same time that ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was written, deliberating over the definition of force and the line between consensual and non-consensual sex and how this wasn’t clear under the law and made for difficulties in rape cases. She goes on to explain that men wanted to haveJW1 consensual sex with a woman but somehow got interpreted as rape. This didn’t happen as a completely unknown but rather the male blurring the lines by remaining ignorant to the woman’s ability to say no as well as not listening to her instructions. This was linked back to how a woman’s voice was not trusted in a court of law because there was a belief that they would manipulate a situation and get an innocent man sent to jail. This social construction was obviously very flawed in the sense that a man could have sex with any woman and there was a very miniscule chance that he would be jailed for it. This removed all sexual autonomy from a woman and also a woman’s power to refuse a man. The time period this book discusses coincides with that of ‘The Handmaids Tale’ allowing Atwood to publish her thoughts on these issues in a more disguised manner. This helps to teach the readers about the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex.  Through this readers understand that chapter 16 is referring to rape due to the lack of sexual autonomy and how the negative language and the lack of engagement by Offred is demonstrative of a negative physical experience. Through the quotation, “Maybe I’m crazy and this is some new kind of therapy. I wish it were true; then I could get better and this would go away”, we as readers realise the truth of the situation Offred is living, how she doesn’t want to be there and how through a lack of love this is an emotionless torture. This whole negative experience is opposed in chapter 40 where Serena Joy arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick in the hope of conceiving a child. In this chapter Offred tells two different accounts of the events, the first of passion and the second more of uncertainty and awkwardness. Although readers can’t be certain of what happened it is clear that in this scene Offred takes more pride in this experience and is fully consensual to it. The main way that the scene distinguishes itself from the other is through the act of Nick kissing Offred as this is perceived as a sense of emotion and love in a sense. This chapter is a better reflection of how a positive physical experience is supposed to occur. By contrasting these two chapters it is evident that one identifies a negative physical experience for the protagonist and the other a more positive experience. Through these the readers learn the way in which a negative physical experience can lead to a more demonstrative show of positivity when experiencing a positive physical experience. It helps to further educate the readers on the way that rape can affect a person as well as the way that the person can feel trapped and how the line between consensual and non-consensual sex can be very limited at times. This novel demonstrates to the reader how a build-up of negative physical experiences can lead to a greater sense of enjoyment during a positive one.

 

Mental Experience

The mental experience alludes to the facet of intellect and consciousness experienced as a combination of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination. It takes into account all of an individual’s unconscious cognitive processes. Over the course of the novel the mental experience that Offred deals with is easy enough to comprehend as it is written in an epistolary format, which is where the novel is narrated through a series of document or in this case a series of tapes. Through this format we experience all of Offred’s unconscious thoughts, desires and emotions which help the reader to pick up a better understanding of her mental experience and how she progresses throughout the novel based on the different interactions and events that she is faced with. One of the toughest mental experiences that Offred goes through is the entire wiping of her previous life including her name. Now the relevance of not including her name is quite important in the context of the book as a name is something that characterises a person more than in a sense of individual identity but its one of the few things in the world that translates universally, even without the ability to properly communicate to an individual sharing your names makes communicating 10x easier. This idea that a name means a substantial amount to an individual is shown in the well-known play ‘The Crucible’ through the character of John Proctor when he states, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”. This represents that no matter what you take away from someone as long as their name remains there is still meaning to their life as it is their legacy and is the only way people remember an individual. Noting all that with Atwood removing the original name of Offred she doesn’t allow the reader to resonate on a more personal level with Offred as a character. This means that the emotional response that the reader gives to Offred’s emotional trauma is less of a personal ‘I feel bad for you’ and more of a moral response where no one should have to live in a society like that. Through the removal of her name Atwood immediately creates a negative mental experience as she is wiping away the majority of the what consisted of Offred as a person. Then as the novel progresses the positive experiences that Offred receives when she goes back through unconscious memories points to how that sense of identity gives her something to hold onto and restore a sort of meaning to her life. The idea that Offred’s mental state inclines and dips based off her unconscious memories is further identified when she states, “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”. This again implies that mental experience within the confides of Gilead is traumatic in a sense and doesn’t fill her with any form of emotion rather than negative ones. In this quotation we understand her will to believe she’s in a dream and none of it is real and that she’ll be able to go back to her old, happy life which we all know she can’t. This is another example of where she uses that past positive mental experience to negate the effect of the current negative ones she’s facing. This helps to educate the reader on the ways in which using past positive mental experiences can help you to get through the negative mental experiences that an individual may be struggling with. It demonstrates a simple and convenient way to deal with unfortunate situations and shows how one of the best ways to deal with a negative mental experience is to use prior positive mental experiences to help improve your current mental predicaments.

 

How the 2 link together

Both the mental and physical experience work together to make up the preface that is the human experience. By forming theses both together to create the singular experience which ebbs and flows purely based off a negative or positive experience. In that sense the idea that as someone’s mental health starts to decline their physical health will experience the same negative effects. While as someone’s mental health increases their physical health will also benefit. This is represented within Atwood’s novel as when Offred experiences that negative physical experience then her mental experience becomes more negative. Then as she would find a positive mental experience to hold onto then the physical experience which she endured wasn’t as bad overall. This novel helps to embody the ideology that as an individual has a positive mental experience then this will translate straight into a positive physical experience, and vice versa in the sense that positive physical experiences also cause an outlasting effect where the person’s mental experience will be enhanced.

 

 

Within Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the human experience is something that is relevant and is demonstrated in every scene or chapter. As the human experience integrates every detail and all the realities in a person’s life Atwood has made it easy to observe the human experience that the protagonist Offred goes through as she has written it in an epistolary form. The novel teaches to the reader’s how a build-up of negative physical experiences can lead to a better sense of fulfilment during a positive experience, and how one of the better ways to cope with negative mental experiences is to motivate yourself using prior positive mental experiences. It also furthers the readers education of how each intricate detail that forms the sole human experience are all linked and correlated to each in other in some way. Overall Atwood’s novel is able to provide a high level of teaching to it’s readers and helps to educate them on the human experience.

btw

Categories of the Population (Gilead)

Marthas:  A class of women who serve as domestic servants to wealthy/ high-ranking families

Econowives: Are a class of women whom are the wives of the poor or low-ranking men.

Wives: Are among the highest-ranking women in Gilead and are married to high ranking men. The role is regarded as a high honour and only given to women considered ‘pure’ and ‘moral’.

Aunts: A class of women responsible for overseeing the training and indoctrination of handmaids, as well as overseeing births and presiding over women’s executions.

Handmaids: Are a class of fertile women who are tasked with conceiving children. They are assigned to a family if the wife is incapable of reproducing.

Unwomen: Are a class of women in Gilead. They are forced to live out their days in the colonies, as they no longer are considered important to society.

Jezebels: A class of women who refuse to follow Gilead’s teachings are offered a chance to serve out their lives as ex workers.

Commanders: Are a class of men in Gilead. They are the highest-ranking member and serve as politicians and law makers.

Guardians: Are a class of men in Gilead. They serve as peacekeepers in the cities, foot soldiers in the army and servants to Commanders.

Angels: Are a class of men in Gilead. Serve in the army and are second only to commanders.

 

 

 

J.W

 

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study of Manipulation and Misogyny

EL1Imagine a world, post-apocalyptic, dystopian and a mono-theocratic dictatorship run by right wing religious fanatics who have overthrown the government and started a civil war between what left of the United States and themselves, the old United States, now called Gilead. The society is patriarchal and based on biblical principles, with the intent to oppress women into the ‘traditional gender roles assigned by god’. They have taken away their privileges and freedom, with women no longer allowed to be educated, have right of free speech, hold employment, money or property.

And yet despite this oppression this society relies upon women to succeed. Without them they would have no food prepared on the table, no clothes washed, no clean house, but most importantly no future. Whether that be to conceive or to raise the child, without women there would be no Gilead in the future.

As a result of this women are manipulated into conforming to societies misogyny and disregard for females through fear, propaganda and in some cases force. This causes an appeal to the sense of pathos of the reader evoking a sympathetic response. The novel in turn makes a social comment on gender equality and the mistreatment of women allowing for Atwood’s novel to become, although controversial, critically acclaimed and make her a household name.

Here is how Margaret Atwood uses Manipulation and oppression of women in her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to create a misogynist and feminist theme and become a shorthand for repressive regimes against women.

**For future reference the Angels are like the army, they are the guards considered heroes within the society and the Aunts are the class of women tasked with the teaching and indoctrination of the Handmaids. Also The Sons of Jacob are the leaders or the dictators of Gilead.

MISOGYNY:

“The words and works of God is quite clear, that women are either wives of prostitutes”

  • MARTIN LUTHER

According to the oxford dictionary, misogyny is defined as, dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. Included in this is any action upon which a person of the female sex gets negative or unfair treatment for little to no reason despite their gender. Over the course of human history this has been a common occurrence with ‘traditional’ gender values being patriarchal and male dominant while the women must be at home doing all the work around the house. Our religions also hold this attitude and value with the bible being highly misogynistic and sexist, “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man: she is to be silent.” (Timothy 2:12) She must, “submit yourself unto your own husband, as it is fit in the lord” (Colossians 3:18), and, “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (Corinthians 11:3-10). As can be shown throughout the bible, these sorts of passages state that women are the property of men, are listed with the slaves and work animals, and hold little to no power throughout the text implying they are objects and inferior.

This is alluded to within the quote above from German professor Martin Luther that states “The words and works of God is quite clear, that women are either wives of prostitutes´, emphasising the misogyny within modern and traditional religious systems

Now if we consider that Gilead, the society created in The Handmaid’s Tale, is based off religious principles and ideologies, we can begin to piece together the way that women are going to be treated or thought about within the setting.

Gilead follows these religious principles, especially Martin Luther’s comments, as women are inferior and are forced into roles of wives, the wives of the powerful men, Marthas, the women that do the jobs of traditional wives, and Handmaids, who are the prostitutes in this situation, their role is to procreate with the man that ‘owns’ them and bear them children for the wives to raise. The women have no power, money or possessions and almost no other alternative then to conform to the job they have been given.

Three of the main examples of misogyny in The Handmaid’s Tale is the role of the Handmaids, the lack of choice, and the possessive objectification toward the Handmaids and Marthas:

THE ROLE OF THE HANDMAIDS:

Due to Gilead’s takeover of the area formally known as the United States and the civil war that ensued, there has become areas called the colonies that have high amounts of nuclear radiation. This nuclear radiation, also possibly caused by nuclear plant meltdowns, have caused mass infertility among the women in the Republic of Gilead, meaning a large portion of the population is unable to procreate successfully.

This is where Handmaids come in.

Their main role, once assigned to a married couple or a household, in the case of Offred it’s the Commander Fred and Serena Joy, is to have scheduled sexual intercourse in a process they call, ‘the ceremony’, in the hopes they become pregnant and provide the household with a child. This is because the Handmaids are the only ones in Gilead who are fertile and have the ability to bear children. Minus this the Handmaids are confined to their rooms except for times where they can go out to do the houses shopping or go to sanctioned events and have little to no freedom.

This ceremony happens on a regular basis and heavily against the will of the handmaid, but it is their job and have no choice. Due to the unwillingness of the Handmaids, the ceremony basically becomes institutionalised rape, where it becomes normal within the society for this to happen. This is a major example of misogyny within the novel as the women aren’t consenting or allowing this to happen, they are being forced into the role of the handmaid and into the situation with no way to avoid it and they do not enjoy it. Page 104-5, “What he is f***ing is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.” implies that due to her unwillingness and lack of choice it is like she isn’t there, like the commander is just doing it and she has no control or option to stop. Page 105 also states, “This is not recreation, even for the commander. This is serious business. The commander, too, is doing his duty”, showing that the society has become numb to the gravity and misogyny of the ceremony and it has become just a normality or a chore that has to be completed.

The acceptance and nonchalance of the ceremony by the society highlights the inequality and misogyny that is developed within The Handmaid’s Tale which creates a feminist comment challenging repressive regimes against women in society.

LACK OF CHOICE:

A couple of paragraphs ago I said in reference to the Handmaids, ‘but it is their job and have no choice’. This, in a way, is actually incorrect as they do have a second choice besides being a handmaid and that choice is…

…Death…

Not exactly an appealing option but their second choice, whether they openly disobey a section of the society, or whether they attempt to escape, is death, by execution or by radiation poisoning in the colonies respectively.

This means most Handmaids will ‘choose’ to stay in their job and put up with the punishment and the ceremony despite there not really being a second choice. Offred demonstrates this on page 105, “Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose”, emphasising the lack of choice, but the admittance that there is another option, despite its unpleasantry. As well as this, on page 17-18, “I know why there is no glass, in front of the waterproof picture of the blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other types of escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge”, Offred is saying that the people who run the society are worried about the Handmaids committing suicide, so they take away that option and that choice.

Offred’s decision to choose institutionalised rape over death with the additional worry that the Handmaids will commit suicide rather than continue their role highlights the inequality and misogyny within the society of Gilead and makes the reader empathise with Offred and the other Handmaids causing a social comment challenging the sexism and prejudice within our society.

POSSESSIVE OBJECTIFICATION:

Throughout the novel the protagonist is referred to by the name Offred. This is not her actual name, and despite the fact it is said at the start on page 14, “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June”, we never actually find out which name is hers. This is because all the Handmaids get knew names when they join a household dependent on the name of the husband. The new name consists of ‘Of’ then the name of the husband to show that they are the property of the Handmaids. Offred, our protagonist, and Ofglen, our protagonist’s friend, are examples of this occurrence.

By changing the name of the women to represent the male they ‘serve’, Atwood creates a sense of ownership toward the men in terms of the Handmaids. This also dehumanises and denies the Handmaids a sense of individuality and uniqueness as they have no human name, just a label stating who they belong to. Offred states this on page 94, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it is forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” Offred is attempting to distance herself from her new name, saying the name is not her identity, and that using her old name is important, so she feels like herself again.

The changing of the names causes the males to hold ownership against the Handmaids, taking any sense of individuality, uniqueness and human qualities away from the women turning them into objects meant for use by the male, rather than for human actions. This highlights misogyny within the society as the women are reduced to objects and ‘owned’ by the men creating a comment on the unfair treatment of women and the inferiority implied encouraging an empathetic response from the audience and challenging the traditional gender roles and oppression of women. isTHisTHisthusighp-dogjsodighsoidghisdlghhhhhh

 

MANIPULATION:

“Belief can be manipulated, only knowledge is dangerous”

  • FRANK HERBERT

Due to human greed, to get someone to do something for you, that person needs to get a positive outcome. Whether that be bribery, or inclusion, physical or emotional positive feelings most of the time something good needs to happen in return.

So how did the people in control of Gilead manage to get Handmaids to agree to a life of institutionalised rape, no freedom and no opportunity?

They manipulated them.

According to Psychology Today, ‘Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits and/or privileges at the victim’s expense.’ This is potent in The Handmaid’s Tale as the leaders of Gilead need to use mental distortion, Rachel and Leah, emotional exploitation, lack of choice or other options for life, and constant control to keep people in line, spies and observation to make sure the Handmaids don’t try to escape.

All the manipulation must be for a reason though and that reason is control and maintaining power. Humans want to have power, they want to have control over someone else, and they want this control to be long term. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale it is the right-wing religious fanatics, The Sons of Jacob, that created the premise for Gilead and overthrew the government to put this premise into action. Once in power, these people want to maintain that position, to do this they need to minimise rebellion or large-scale disagreement from a group within the society. Due to the, in my eyes in modern times with atheist views, highly controversial ideologies proposed within the society of Gilead, the people in power can expect a rebellion from the oppressed power, to and to overcome this they manipulate the minority to confirm their position of power.

The three main forms of manipulation used by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale include: Indoctrination and punishment, through the Rachel and Leah Centre, Lack of choice or ability, and Observation and control. These together create a sense of inferiority towards women, emphasising the misogyny and inequality in the society, causing readers to empathise with the protagonist and her peers, contributing to a social comment challenging repressive regimes and misogyny in society.

It is worth stating that all the misogyny points above count towards manipulation as well because for these to occur some sort of manipulation or control must occur as well.

INDOCTRINATION AND PUNISHMENT:

Indoctrination is defined as the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. This is exactly the role of the ‘Rachel and Leah Centre’, otherwise known as the ‘red centre’, within The Handmaid’s Tale as they must teach the women becoming Handmaids the ideologies of the new Gilead system, which in this case is basically religious indoctrination, to reduce the chance of rebellion and keep the order.

Within the centre Handmaids are under strict surveillance, with an aunt even escorting them when going to the toilet and are not permitted to leave unless assigned to a commander. The centre is run by Aunts, who teach the religious ideologies of the Gilead system. This is where the quote from Frank Herbert shown above comes in, “Belief can be manipulated, only knowledge is dangerous”, which states that one’s belief can be changed and manipulated to assist another at the expense of the manipulated but if that person knows the truth and the contrary to the common belief they have power to overthrow or rebel. This is the case with red centre as they know the women will think the religious ideologies and treatment of the gender is wrong and that knowledge is dangerous to the leaders of Gilead so to counter this the manipulate their beliefs to keep them in line and avoid rebellious conflict.

If disobedient the Aunts use force through the, “cattle prods”, that they are supplied as weapons. This is the fear manipulation, where the manipulators, the Aunts, use punishment, public displays of physical abuse, to scare and control the Handmaids forcing them to obey.

The mental manipulation comes through the indoctrination, when teaching the ideologies of Gilead, the Handmaids are forced to learn and abide by these set of rules, brainwashing them into believing it to be true so they do not rebel.

Some people believe what is fed to them and some people do not, for example Offred is always very reluctant to complete the orders given to her but she does them anyway, this comes through the fear side of the manipulation, where she knows she doesn’t have the power while in the centre and will be overcome with a tirade of physical abuse if she does not obey. This causes her to be stuck in the situation where she can rebel and fight but by doing so subject herself to physical abuse and possible death highlighting the manipulation and control the people in control have.

This manipulation and oppression of women for the benefit of the Sons of Jacob and the men in the society emphasises the misogyny within the text. The thought that they are being forced into new values and attitudes with the fear of being physically abused also encourages sympathy from the reader, creating a social comment challenging the oppression and treatment of women in society.

LACK OF CHOICE OR ABILITIES:

As stated earlier, most of the ideas within the manipulation section link to the ideas in the misogyny section and this one is no exception. I talked in the misogyny section about the Handmaids having a lack of choice as their only options are to be a handmaid, die of execution due to rebellion or die of radiation poisoning in the colonies post escaping. This is also a type of manipulation as they use the lack of choice to keep Handmaids in the job and make them feel happy as they chose life, although not a very fulfilling one, over death. Another idea within the misogyny section was that the houses of the commanders are created with rooms and areas that are essentially suicide proof. This is another form of manipulation as they are taking away the option of suicide encouraging the Handmaids to stay in the job and not rebel against the system.

Apart from these there are also other forms of manipulation through control of abilities and actions such as reading and writing, sports, being active, and hobbies. On page 49, “Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden”, Offred tells us that this epistolary reciting of the events of her life are thoughts in her head or a recording rather than writing as writing is forbidden showing an example of the manipulation and control by the leaders of Gilead. Offred’s astonishment at a simple game of scrabble, “” I’d like you to play scrabble with me.” … Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous … It’s as if he’s offered me drugs” (Page 148-149), emphasises the control and lack of activities available to the Handmaids highlighting the manipulation.

This manipulation, for the gain of the leaders of Gilead as to avoid rebellion and dissent, highlights the negative treatment of the Handmaids causing and sympathetic response from the reader and adding to the challenge of societies misogyny and treatment of women.

OBSERVATION AND CONTROL:

As stated above, all manipulation occurs for a reason and in this case, it is to maintain power and make sure there is no large-scale rebellion or disagreement about society that could put that power in jeopardy. The way the people in control do this, minus the psychological and physiological manipulation, is through observation and constant maintenance.

The fact that the Handmaids aren’t allowed to leave the house, and when they do it is for sanctioned events, with the supervision of an armed guard emphasises the constant observation. The Handmaids aren’t allowed to write, read, and in most cases socialise with others in the house or anyone from the outside world. The only other person outside they interact with is the partner handmaid that is walked with to shopping and prescribed events, in the case of Offred this is Ofglen. Even this interaction is seemed to be unreliable, “It occurs to me she may be a spy, a plant, set to trap me”, as Offred states on page 178 when she remarks that Ofglen may be a spy sent to entice her, trap her into saying something anti-Gilead which will be counted as treason so Offred is careful to confide in her to be careful.

If Offred has to be worried that every person that is sent to spend time with her is sent to spy on her and observe her as to what she thinks and feels she can’t fully trust anyone. This causes high anxiety and makes Offred be very careful about what she says to anyone. The constant worrying and, metaphorically, ‘looking over her shoulder’ highlights the negative treatment and manipulation of women within the society causing an appeal to the readers sense of pathos toward Offred and the other women in the society.

As for constant maintenance, once Handmaids start working at a household, the Aunts can’t continue to educate, and indoctrinate the religious ideologies into, the Handmaids. As an alternative, the Handmaids have to attend a Women’s Salvaging, a women only event where the Aunts run public executions of people that went against the societal ideals or failed in completing their tasks. As well as this are particicutions, where they make the Handmaids carry out a public execution of their own on a man who has, ‘done women wrong’, or in the case of chapter 43, “A rapist”. As it turns out he is not a rapist at all and just, “A political”. These services and formalities are carried out to show the Handmaids what happens when you rebel against the system or don’t complete your task, another method of fear manipulation with the intention of keeping the Handmaids in line and reduce the chance of rebellious actions.

These methods of physiological and psychological manipulation cause fear and anxiety within the Handmaids having a negative effect on their wellbeing. The fact they have to go through all of this struggle causes a sympathetic response from the reader and creates a critical comment about the mistreatment of women and misogyny within society.

 

The women within Gilead are manipulated into conforming to societies misogyny and disregard for females through fear, propaganda and in some cases force. This causes an appeal to the sense of pathos of the reader evoking a sympathetic response. The novel in turn makes a social comment on gender equality and the mistreatment of women allowing for Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to become, although controversial, critically acclaimed and make her a household name.

Applause.

Are there any questions?

 

by E.L.

4 Horrific, True Events That Inspired Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopian novels often criticise aspects of our current society by providing a possible future in which that specific aspect is allowed to spiral out of control. Huxley’s Brave New World, Collins’ The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984 are all novels which fall under this genre. Although these all present possible futures with advanced technologies, which also classifies it under the genre of science fiction, which partially neglects the criticisms that the texts hold.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is different though; Atwood herself describes it as a piece of, ‘speculative fiction’. The novel contains no references to any technologies that haven’t been invented, it’s almost as if you could go to bed tonight and wake up in Gilead tomorrow morning. Even today, there are massive debates discussing reproductive rights, with Commander President Trump trying to ban abortion in the united states, claiming that allowing abortion, “weakens the protection of human life”, which is the exact same reason that allowed the leaders of Gilead to justify their treatment of the Handmaid’s. The novels continual relevance gives it power that few other dystopian texts can claim to hold.

 

What many readers don’t realise is that the novel is inspired by real world events. In a 2012 article written for The Guardian Atwood admits that, ‘I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some place or time’. The more astounding thing is that a majority of these events took place in Atwood’s lifetime. This recent historical context adds an aura of hysteria and reality that enforces the dystopian qualities of the novel.

 

The Nuclear Gulag

 

The events of The Handmaids Tale take place after a large scale nuclear disaster. As a consequence, the people who are ‘unfit’ to live in Gilead, whether that be due to age, religious beliefs, or infertility, are forced to work in the colonies cleaning up toxic waste until the die of radiation poisoning. Surely something as sinister as this has never occurred in our recent history. If you give humans enough power and time, they’ll accomplish some truly disturbing things, and the Nuclear Gulags are quite possibly the quintessential example of human cruelty.

 

Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union, commonly known as the Gulag, were forced to mine uranium for the Soviet’s nuclear weapons, most prisoners died within two years of labour and if they refused then guards, “smashed their skulls in with hammers”. During that time they were secretly experimented on in an attempt to learn more about the effects of nuclear weapons. 7 prisoners committed suicide by blowing themselves up, countless others were shot trying to escape, and an estimated 5000 prisoners died of radiation poisoning.

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Remains of a Gulag mining site in the Kodar Mountains – rferl.org

Sound familiar at all?

 

Unlike the other examples, Atwood herself hasn’t confirmed this link, however, even if she didn’t know of it, it is one that we, as readers, can make ourselves. After all, a readers interpretation of a text is entirely based on their context. I believe Atwood draws from this event in her creation of the colonies, which makes the setting appear as more of an alternate reality than a fiction.

 

In the novel, people living in the colonies are made to clean the nuclear spills and toxic dumps resulting from the war. The colonies consist mostly of older, infertile women and people who refuse to conform to the new, ‘Gilead-ian’ ways. Even still, the overarching theme of patriarchy holds true, in which there are only, “a quarter men in the colonies”. This means that women are much more likely to be rejected by the new society, and instead of simply executing them (like the men who are hung on the wall), they are sent to work in the colonies to die a slow, painful death from radiation poisoning. Moira describes the cruelness when retelling a story of Offred’s mother working in the colonies, “she might as well be [dead]…you should wish it for her”, which again implies that a simple execution is better than anything the colonies have to offer.

 

Additionally, the suicide allusion occurs inside Gilead itself in the form of the oppressed Handmaid’s. The Handmaid’s are imperative to the survival of Gilead, yet they are placed in submissive, subservient position; so they must be kept around, but they cannot be allowed any power. Offred mentions that despite the Commander’s best attempts at preventing escapes and restricting power, there are always, “other escapes…ones you can open in yourself”, which is of course referring to suicide, which Waterford’s previous Handmaid used to escape a life misery.

 

The relationship between the Gulag miners and Atwood’s depiction of the colonies is more that just a coincidence. It’s that sense of reality, knowing that similar events have happened before, that give the colonies such a threatening quality, and makes the reader question the plausibility of a similar situation occurring today.

 

The People of Hope

 

Founded in New Jersey during 1975, the People of the House Of Prayer Experience (HOPE) are a religious sect that describe themselves as, “charismatic catholics”. It was founded by Robert Gallic with the purpose of actively, “fighting the empire of evil”.

 

All of that information was taken directly from their website. What they don’t tell you is that:

 

  • The leaders, a group of 14 men, claim to be anointed by God and use religious passages to justify their heinous actions
  • Women are subservient, they are not allowed to date and all marriages are arranged
  • Large groups attend public prayer sessions in which they are, quote unquote, brainwashed
  • Important women are known as Handmaidens, who are forced to control the less powerful women

 

So basically, it’s a theocratic cult that manipulates their lesser citizens to enforce the power of their leaders.

 

In her research for the novel, Atwood happened to come across and article about The People of Hope, in which the word Handmaiden is highlighted, this word, or to be more precise it’s modern counterpart Handmaid, originally meant nothing more than a female servant, but today carries connotations of women’s rights and totalitarian patriarchies.

 

All of that began here.

 

Atwood draws inspiration from this story to create the fundamental theocratic beliefs on which Gilead is based upon. Much like the people of Hope, Gilead supplies bibles which have been altered by the powerful to justify their status. Specifically, in Gilead, they quote from the story of Rachel and Jacob from Genesis, in which we are told that Rachel had upset God and in turn was not allowed to have children, which drove her so mad that she ended up dying.

 

That isn’t the true story however. In reality, Rachel and Jacob were madly in love, so much so that Jacob was told he could only marry her if he worked 14 years for her father. Unfortunately, Rachel seemed to be barren, only producing two children (in time when 12 were the norm). Upon her death, Jacob proclaims the importance of love and its ability to transcend death.

 

So how did Gilead get it so terribly wrong?

 

Gilead, like any other cult, uses propaganda to brainwash it’s citizens. In fact, before the story has even begun, Atwood acclimatises us to this way of thinking by quoting Rachel proclaiming, “give me children or else I die”. These quotes are used throughout the book to constantly remind the Handmaid’s of their place.

 

Also present are group weddings and prayer sessions, referred to as “Prayvaganza’s”. In these sessions, Commanders indoctrinate the women through bible verses to justify that they are better off in Gilead, without love or romance or desire. The speaker at the Prayvangza touches on the image of beauty and self belief, and how women go to extreme lengths to impress men. On the other hand, much like the adaptation of the bible stories, the Commanders have neglected the positive aspects and choose to focus on the extreme, negative examples. They use mechanical sounding terms to dehumanise the women’s actions and make the ideas sound as undesirable as possible. The use of this rhetoric describes women who, “pumped their breasts full of silicone”, and, “ had their noses cut off”, which are quite extreme ways of describing simple medical procedures, and is done to make these action seem unpleasant and unnecessary, and as such, justify their actions.

 

Furthermore, the most important thing about Prayvaganza’s are that they are group wedding ceremonies. Men returning from military service are allocated a woman, some as young as fourteen, which gives a whole new definition to the term ‘trophy wife’.

 

While all of these events appear to have been inspired by the People of Hope, I don’t necessarily think that the idea of cults strike much fear into the audience, since they’ve become more of a common idea thanks to popular culture and films. Although, I do think that Atwood draws likenesses from the cult in her creation of Gilead’s fundamental values and attitudes. The shear scale of Gilead’s power and the mass of people who are enslaved to it is what is truely scary as a reader. It opens the question of, how easily could a Government take over really be? Because they made it seem pretty damn easy in the book.

 

Romanian Decree 770 – 1966

 

In 1966, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist group came into power, he noticed that Romanian birth rates had been constantly decreasing. From a marxist perspective, this is really bad, because population growth is needed to fuel the developing economy. To counteract this issue, Ceaușescu made abortions practically impossible to a majority of people. To be specific, to qualify for an abortion you had to either:

 

  • Be over 45
  • Have already borne 4 children
  • Have a serious medical complication
  • Have been impregnated through rape

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Decree 770 resulted in an overload on Romanian orphanages –thewholehealthlife.com

Over the next few years, birthrates doubled, but the rate of increase was slowing down. In response to this the Government made all childless people pay an extra monthly tax, and banned contraception entirely. Romania became much more strict over these years, the issue became priority number one for their secret police, the Securitate, who imprisoned doctors offering abortions and mother who didn’t take an examination every three months.

 

These events get a direct reference in the novel, Professor Pieixoto claims in his speech that Romania, “had anticipated Gilead…by banning all forms and birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage increases to fertility”. This means that Atwood was well aware of these events while writing the novel, and has encourage the reader to consciously compare the events in Romania and Gilead.

 

“The Wall”, is a motif throughout the book, it’s a place where people in Gilead are hung if they don’t agree with their values. In it’s introduction, we see six men wearing white coats, with placards of human foetuses hung around their necks. Offred infers that these men are doctors who specialised in abortion. However, since it’s become illegal, it appears as if the anti-abortion laws are retroactive, which, in law is called ‘ex post facto’ and is illegal in most countries. What this says is that instead of merely outlawing abortions, they’ve gone to extreme lengths to kill anyone capable of performing them, or in marxist terms, they’ve limited the means of production.

Showing us this image doesn’t only establish Gilead’s laws on abortions, it shows the power that they have and the lengths that they’re willing to go to to keep their laws strictly adhered to.

 

Additionally, districts in Gilead hold birthdays, but these aren’t the birthdays you’re thinking of (they were abolished years ago of course), these are celebration for the wives and Handmaid’s who are about to give birth. It’s actually more a reward though, it’s one of the few times the Handmaid’s are able to talk to each other and do things they wouldn’t be allowed otherwise, as shown when they start wrongfully drinking alcohol, Offred remarks, “they’ll turn a blind eye. We too need our orgies”.

 

The reward for the Handmaid in birth is even greater. Normally, they are given three attempts to procreate before being declared an, “unwoman”, and getting sent to the colonies. Once you give birth you are no longer able to be declared barren and are at no risk of being sent away, you are ensured your life. Whether or not that’s a reward is debatable, but what isn’t is that it’s definitely power, and in a world where you’re constantly dehumanised and oppressed, you should, “be thankful for small mercies”.

 

Atwood makes it quite clear that the Handmaid’s are always being watched. Gilead employ their own special forces called, “eyes”, to prevent terrorist actions, unfortunately, what Gilead consider terrorist actions are reading, talking out of line, and the idea of thoughtcrimes from 1984, just to name a few. At the end of the book, Offred’s partner Ofglen is accused conspiracy, to which Offred is told, “she hanged herself…she saw the van coming for her. It was better”. Now, it’s never explained what the punishment for terrorist actions are, but there are very few things that are worse than hanging yourself.

 

Essentially, what Atwood has done is taken the Romanian rules to the extreme. Instead of merely a tax increase for not giving birth, it’s now death. Instead of contraception being banned, it’s been completely abolished. She basically employs a logical device called ‘reductio ad absurdum’, which means reduced to absurdity, to highlight the errors in the reproductive freedoms of both Gilead and Romania.

 

The interesting thing is that the declining population rates were actually found to be due to women entering the workforce, and forcing them to have children actually lowered the rate of economic growth from their projected levels. So maybe the leaders have to get off their high horses every once in a while and view things for what they are, in the words of Professor Malcolm, “life finds a way”.

 

Nazi Prostitution Rings – WWII

 

When I was researching and came across the Nazi’s, I knew I was in for some pretty heavy stuff, but I never expected this.

 

Over the course of the second world war, the German military commanders set up a series of 500 brothels in German-occupied Europe, containing over 34,000 women. Some of these women volunteered to escape the harsh conditions of the labour camps, but most of them were literally kidnapped from the street and forced into prostitution. It was suggested that all young soldiers should visit weekly to prevent, “sexual excesses”.

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Women leaving Auschwitz to work in Brothels – dailymail.co.uk

As much as I hate to say this, as far as Nazi Germany goes, the women in brothels were treated somewhat nicely. The prostitutes received more food and water than others, and they only had to work two hours at night. They were given frequent medical examinations and ensured that the soldier weren’t carrying STI’s beforehand.

 

This immediately makes me think of Jezebel’s, a secret brothel in Gilead for Commanders and Officers, named after a Queen of Israel from the bible, Jezebel, who has become an archetype of the ‘wicked woman’ figure. In there we are reunited with Moira, who is employed as a prostitute, and describes that, just like in WWII, “the foods not bad, and there’s drinks and drugs…and we only work nights”. Funnily enough, Jezebel’s is mostly populated by commanders, who are breaking the very laws that they enforce on everyone else. When Offred confronts her Commander about this he replies, “ everyone’s human after all…you can’t cheat nature”, a really vague, kind of nothing answer, which implies that he doesn’t have any reason other than he knows the rules are bad and is happy enforcing them on everyone else.

 

There was this one line from an article that really grabbed my attention though, it was a quote from one of the German prostitutes, who said, “sometimes the men just wanted to talk”. This was really interesting because the thought process of the soldiers is almost identical to that of the Offred’s Commander, who specially invites her up to his to, “play a game of scrabble”, which is an act punishable by death in Gilead.

 

In a dictatorship based on forced surrogacy and prostitution, any powerful man could really have as much sex as he wants, but it’s something more that. The commander wants compassion, he wants praise, he wants to feel loved. He asks Offred to, “kiss me…as if you mean it”, as kissing is a thing that no one is allowed to do anymore. What links these two dictatorships together is their negligence of human behaviour, they think that humans act like any other animal, that they’re driven by food and sex, but they’re not. Human are driven by understanding and by fitting in, which is exactly what both Jezebel’s and the German brothels allow, a place where all men fit in.

 

There you go, some truly terrifying events that inspired Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. You’re probably hoping for some uplifting ending to this, about how humanity braves adversity and how things are always get better, but researching this really just made me realise the terror that people are capable of.

 

Just like Offred, I’d like to be able to tell you a story of heroics, of good triumphing, and wrong-doers being punished, but the truth is that life isn’t kind of story. It’s a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation and deception, all those things that humans hold close to their hearts.

 

Atwood is currently in the process of finishing The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and she had some interesting things to say about it’s conception:

 

“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in”.

 

by C.S.

 

 

 

 

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study of Manipulation and Misogyny

Gender equality, patriarchy, repression, liberalism. These days you probably hear so much about such topics that they become very easy to ignore. It might make you think of those annoying social justice warriors or radical feminists who have, arguably, made these issues harder to debate because of their haughty, overconfident virtue signalling and seemingly deliberate provocation. Don’t worry, logical discussion of these ideas can still be had, and it is still important to do so, so that we don’t forget what they mean and how they can, and have, affected our culture over the years.

Literature is one of the best mediums for this, as it lets us understand how issues were considered and confronted in the past, also giving us the chance to acknowledge the progress of the society we live in today, and how we must act in order to prevent movement in the wrong direction. The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, gives example of this, often interpreted as a criticism of patriarchal values and politics of the time. As one of Atwood’s most influential and thought-provoking works, it provides insight on manipulation and oppression of totalitarian government, and the issue of misogyny in our culture.

Manipulation

The Handmaid’s Tale presents us with the Republic of Gilead – a theocracy run by the upper class, consisting of a social hierarchy based on function and rank. The citizens are given their roles without choice, and in order to survive, are required to fill these roles without resistance or complaint. Set post-nuclear disaster, fertile women are rare in Gilead, and those who are able to bear children are forced to do so and labelled as Handmaids. The protagonist, Offred, is one of these, her sole purpose in life determined by her ability to breed.

The Handmaids are taught how they should behave by “Aunts,” who indoctrinate them with Gileadean attitudes towards sex and gender, which are highly influenced by religious input. When Offred’s close friend, Moira, escapes the Red Center where this takes place, she describes her as, “an elevator with open sides,” placing her to symbolise liberty and demonstrating how the others had become accustomed to living without it. The Handmaids had become used to their new lives, already “losing the taste for freedom,” and feeling safer in simply conforming to the rules of the Gilead. They are forced into this position not only because of fear of punishment, but also because they know their purpose within the society better than what may await them outside of it, and are willing to sacrifice dignity and independence for the former.

Fear and punishment are other factors that controls the lives in Gilead. People who have spoken out against, or broken the rules of, the establishment, even if they had done so before it became law, were executed at “Salvagings,” and hung on the wall to be seen by everyone else. They are placed with bags over their heads and placards around their necks with symbols to show why they have been executed. On one occasion, Offred sees six dead bodies hung from the wall with a “drawing of a human foetus,” implying that they had been killed because they were doctors, and had practiced abortions before it had become illegal. The Gilead punishes this, meaning to reinforce the notion that any actions or thought deviating from what they had permitted or encouraged would be punished, allowing them to control the citizens and making them conform to Gileadean ideologies and practices.

These examples show how the ruling class were able to manipulate and control others, moulding them into their roles to perform their necessary functions for the society and keeping it from being criticised or fought against. They are given little and stripped of many freedoms, their best choice being to act out their duties and continue on without complaint. These elements of Gilead hold many parallels with totalitarian regimes of the past, such as that of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, as well as that of today’s North Korea, showing widespread government restriction and enforcement. The Handmaid’s Tale shows how tyranny exists across all levels of a totalitarian state, with fear and submission of the people manipulated by and contributing to the ruling government’s power.

Misogyny

The novel is often read with feminist views, focusing on the objectification and oppression of women shown throughout the story. This can be linked to ideas of gender inequality and female repression that are often discussed today, promoting women’s rights and criticising establishments of power that favour men.

The Handmaid’s lose their old identities, their names replaced with their Commander’s name preceded by “Of,” and are forced to bear children for them. Offred describes herself as a, “two-legged womb,” showing the possessive objectification of Handmaid’s, seen simply as means for reproduction, detaching them from their individuality. They have no identity, and are prevented from being seen as anything else by any of the men in Gilead. When Offred is examined by a doctor, a sheet is suspended from the ceiling, “so the doctor will never see [her] face.” Her body and identity are divided, she is merely a vessel for breeding, stripped of any dialectical value. The Handmaid’s uniforms, red gowns and “wings” to cover their faces, add to this idea, also showing how Gileadean beliefs inhibit their freedom.

Not just the Handmaids, but other women in Gilead are also defined by their purpose within the society, symbolised by the colour of the clothes they wear. Handmaids wear red, Marthas wear green, and Wives wear blue. A Martha’s main job is to cook for the rest of the household, and like Handmaids, they abide by the rules and have limited power. Wives of the commanders have a lot more power than Handmaids and Marthas, though not as much as the Commanders, who take their place as “the head of the household,” with more power and freedom than any of the women. This social hierarchy not only demonstrates a male-female power imbalance, but also shows how separated women are, despite collectively being at a disadvantage. Throughout the novel, we see a lot of animosity towards Offred from Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, particularly during the religious “ceremony” in which Offred is made to have sex with the Commander while Serena holds her raised hands. At the end of it, Offred asks “Which of [them] has it worse,” showing that Gileadean practices and rules were painful for all women, but also that they prevented union between them. The women could not automatically feel loyalty or connection for one another, and the positions they were put in added to the hostility and aversion towards eachother. This part of the novel can be related to identity politics and collectivism, pointing out the flaws of such ideas and showing that expecting a group to unify against their oppressors is much easier said than done.

In a 2017 interview Atwood stated that while writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she made sure not to include anything that “human beings had not already done.” She drew from real life, and although the novel was published over 30 years ago, present-day connections can still be made to the oppressions shown in Gilead. Not so much in our lives, as liberal democracies of today, such as Australia and America, are probably right now the furthest away from this fictional dystopia. Gilead is run as a theocratic totalitarian government in which religious institution is the source of rule and law, which in this case is the Bible. This can be related to the Islamic States, in which the Quran is the central fundamental text of their religion, and Sharia law regulates both public and private behaviour. Many women in these parts of the world, such as Pakistan or Iran, are required to wear a hijab, with similarity to the wings and gowns worn by the Handmaid’s in the novel. They are restricted in their travel, work, and study, and they cannot get custody of their children if they are divorced, they must surrender their children to their father or his family, again resembling the attitudes present in the fictional Gilead. By forming these connections, The Handmaid’s Tale presents us with the atrocities of real life, warning us of the dangers of patriarchy and theocracy taken to the extreme.

Conclusion

A society that takes away freedom is one destined to fail. The Handmaids’ Tale shows us the harmful effects of manipulation and misogyny in a theocratic totalitarian state, presented by the fictional Republic of Gilead. And although it isn’t real, the actions and beliefs acted out in it share the oppressive nature of many real life establishments of both the past and present. By exploring these ideas and issues, we are able to recognize the freedoms and rights that we are granted in our lives, as well as identifying the prevalence of these problems in other societies and furthering our knowledge on them.

C.R.

3 Similarities Between Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nazi Germany

Everyone’s heard the old saying, “history repeats itself”, but have you ever really put much thought into it? Like reallyyy deep thought? Because it’s clear that Margaret Atwood has. She plays on this saying throughout the entirety of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, claiming that “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life”. It is clear that this is true when examining the novel side by side with the events that occurred in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Differing from most other dystopian texts such as 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in more of an alternate present, rather than a distant future. The lack of advanced technology transforms the book into more of a ‘speculative fiction’, as opposed to a ‘science fiction’, making it all the more terrifying. The knowledge that this world could actually exist at some point forces the audience to have a long, hard think about where humanity will be heading if repeats of horrific events from the past occur. To get your long, hard thinking started, here are 3 aspects in which The Handmaid’s Tale is extremely similar to Nazi Germany.

How the Society Came to Be

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale gets you wondering about how a society like that comes to be. What spiral of events could possibly lead to a something as terrifying as Gilead? Like, surely people would’ve tried to put a stop to this at the first signs of it happening. Wouldn’t there have been uprisings? Rebellions? Protests? People wouldn’t just stand by and watch their rights be stripped away.

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Perhaps if the change occurred so quickly that they didn’t have time to question it, or possibly even realise what was going on right before their eyes, a new way of life would be implemented before they could do anything about it. But how can the government make a change in such a short amount of time, I hear you asking? Well, all you need is a terrorist attack and basically all hell breaks loose. Heaps of totalitarian and fascist societies have actually begun this way, using the chaos of a bombing or a shooting to take control over the people and instate and enforce ridiculous laws that would not have passed during times of peace. This is exactly what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale. Extreme laws were put in place quickly and women’s rights were eroded before their very eyes after a terrorist attack shook the nation. In one of her many flashbacks, Offred explains to the reader that everything begun “when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress”. The attack threw the country into a state of emergency in which the government suspended the Constitution. Atwood repeatedly chooses to use vague words in phrases such as, “they blamed it on the Islamic fanatics”, “it was for security reasons they said”, and “the thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual”, to describe the people and organisations in control. Refusing to attach names or faces to these figures manipulates the reader into thinking it wasn’t so much a specific leader making all of the bad stuff happen, but rather the society as a whole. Soon after the onslaught, the government began targeting women; their bank accounts were frozen, they were no longer allowed to hold property, and they were fired from their jobs. The placement of power in male figures led to an almost immediate patriarchal shift in society, as Offred notices, “already [Nick’s] starting to patronize me”. Reflecting on the situation she was put in, Offred states “[she] thought [she] should do something, take steps; but [she] didn’t know what steps [she] could take”. This gives the audience a sense of how quickly things happened and how useless and vulnerable people feel in these scenarios. As each of these events happened, “we didn’t wake up,” Offred says, and in the blink of an eye, women’s rights were eradicated.

 

Is this series of events still sounding a bit far-fetched to be realistic? I hate to break it to you, but almost the exact same chain of occurrences took place in Germany in 1938.

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On November 7, 1938, German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was assassinated. Nazi Germans used this attack, which was carried out by a 17-year-old Polish Jew, to fuel anti-semitic fervour, claiming that the terrorist was a part of a wider Jewish conspiracy. This led to a horrific event, now known as Kristallnacht, happening two days later, in which rioters burned over 500 synagogues, trashed and looted 7000 Jewish businesses, and ransacked Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes. In the span of 48 hours almost every single right was taken away from the Jewish people, ultimately dehumanising them and alienating them from society.

Uniforms and Colour Symbolism

The German invasion of Poland in 1939 saw the introduction of yellow badges; a mandatory distinctive symbol that was to be worn by Jews out in public. The purpose of these badges, which usually had a Star of David on them, was to mark Jews as religious outsiders, serving as reminders that they had no rights under German Law. Similarly, women in The Handmaid’s Tale, are forced to wear outfits which are symbolic of their role within society, and hence, the rights (or lack thereof) that they are entitled to. The Handmaids are dressed in red, “the colour of blood, which defines [them]”. This connection between the colour red and blood causes the reader to associate the Handmaids’ clothing with menstruation, a process which ultimately represents the ability to bear children, hence making it a very fitting colour. Red can also be interpreted as a biblical allusion to Mary Magdalene, who was essentially a prostitute. This is then contrasted by the wives of the Commanders, who wear blue. Often associated with blue is Virgin Mary, and therefore the wearing of the colour blue symbolises how the wives cannot have children.

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Marthas are assigned the colour of “dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before”. The comparison to a surgeon’s gown represents the role of a Martha within the household; they are required to take care of the house and everyone inside, fixing anything that becomes broken. Green can often a symbol of jealousy, which correlates to the envy that some Marthas feel towards the Handmaid’s, as evident when Cora states, “if I hadn’t got my tubes tied, it could’ve been me”.

All women of Gilead are forced to wear their colour, even if they didn’t enjoy it. Early in the novel, Offred expresses her disinterest in the colour, stating simply that she, “never looked good in red”. Yet, she must put on the dress, shoes, and gloves every day in order to survive in the world she is enduring, just as the Jews would put on their yellow badges despite the fact they were badges of shame.

Dehumanisation and Mistreatment

The women of Gilead are treated in a very similar way to how the Jews were during the Holocaust. First of all, tests (which were often very invasive) were carried out on Jews to determine whether they were fit to work in the ghettos. If they were found to be unfit, they would be sent to concentration camps in which they would almost certainly die, not before being treated literally like the dirt on the bottom of the guards’ shoes. This is much like how the women in The Handmaid’s Tale are tested to determine whether or not they are fertile. Atwood creates a disturbing setting in which Offred is tested, describing what she feels as “a cold finger, rubber-clad and jellied, slides into [her]”, and she is “poked and prodded”. The purpose of this imagery is to make to reader feel uncomfortable and view the situation as undesirable and inhumane. And if that’s how they’re feeling reading about it in a (mostly) fictional book, can you imagine how the Jews felt while similar things were actually happening to them? Women in Gilead who were found to be unable to bear children were declared “un-women” and were sent away to the colonies to die slowly of radiation-poisoning. Sound familiar?

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Another similarity arises with the loss of identity. In concentration camps during the Holocaust, Jews were stripped of their right to a name and were instead labelled with numbers tattooed on their arms. In the Gileadean society, Handmaids have their real names taken away from them, replaced with the name of their Commanders with the prefix ‘Of-’ added. The purpose of this is to show that the Handmaids belong to their respective Commanders; they are their property. Handmaid’s are indoctrinated to accept this as a lifestyle by other women given the title of “Aunts”. These women are some of the highest-ranking females within society and hold a great deal of power over the Handmaids, shown through the imagery of the “electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts,” as they patrolled the training centre at night. This is similar to the way in which the Jews were kept in line by guards during the Holocaust. Prisoners of the camps were flogged or even killed for the smallest of wrong-doings and were forced to adhere to all rules out of fear of extreme punishment. The only difference between these two societies is the fact that the lives of the Handmaids of Gilead were valued as their bodies were precious, life-giving machines, whereas Jews were treated as if they were not even a little bit human.

 

Feeling worried about the world’s humanity yet? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. Margaret Atwood is clearly very skilled at pointing out the numerous flaws in both past and present societies, instilling fear into her readers and forcing them to question where we are heading and what is to come. The Handmaid’s Tale serves as an influential piece of literature that should be valued as a possible insight into what could happen to our world if the people of today (that’s us) are not careful with their actions.

Why Colours are so Important in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985.

The novel is revolutionary for its brutal honesty in portraying detailed rape, death and violent misogyny as simple facts of life. An imperative part of its success lends to its excruciating detail, the book a poetic blend of innovative imagery and creative symbolism that mix to invent a novel that in the years to come would become a cult classic.

Atwood’s clever decision to construct the classes of The Handmaid’s Tale through using colours is a choice that proves successful, the symbolism associated with the colours and their classes adding further depth to the narrative and linking something so simple with something so critical to their society.

Since colours already have cultural, social and political implications, it gets the audience thinking, providing them with feelings before they have even searched further into the novel’s meanings.

 

So why are colours so important within The Handmaid’s Tale?

 

1. Red:

-Social Connotations: Anger, passion, stop

-Nature Connotations: Danger, menstrual blood

-Gilead’s Connotations: Visibility, objectification

Let’s start with the most obvious use of colour in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaids themselves, decked in a vibrant red. The robes the Handmaid’s are forced to wear are continually compared to blood, whether that be vein-blood or blood from other places, their vivid dresses are held as a direct representation of that ‘juice of life.’

The symbolism of red is incredibly important within The Handmaid’s Tale, adding a layer of importance to the story that delivers a powerful feeling behind every convoluted metaphor and over-detailed explanation.

Let’s take a look into the meanings for red within the real world.

The first word that may spring to mind when discussing the colour red is ‘anger,’ or ‘stop.’ It’s a bold colour used readily within our society to represent something negative, whether that be a feeling that consumes us until we feel sick or if it is a instruction that tells us to halt what we’re doing. It’s a universal sign, ‘anger,’ ‘passion’ and ‘energy’ a few of its many conceived meanings.

It’s likely our society derives the meaning of red from its original source within nature, where red means ‘Danger! Stop right there, I’m poisonous/venomous and will probably kill you!’

At first thought, this doesn’t seem to line up with our ideas of the Handmaid’s within the novel, for they aren’t considered dangerous within the book’s society. Their rights are stripped from them, the basic rights to their body pulled from them in an attempt to normalise rape and a society built on the roles of women, although they have no choices. When we look further though, we can see how the colour red and the Handmaid’s could be related.

The Handmaids are seen as dangerous, but not for their ability to kill or maim, they are seen as dangerous for the temptation they represent.

In Gilead, the society within The Handmaid’s Tale, religion is a factor that controls the society’s values and how it runs. Sex is not seen as a gift of pleasure, but seen as a means for creating children and continuing to populate the society.

The Handmaids are seen as a ‘temptation of the flesh,’ and a symbol of high-status within Gilead.

The temptation they possess is one of the few ‘powers,’ the Handmaid’s have left, and our main character Offred sees it as something she can control.

A statement from the book:

‘As we walk away I know they’re watching, those two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of this is the fault of these men, they’re too young. Then I find I’m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers,’ and ‘They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege.’

The Handmaids are inherently sexualised, for even though the act of sex itself is seen as a sin, the Handmaids only role is to provide sex in order to create children, and they have been dehumanised to suit that job. This sexualisation is the ‘dangerous’ temptation, symbolised with the red they wear.

This link between colour and symbolism encourages readers to keep a look out for further connections, this combined with the elaborate, distinctive descriptions within the novel create a layer of depth to the story that while easy to uncover when reading, adds a feeling of unease.

The Handmaid’s Tale and its – imagery create this unease and keep the reader on their toes, always feeling unsettled or apprehensive.

This is why colour is so important within The Handmaid’s Tale, as the symbolism leads the reader to this eerie feeling, while giving them to opportunity to unravel meanings just hidden from view.

Another meaning readers can derive from the Handmaid’s red attire is how the colour relates to menstrual blood, and the links that can be connected from that connotation.

Since the Handmaid’s only job is to provide children, the appearance of menstrual blood and other symptoms comes with great significance, and an intense personal feeling of failure for the Handmaid’s. There is such deep-rooted self-hatred for a process that is entirely natural, which clues the audience in into how messed up the society is.

Offred mentions quickly within the novel ‘ Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfil the expectations of others, which have become my own.’

This clearly indicates just how quickly the society has managed to change her attitude about her natural body functions, changing the significance behind her period into a reminder of her failure, of her inability to perform her one role within Gilead. To add insult to injury, they are constantly decked in red clothes, as if constantly surrounding their bodies in the colour serves as a notification? of how they have failed, or could fail.

The readers of The Handmaid’s Tale may not automatically have expectations surrounding the colour red in relation to menstrual blood, but since the connection between red and normal blood is so strong it won’t be difficult for the readers to make this further connection, adding meaning to the symbolism behind the Handmaid’s outfits that goes beyond how it links into the reader’s modern view.

Another connection between the colour red and audience expectation, is the visibility it offers to the Handmaid’s. Since red is such a bold, eye-catching colour, dressing the Handmaid’s in red is an instant way to make them stand out. While this is obviously more visible within the TV show directed by Reed Morano, the novel itself also purposefully chooses adjectives and clever phrasing to indicate just how much the Handmaid’s stand out in a crowd.

Red is heavily tied into advertising in a westernised society, so audiences already expect red to be eye-catching and important. The novel has illustrated this use of red in order to further solidify the class system. When adorned with such bold clothing, it offers the Handmaid’s no privacy, no way of hiding. This ensures someone always has their eye on a Handmaid, and further pushes the idea that they really are just property to the Commander’s and a society as a whole. To add further to this, while everyone can see the Handmaids, the Handmaids have restricted vision, adding to the restriction of their rights. This easy objectification is horrifying, the dehumanisation of the Handmaids made clear through the novel’s clever usage of the colour red and it’s attached meanings and symbolism.

So, to summarise more informally, the Handmaid’s are robed in red in order to appeal to the audience’s expectations of the colour’s connotations, not allowing the novel’s symbolism to be overlooked. This symbolism represents anger, passion, danger and visibility.

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2. Green

-Social Connotations: Medical

-Nature Connotations: Environmental, camouflage

 

 

Let’s move on the next class higher within The Handmaid’s Tale, to unpack why the colour green is so important to the novel and its storytelling. The Marthas, named after the Martha in the Bible, are essentially what would be considered the maids in our modern society. They cook, clean and take care of chores for the household, pretty much ensuring the house runs smoothly and effectively.

They are also dressed in robes similar to the Handmaids, however theirs are in green. Not just any green though, ‘dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before‘ as the novel describes it.

A social connotation the audience may derive from this immediately (essentially because it’s within the quote) is the concept of medical scrubs. This green links into someone who is professional but empathetic, analytical but nurturing. Seemingly an occupation for people who personally want to help, by acting impersonal. These are the thoughts we associate with this medical green, and it seems to fit the Marthas we know pretty well.

The two Marthas within Offred’s household, the ones we see throughout the novel, are named Rita and Cora. It is unclear to both the audience and Offred where she stands with Rita and Cora, on one hand she is delighted to converse with them, to share human interaction, on the other hand she also doesn’t want to become too friendly with the Marthas, thinking it better for everyone. Rita and Cora seemingly also don’t know how to act around Offred, they resent her for her ‘easy’ life and continually gossip about her behind her back, but they are still somewhat eager to talk to her and have her keep them company while working.

It’s this juxtaposition of feelings that we can link back to the medical green, as the Martha’s have an urge to be caring and social but when confronted with their own oppression they would rather shame their fellow victims than their male oppressors.

The whole society of Gilead is based on this concept, of having women care just enough to keep the households running, but to overshadow that care with resentment for their other women and their roles within the society.

Through bringing attention to what the audience excepts of green, and then how that links back to the Marthas, the visual storytelling is exemplified.

We can also take a look into how medicine is viewed within the society of Gilead itself. The subject of health and treatment, especially for the Handmaids, is one regarded as compulsory. This strips further rights away from its citizens. The Marthas are much the same, they are a necessity in every household, forced there to help everyone else.

 

Green is a soothing colour, it can be lively and energetic or peaceful and calm. The colour has strong connections with nature, the environment, and camouflage.

Within nature we generally associate green with plants and trees. I find it easy to connect the Marthas to the same concepts. If we imagine each household in Gilead as a tree, the Marthas would exist as the roots, eternally supporting the household, acting as the foundation for everything to grow and survive. The Marthas cook and clean for everyone in the house, they run like clockwork to make sure everything is done efficiently and much like tree roots their main function is to invisibly exist for the survival of their household.

This idea of just being there, silent and unnoticeable but completely reliable is how we can tie the concept of camouflage into the meaning.

Within nature fauna use clever disguises, patterns and colours to blend in with their surroundings for an increased chance of survival, often adopting green colouring to better camouflage with flora. The Marthas, widely considered the least important class within Gilead’s society, are dressed in green to assist them with blending in. They don’t need to stand out, so the society would rather treat them as if they are invisible, not really there.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale has once again used an audience’s expectations of colour in order to impact the readers with deeper understandings of the society’s workings and how important symbolism is within literature.

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3. Black

– Social Connotations: Death, power, evil

– Nature Connotations: Anger, defence, testosterone

 

Finally, if we move on to the highest rank within Gilead’s everyday society, the Commanders, they are defined as ‘married leaders’ and often consist of older men who have served Gilead in some way. The Commander we see throughout the novel is ‘Commander Fred,’ and he, like other Commanders, is dressed in black.

 

The colour, or rather, shade, of black, comes with many social connotations an audience would link to immediately. The first one that may come to mind is ‘death.’ We wear black to grieve, to mourn, because bright colours feel insulting. The Commander, may represent a form of death. The passing of a time perhaps, or the loss of Offred’s hope, the demise of a society gone. Every time Offred sees the Commander she’s forced to remember her past life, and the things she’s lost, the things that have died.

Death is a recurring idea that’s impossible to ignore in the novel, if the Handmaid’s cant complete their duties they are sent to die, if citizens in Gilead are caught breaking the laws they are hung for the public to see, wives visibly mourn dead foetuses in the streets. Akin to how ‘in the face’ death is around Gilead’s streets, the Commander is equally as impossible to ignore. He’s a heavy presence within the house, weighing on Offred’s mind constantly.

 

Another connotation linked with black is power. It’s a strong, commanding colour fit for the ‘leader’ of the house. This concept within itself feels pretty self-explanatory. You only need to look at a classic villain of a movie to find them draped in black, supposedly as powerful as they are evil.

An audience can’t help but think of ‘evil’ when they see anyone dressed in black, it’s supposed to represent mystery and dominance and it has been ingrained that these factors generally equate to evil or misguided intentions.

This works for the Commander, for the audience and Offred never really know where we stand with him, will he be an evil power-hungry man who sadistically enjoys the pain and suffering of those beneath him? Or is he a lonely, naive individual who means no harm but has twisted morals?

 

Within nature, the colour black also has rather negative connotations. For one, it can easily be linked to anger and defence. Creatures who change colours, like the chameleon for example, often do so based on temperature and mood, not for camouflage. When a chameleon is angry, it turns black, highlighting its fury for all to see. Similarly, angered canines and felines and reptiles will bare teeth, often flashing black gums as a warning. Black is dangerous, but more in the representation of power and strength and the willingness to attack, not like the danger represented by red which is the insinuation the creature has some sort of hidden venom or poison.

The Commanders are at the peak of the social hierarchy within Gilead, if the need arises they can attack, or cause serious damage to another person’s life within the society.

In fact, Commander Fred is continually compared to a dangerous animal throughout the novel, although often in relation to Offred herself also feeling animal-like, ‘the signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back, raised hackles. A flash of bared teeth.’

 

Black within nature is also often representative of higher levels of testosterone, the lions and wolves with darker coats seen as more powerful and dominant within their prides and packs. This leans in to the idea that the Commanders are of higher-status than the rest of the males within Gilead, regarded as worthy and powerful in their black suits.

Some irony can be drawn here, for although the Commanders are older and are likely the ones who are sterile, the society only regards women with the ability to be fertile or infertile. Natural creatures with darker coats are generally considered more healthy themselves, and this can be linked to how the Commanders have been considered not possible for sterility, as if when they put on their black suits they are claiming to the world that the issue couldn’t possibly be their own.

 

The audience may not automatically draw all these links and conclusions, but the ideal thing about using colours to communicate class and symbolism is that each individual reader is going to make connotations with colour and narrative based on their own personal life experiences.

 

 

 

So there we have it, why colour is so important in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It creates in-depth symbolism that allows readers to have a unique experience when reading the book. It’s over-detailed descriptions and gross imagery lend to the unsettled, uneasy feeling we gain while reading, linking everyday concept and ideas based on audience expectation with colours in order to construct individualised, deeper meanings.

 

 

By C.H.

5 Reasons You Should Be Reading the Handmaid’s Tale

Gilead. A totalitarian, theocratic, dystopian society, built on the foundations of what once was the United States of America, but is now a reincarnation of puritan ideologies and regimes, brought upon its citizens by the infertility of women and declining birth rates caused by modernisation and industrialisation. Women now have no rights, and the few fertile women left are forced to conceive children for the Commanders and their barren wives, through means of institutionalised rape. Doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it? You might be thinking, why would anyone want to read a story like this, and what’s it got to do with me? Well, read on, because you might be surprised.

With the rising popularity of the new hit TV series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, many viewers are left to pose the question, is the 1985 novel that the series is based on written by Margaret Atwood worth reading? I’m sure a handful of you are thinking, with a time gap of around 30 years, surely the ideas Atwood presented are no longer relevant, especially with the novel being set during the 1980s, not in the distant future like the majority of dystopian texts. Well I’m here to explain to you all the reasons you SHOULD be reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, because over the course of 30 years, you would be surprised how little has changed.

 

1. The society in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is entirely plausible

 

“Anything can happen anywhere, depending on the circumstances,” – Margaret Atwood

 

I know what you’re thinking, that the plot of this novel is so creative and farfetched how could this possibly be relevant to our society, or even the society in which the text was written, in the 1980s? Well, if history and human nature is any indicator at all, it may not be quite as farfetched as you might think. For starters, Atwood likes to refer to her novel as “speculative fiction” meaning that the novel represents a possible future that, based on the past or current actions of a society, could potentially take place. But since the word of the author doesn’t seem to be enough to convince most people on the internet nowadays, why don’t we discuss the fact that the novel actually takes place within a modern (at the time) society, without an advance of technology, or an uprising of superhuman radioactive people or aliens or whatever is happening in the latest season of ‘Doctor Who’. Atwood emphasises the fact that we as humans haven’t really progressed technologically at all in her dystopian society of Gilead, choosing to use words such as “compubite”, “compudoc”, “compucount”, and “compubank”, all just to describe what we can only guess is a computer, which clearly demonstrates that the advancement or knowledge of technology isn’t required to place ourselves into a situation resembling that of the Republic of Gilead. So what is required? Atwood once stated that, “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already,” hence the strong references to and influences of puritanism as a basis for the laws and guidelines of Gilead, as these seemingly random and bizarre ideologies actually existed once upon a time in the early beginnings of what we now call ‘the land of the free.’ Due to the foundations of the United States being centred on the union of church and state, the likelihood of a theocratic hierarchy being blanketed over a modern day society is much more likely in America. But come on, that was in the eighties, and something this extreme could never exist in today’s society. Right? …Wrong.

 

2. Certain aspects of Gilead’s society is reflected within today’s society

 

“For some, in some ways, things haven’t changed that much.” – Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

Think for a moment about everything that is wrong with today’s society. Everything we know about the modern world is fed to us by censored or easily corrupted media, humans discriminate against other humans as if the characteristics of one’s physical self indicates superiority, and there is an actual debate about whether women are allowed to take action over their own bodies. Sound familiar? If you’ve read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, you might be thinking that I described some of what we believe to be the major issues within Gilead, being censored propaganda delivered via fake news and actors, women being categorised by their ability to bear children, and then, if able, being forced to do so only to then have to gift their baby to someone else in a higher ranking position than themselves. If you haven’t read the book however, you might be thinking about the so called ‘news’ presented in social media and tabloids from companies seeking to create drama in order to attract more customers, discrimination such as racism and sexism, and the debate on women’s abortion rights. These parallels between our society and that of Gilead’s emphasises the relevance of the ideas presented within the novel, and the actions described to us that were designed to create a ‘better’ society are to serve as a warning for a possible future that we could create for ourselves. We’d like to think that we have progressed beyond the need to fight for basic rights and decencies towards minorities, so then why are the feminist marches that take place within ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ still taking place today? Why are we so reliant on what we are told by the media, which is described in the novel as, “People stayed at home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” With recent events such as the increase in acts of violence immediately blamed on Middle-Eastern terrorist attacks, and the election of a US President with totalitarian and dictatorial qualities who acts to abolish abortion rights, Donald Trump, how can we definitively say that we are a progressive society? It can be claimed that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ provides criticism as to what can be viewed as the more controversial issues within a modern society, such as the trends in casual dating being described in a judgemental tone as, “At the time men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit,” indicating a lack of perhaps the more ‘old fashioned’ values of commitment and modesty. Throughout the text, Offred constantly refers to the “old ways” when comparing the supposed solution for the aspects that were believed to be undesirable in regards to the progression of society, suggesting that the negatives that we focus on could have a worse alternative, emphasising the importance of choice and democracy, so that a common desire can be established and progressed towards, rather than repeating past mistakes and trying to undo the progress that has already been made. Let ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ serve as a warning to sway us from making the same mistakes as the citizens of Gilead, instead of letting it foreshadow our inevitable destination if we continue down this path of self-destruction.

 

3. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is one big history lesson

 

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” – Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

It’s often said that we learn by making mistakes, that we adapt and modify our behaviours so as to avoid repeating these mistakes, but in order to do this we must first be aware that a mistake was made. Atwood draws attention to the historical accuracy of the events that take place within the novel, stating that she, “Would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time,” These events are represented both directly and symbolically throughout the text. Direct parallels between the book and historical events include people of different statuses being separated by clothing, and being stripped of their name which is replaced by dehumanising labels, both serving as a flashback to Nazi-Germany, the prohibition on birth control and abortion representing the ban of abortion in Romania in 1966, the group hangings to eliminate those who are not welcome within society resembling the hangings of the Salem Witch Trials, and the forced surrogacy and the removal of children from their mothers and given to those in higher positons of power, reflecting the lawful removal of Indigenous children from their families in Australia, Canada, and America in what was known as the ‘Adoption Era’. Symbolic or more subtle references to mistakes made throughout history include the presentation of the wall, which holds connotations of imprisonment and the reduction of freedom, reinforced by Moira stating, “It’s you and me up against the wall, baby.” The wall within the novel could potentially reflect the rise of oppressive and disempowering walls, such as the Great Wall of China (constructed through means of forced labour under the rule of Emperor Qin Shihuang), and the Berlin Wall (built in order to separate and maintain a population forced to conform to the socialist rulings of East Germany), where Atwood herself began writing the novel. Walls are so disempowering towards those on the ‘wrong side’ that even Trump wants one, in order to fuel his tyrannical ideologies and to prove his supposed superiority over the entire population of his neighbouring country, so it only seems natural that the wall constructed in The Handmaid’s Tale be used for displaying the gruesome bodies of those who did not conform to the ideologies set by the theocratic government of Gilead. Even the repressive theocracy displayed in Gilead represents a controversial historical time, sharing similarities to the values and attitudes of puritanism, down to the resemblance of the clothing worn by the handmaid’s to the appropriate clothing of puritan times, described by the main character Offred as, “long sombre dresses” and “white caps”. This resemblance to their ancestors signifies the extent of the consequences of the union of church and state in society, further emphasising the possibility of past mistakes potentially being repeated. We, as humans, have committed these and many more atrocious acts throughout history, so what’s to stop us from committing them again and creating a society similar to that of Gilead? Like I said, to avoid repeating mistakes, we must first be aware that a mistake has been made. So educate yourself on our gruesome and horrific history, you never know, it could save our society as we know it.

 

4. The rising popularity of dystopian fiction

“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”  – Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

The construction of a dystopian society is most often the result of a hierarchy designed to embody a Utopian-like dream; however, the concept of someone’s utopia will always be another’s dystopia. Put simply, if I may paraphrase slightly (as Aunt Lydia often does throughout the novel in order to preach what she believes to be appropriate behaviour), one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. Atwood incorporates this concept into ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by detailing the poor luck of the handmaids throughout the novel, whilst those in the most prominent position of power, the Commanders, thrive. But this isn’t the only convention of dystopian genre that is included within the novel, as can be seen by comparison to popular dystopian fiction written both before and after the publishing of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ The dystopian genre prior to Atwood’s work was not a well-established one. In fact, it can be said that her work was highly influential in regards to the establishment of dystopian literature. Atwood draws inspiration from some of the still most popular dystopian novels today, such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ with the in-text motif of eyes and a lack of privacy, displayed by quotations such as, “She thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left.” We can also see resemblances to Ray Bradley’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ with powerless, oppressed protagonists, and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ in regards to strict governmental control and regimes, which combine to assist in shaping the genre into one that can be said to be one of the most popular genres for young readers today. Notable conventions used throughout ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ now characterise the genre and are highly prominent in popular modern dystopian novels such as ‘The Hunger Games’ (2008), ‘Divergent’ (2011), and ‘The Giver’ (1993). This includes the implementation of propaganda to coerce the population into conforming to the regimes of the new society, which is the entire purpose of the Rachel and Leah centre, the dehumanisation of the general population, allowing those above them to feel a sense of superiority and importance, such as the Handmaid’s being objectified for their fertility displayed by the generalisation, “We are for breeding purposes…We are two-legged wombs, that’s all,” and the construction of the lower class despising those that either benefit from the hierarchal scheme or those who control it, which often leads to the manipulation of those in power, just as Offred chooses to fulfil the Commander’s desires in exchange for her own benefits, such as hand cream. These and other conventions implemented by Atwood combine to present a highly influential piece of literature that sculpt the dystopian genre as we know it.

 

5. The handmaids reveal a lot about the roles and perceptions of women in our society

“You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.” – Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

 

Close your eyes. Imagine a world where you were a female valued purely on the capabilities of your body. If you carry the ability to have children, that is the only quality about you that matters. Everything else is disregarded. Your name, your family, including any children that you already had, your individuality, and your free will. All of it, gone. If you’re one of the many who are unable to bear children, you aren’t much better off. Your rights to vote, to own property or money, to have a career, even your rights to read, are all stripped from you so that you rely completely on the males in your society. Sounds like a nightmare, right? For a woman in the society of Gilead, this is her reality. How could this possibly happen, you ask? From the foundations of our own society, how can all of the rights that women fought so hard to gain be taken away so quickly? Well, it starts with the fact that women had to fight for their fundamental rights to being with. This likely stems from interpreted understandings of the Bible, which is reflected through the literal interpretations in the novel pertaining to the Rachel and Leah story, which was engineered to result in fertile women having to conceive a child through natural conception for a Commander and his wife. This forced surrogacy assists in the objectification of the handmaid’s, along with the tattoos on their ankles, effectively dehumanising them as if they were branded cattle. Despite being objectified as, “a national resource,” the handmaid’s are still expected to be grateful for their treatment, being told, “Yours is a position of honour.” This is still relevant in today’s society, with women being valued for a different aspect of their bodies – their beauty. Instead of being rewarded or appreciated for intelligence or individuality, women are ranked and categorised and even awarded for their looks, and are expected to strive towards a unanimous perception of beauty. The desire for being appreciated for individuality is emphasised by the Commander stating, “Women can’t add… for them, one and one and one and one don’t make four,” implying that women’s abilities differ from men’s in that women are able to recognise something or someone as an individual rather than a part of a group. Nevertheless, these abilities are still demoted to, “Women can’t add,” placing pressure upon women to be capable of performing the same abilities as men. The extent of these pressures placed upon women in society is embodied by the characters within the novel that reject the standard feminine qualities, Offred’s mother and Moira. Moira can be regarded as a character who challenges the traditional expectations of gender in society by expressing her individuality rather than conforming to the social norms, described by Offred when she sees Moira after some period of time, “Her hair was short, she’d defied fashion as usual.” This core character trait of defiance is diminished by the takeover of Gilead’s regimes, as she can be seen to be conforming to the expectations of a handmaid enforced by the Aunts when she enters the Red Centre in the quotation, “She turned away, she already knew what was safe.” We see Offred’s mother as a heavily opinionated woman who is willing to fight for what she believes to be fair, displayed by her interest in feminist marches and human rights campaigns, such as the porn and abortion riots mentioned by Offred. Interestingly enough, Offred views the actions of her mother to be unnecessary, believing that she exists in a state of gender equality, which is brought into question when a law is established that women can no longer have a job or own or control finances. The resulting subservience of women in this new society becomes the new state of normality, which soon becomes adapted to, even by the handmaid’s, as demonstrated by Offred’s thoughts of seeing female tourists: “We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.” The same thoughts are not projected towards the male tourists, highlighting the imbalance of gender equality in this new society, where women are subservient in every way, including medically and scientifically. The progression of scientific research and evidence is completely disregarded in order to establish the superiority of men within the law, which has been constructed to express that, “There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” This amendment to the law conveys the full extent of the consequences of women being regarded as inferior to men within society. I guess it might make you think twice about disregarding the feminist movement, because if men and women were created and treated equally, we would not live in a society where the events in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ represent a potential reality for our society.

B.DG.