Monday, 14 February 2011

On Owning Your Own Mind, If Nothing Else

We have just started reading Margaret Atwood's work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid's Tale. The dystopian world with which we become quickly acquainted in early chapters is a place of oppression and fear, a place where people conform to the system or hang from ropes on The Wall, white bags over their heads, making them faceless and strangely doll-like.

I am reminded of other things I've read, namely George Orwell's 1984 and the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story I read again recently for this class, "The Yellow Wallpaper". In both narratives we meet oppressed characters trying to hang onto their sanity, at least within the confines of their own minds (if in no other way).

I am struck by this character (like Jane and like Winston) into whose mind we have access; as readers, we are privy to the thoughts therein.

On one hand, she says in Chapter One, "I try not to think too much"; on the other, her "longings" break through the narrative from the beginning, whether or not she intends for them to: "I long for [such talk]", "I hunger to commit the act of touch", "I looked at the cigarette with longing", and "such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself" (17, 21, 21, 24, 31).

The narrative is also punctuated by the words "I remember", as if remembering and longing are distinctly personal and distinctly human--as if they might keep her from losing herself entirely.

By Chapter Seven, she is more explicit about the power she reserves in her own mind: "The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet [...] The night is my time out. Where should I go?" (47) In this case, she describes the power to time travel back into memories.

In an oft-quoted passage, she juxtaposes these contradictions: "It isn't a story I'm telling" and "It's a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along" (49). The narrator both needs to believe her experience is only a story and knows that she cannot, that it is not. This is a particular kind of managing sanity, it seems to me.

Perhaps we all need to practice.

Memory indeed aids the narrator and gives her power (if of a limited variety). For example, remembering that Luke, her husband, told her about Mayday coming from the French M'aidez (meaning "help me") provides a certain solace (in terms of remembering her beloved) and a certain empowerment to do with language--the words themselves for "help me" (54).

At this point in the novel, I am nervous about the Commander, nervous about the Wife, nervous about the powers behind this entire system, and nervous generally about the narrator, who--we learn soon--is called "Offred" in her new post.

As with Winston and Jane in those other stories, I most want this narrator to survive, to endure and prevail because she is able to keep herself real and alive and honest within the confines of her own mind, because no one (I hope) can take that from her.

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