Thursday, 30 January 2014

"I lie there like a dead bird."

"Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head," Offred narrates in the hotel room with her Commander. "I lie there like a dead bird," she says earlier on the same page (267). Offred, who doesn't even have her own name, finds herself in a world of roles, costumes, appearances. What does it mean, then, to be herself--or, indeed, to be anyone?

Atwood is exploring identity and humanity. What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to be human? She ends Chapter Thirty-Seven with the line: "Nobody says anything." And maybe she's talking about Offred's near tumble across the floor of Jezebel's because it's difficult to walk in her heels, but I reckon she is also talking about the fact that no one says anything to question the whole charade of Jezebel's, of Gilead, of society's norms.

When they're talking about "the club," the Commander wants to know what Offred thinks of it (or perhaps he's just making small-talk). "'I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,'" Offred replies. "'Well, officially,' he says. 'But everyone's human, after all'" (248). Yet the Commander is hardly a proponent of a shared and universal humanity. He goes onto say that "Nature demands variety, for men" (249).

Offred sees herself in the bathroom mirror in their upstairs room at Jezebel's: "I'm a wreck. The mascara has smudged again [...] the purplish lipstick has bled, hair trails aimlessly. The moulting pink feathers are tawdry as carnival dolls and some of the starry sequins have come off [...] I'm a travesty, in bad makeup and someone else's clothes, used glitz" (266). Encountering oneself (in the mirror) is usually important: in literature and perhaps in general. When characters see themselves in the glass--when we do--we are invited to reflect on the relationship between what we see and what we feel.

Offred, it seems, feels ridiculous and ashamed. She also feels increasingly less alive because this is what happens to us in an oppressive atmosphere: some of our humanity and vitality is lost. Earlier in the novel, Offred wishes she's spoken to Luke about killing the cat: "He went into the garage with her. I don't know what he did and I never asked him [...] I should have gone out with him, taken that small responsibility. I should at least have asked [...] because that little sacrifice, that snuffing out of love, was done for my sake as well." Then--get this!--she says, "That's one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself" (203).

So what are the ways in which others liberate or imperil us? What about the ways in which we liberate or imperil ourselves?

Friday, 24 January 2014

Atwood, Freud, & Hitler

I've been thinking a lot about Freud while re-reading The Handmaid's Tale--partly because of the "Pen Is Envy" passage and partly because of the allusions to hysteria (196).

At the end of Chapter 24, Atwood writes: "I stand up, in the dark, start to unbutton. Then I hear something, inside my body. I've broken, something has cracked, that must be it. Noise is coming up, coming out, of the broken place, in my face [...] The wandering womb, they used to think. Hysteria. And then a needle, a pill. It could be fatal" (156).

Of hysteria, Wikipedia reports: "Women considered to be suffering from [hysteria] exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble."

Freud concluded that sexual abuse caused hysteria but, after a vehemently resistant reception to his theory, withdrew it.'s_seduction_theory

(The important idea here is that something happened to these women to make them hysterical--something that wasn't their fault.)

Offred is becoming hysterical, perhaps, because she has to repress so many--all?--of her feelings. In Gilead, she is not allowed to react genuinely to anything. Laughter at the absurdity of the Commander's request to play Scrabble and the absurdity of her situation boils out of her, and yet she has to shove herself into the closet to stifle the sound. We would all become hysterical under these conditions. They are a form of abuse.

Freud also talked about Penis Envy, believing that women subconsciously envied male anatomy. Atwood incorporates this ideas into her novel, cleverly revising it to: "Pen Is Envy [...] And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen" (196). It isn't a penis Offred craves but a pen. A pen is phallic, sure, but this isn't the point. Perhaps what women envy of men is not their penes but their power.

Atwood rarely spends a page of words in this work of speculative fiction without using some of them to explore power. I just saw "American Hustle" this weekend and was struck by its explorations of power in relationships: Irving and Sydney, Irving and Rosalyn, Sydney and Richie, Irving and Richie, Sydney and Rosalyn, etc.

The film explores the stories and lies we tell both others and ourselves. This is an incredibly relevant theme for our course and this novel in particular. What lies do we tell ourselves out of necessity? What lies is Offred telling herself out of necessity, for instance--that the Commander sees her as a human being? This is a dangerous fiction.

In the passage about WWII and the Holocaust, the main character talks about the "mistress" of one of the men "who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews" and how "she denied knowing about the ovens," "was wearing pearls," said, "He was not a monster" (154, 155). Atwood concludes, eerily: "How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all" (155).

In her diary, Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, wrote things like, "I am so infinitely happy that he loves me so much, and I pray that it will always be like this." She wrote about her desperation to spend more time with him, his surprise visits, gifts he would bring her. I guess she chose to believe all kinds of things until she couldn't believe them anymore (and took her own life).

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Points of Contact II

The points of contact trend continues in Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. They include rare moments of physical contact, speaking in whispers in a bathroom stall, communicating in writing across time and space, even shows of emotion.

Our main character, whose new name turns out to be Offred ("Of Fred," meaning belonging to her Commander, Fred), finds a trace of a former handmaid in her room (what she comes to call her room): "There it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." Offred doesn't know what it means (not yet), but she exclaims (to us), "I'm communing with her, this unknown woman [...] her taboo message made it through, [...] washed itself up on the wall of my cupboard" (62). The words are a point of contact between them, a kind of communication, something they share apart from the oppressive world of Gilead.

Through snatches of memories, fragments, dreams, Offred tries to remember and hang onto her daughter, who was taken from her. When Offred steps into the bath, she closes her eyes and says, "She's there with me, suddenly, without warning, it must be the smell of the soap. I put my face against the soft hair at the back of her neck and breathe her in [...] She comes back to me [...] She's not really a ghost" (73). This passage is one of many involving hunger, longing, craving for physical touch. Offred imagines holding her daughter. If she were able to hold her, she would know that she exists and is alive--that they both are--in a reality that has become almost entirely surreal.

They are many other kinds, points of contact. The handmaids long to touch the pregnant handmaid when they are out to market; Offred longs for the physical touch of her husband, Luke. There are also a thousand instances of contact being denied, outlawed, made impossible upon penalty of death. Aunt Lydia, when she is training the Handmaids, bursts into tears. Atwood writes, "I'm doing my best, she said. I'm trying to give you the best chance you can have [...] Don't think it's easy for me either" (65). Surely the handmaids know, then, have affirmed, that Lydia, too, is one of them--human, feeling.

Points of contact let us know we are alive; they tell us we exist and help us belong to something bigger than ourselves. Babies die without being touched. We are nourished by physical contact. Indeed, we need it to survive.

This has me thinking about points of contact in my own life, of course. (Perhaps this will be a third post soon.)

Friday, 10 January 2014

Points of Contact

I'm struck so far in the literature of this course by the moments and points of contact between characters; in contrast, some of them are kept from contact and communication, and we see an absence instead of a presence. For example, Minnie Foster (Mrs. Wright) has no telephone, a symbol of connection and conversation, in Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers." In Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat," Delia seems to live alone without the companionship of other women.

In "A Jury of Her Peers," Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters gradually establish a connection--both between the two of them and between them and Mrs. Wright. As they spend time in Mrs. Wright's house, they begin to experience empathy for her, her story, her situation. And understanding begins to pass between them, manifested in moments of making eye contact. Glaspell writes, "Their eyes met--something flashed to life, passed between them; then, as with an effort, they seemed to pull away from each other" (Glaspell 10).

Somewhat similarly, Andrea Lee creates a scenario of contact and connection in her story, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World." When the main character slaps the young island girl, Lee writes, "In that second of contact I feel the strange smoothness of her cheek and an instantaneous awareness that my hand is just as smooth. An electric current seems to connect them" (Lee 4). A slap both seems and is violent; yet in this moment of violence emerges an unexpected moment of connection and communication. The next time the main character sees the girls, they have become like "sisters" (Lee 7).

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator essentially invents another woman (who is also she--potentially the "Jane" at the end) behind the wallpaper--a self, a persona, a woman who needs freeing--with whom to identify, to try and understand, to aid in breaking free of her predicament. She splits herself in two and then becomes the woman behind the wallpaper, the paper itself becoming a point of contact. Gilman writes, "I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper" (Gilman 8). A partnership forms between the two women, even if only one of them exists concretely. They are both enemies and allies, I think--kind of like the main character and the two island girls in "Brothers & Sisters…"

All of this so far has me thinking a lot about points of contact. Where are mine? Where are ours? Where might they be? When do they alienate us from one another, and when do they make us free?