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).

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