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?

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