In the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred often thinks about before everything happened as well as when she was at the center where they were trained as handmaids, and one person, besides her husband and daughter, who is often referenced is Moira. Shortly after her character’s introduction, Moira is seen to be Offred’s best friend, which Offred being the main character, nothing good can come from this friendship. Moira is a dynamic character, as from when she is introduced as the type of person who does whatever they want and doesn’t like to follow customs, to when Offred sees her last, she only changes towards the end, when readers see that she has conformed to the society around her, and has taken her rightful place, though her wild and rebellious spirit can still be slightly present. Moira’s function in the novel is to be Offred’s voice of reason and action, as well as to give Offred hope and make her life a little bearable as she believes in her spirit. Which is why when Offred sees that Moira is fine with being a prostitute, trapped in this society, Offred loses hope of ever being free. Moira’s spiral shows that in this society, no one can ever truly escape it, and though Offred lives as a handmaid, she soon finds some relief in it as she at least doesn’t live like her old friend.
Chapter 11: …More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence
Thomas C Foster discusses many devices that make up literature, and one of those devices is as friendly as sharing a meal. In literature, violence is actually quite common because it is an act that is both personal and intimate between human beings, and even other animals. Violence, as Foster also stated, can be used to demonstrate cultural and societal ideas in its own implications, as it can involve symbolism, themes, the Bible, Shakespeare, Roman ideas, allegories, and even be transcendental. More often than not, when a writer includes violence in literature, he/she does not add it simply to add it. After, understanding that violence is written in literature not merely for the scare, unless it’s a scary novel, one must understand the two types of violence that they read about. In literature, there are two distinct categories that violence can be grouped into, the first is specific injury that will be inflicted towards characters either on one another or on themselves, and the second is narrative violence that in general will cause harm to the characters. As seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood incorporates “Salvagings”, which are ceremonies held for each gender, where those accused of crimes are punished by hanging, and those in the district must watch. The violence of the Salvagings in this novel is a tricky one to place in a category, as it is direct injury to one another, however, the lasting impact of these public ceremonies stays forever in the memory of those who watch, and they must live with it. This violent scene of women, witnessing other women being killed, it to comment on society, and how often people tend to watch the horror take place, and don’t ever say anything about it, for fear of their own demise. The violence Atwood incorporates isn’t to just put a horrific site in the minds of the readers, but to show that people would rather watch than try to fight and stand up for what they believe in most of the time.
Chapter 12: Is That a Symbol?
Every work of literature ever written has a symbol. Whether the writer meant to put in a symbol or not, as long as the reader sees an object, figure, action, or event standing for another thing or idea, then it is a symbol. The confusing part about symbols is that they do not have a specific meaning behind it, and do not stand for just one thing, but they can stand for an infinite amount of things if a reader can claim it, and support why they believe the symbol stands for that through research. This occurs because all readers have their own thoughts, history, and previous readings that they bring to the table, so their ideas will not always be identical or similar to one another, though it is possible for two individuals to reach the same conclusion. To practice this analysis of a symbol, one can look at the flowers in The Handmaid’s Tale. When thinking of flowers, one will think of beauty, its associations with love, how they bloom in the spring and summer months, their lovely scent, and the fragility of the petals and stems. These are all general thoughts that may come up when thinking of flowers, but in a story involving a women who’s sole job is to get pregnant and give birth, one can see a connection between her and a flower, as they are commonly spoken about when speaking of fertility. The flowers, unfortunately, do not always bloom, and if they do, they do not always bloom entirely and the petals do not unravel and present themselves to the world as they should. Their behavior symbolizes the women, as many- those who have handmaids- are unable to conceive a child, as their “flower” cannot properly bloom in its atmosphere, though their handmaids are fertile and can conceive. In the third chapter of the novel, the flowers are prominently introduced into the novel. As Offred prepares to leave the grounds of the house, she walks through the garden, and notes that, “the garden is the domain of the Commander’s wife”, as well as states that, “many of the Wives have such gardens” because it is “something for them to order and maintain and care for” (3.12). Atwood includes the details that the Wives often have their own gardens to show how they try to make up for their infertility, by surrounding themselves with beauty and fertile flowers. These women, ironically are tending to and caring for objects that remind them of what they cannot do. In this same scene, Atwood describes one of the flowers, the tulips, and speaks of how they have, “a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there” (3.12). The flower is described in that way, as it is again tying back to fertility, as women who are unsuccessful with childbearing may end up miscarrying and bleeding. This description, can also be discussing the pain of childbirth, and how the handmaids and some fortunate wives must heal from the process.
Chapter 13: It’s All Political
Every work of literature always engages in a specific time period, making it a political work. Since a writer chooses a specific period, more often than not the work becomes engaged with events and aspects of that time. This is what Foster meant when he stated that “it’s all political”, as everything discusses topics of the time the work was set, which constitutes it as political as it is dealing with issues and concepts in the world around it. Another common type of work that shows its political aspects is when a writer will set the work in another time period in order to emphasize on an issue that they see within the current society that they are writing during. For instance, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel set in the future, so the novel has no knowledge of what will be occurring, but Atwood is rather using the future to manipulate and create her own society that emphasizes issues that she saw growing up as well as during the time of the book’s creation. The novel incorporates scenes of life before the government switched to this totalitarian rule, as well as the abrupt notice of the new changes, as Atwood wanted to show how order and life as one knows it can quickly take a turn in a short span of time, as was shown during the Great Wars. Atwood often uses political satire in the novel to comment on World War II, as she includes horrific events involving punishment and death, similar to how Hitler and the Nazi party had treated the Jews. The novel also comments on the low birth rates, several years before the novel’s publishing, the birth rate of children in America had drastically gone down from the great baby boom, as women began seeking more employment opportunities and spent less time at home. Atwood uses irony to demonstrate these birth rates, but instead, she has the wives and handmaids stay home and feel helpless. From these few references to issues outside of the book’s pages, it is clear that Atwood’s intention when writing The Handmaid’s Tale was not to simply tell the reader a story, but for the reader to relate these events and details to ideas that have occurred in history, and to see what mankind is capable of, whether kind or cruel, though it is clear that her biggest political mark in the book is her discontent with how awful humans treat one another. The novel may span a larger gap of time, but it is the time in which Atwood has been alive and she understands what she is talking about with each piece of information.
Chapter 14: Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too
As mentioned earlier, a common literary work that writers tend to allude or reference to is the Bible, as we all live in a Christian culture. This means that many are familiar with biblical figures, such as Christ. All across the world, there have been plenty of novels and works that have implemented a Christ Figure into their pages. It is common for a Christ Figure to be placed in works of literature as culture and religion interweave in the world, and writers can use this Figure to make a point out of their story, and to connect the character to other biblical allusions. One important fact to note is that a Christ Figure is merely a parallel of Christ and not actually Jesus themselves. An example of a Christ Figure would be Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, as this great lion demonstrates multiple qualities that appear on the Christ Figure checklist. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is a great lion, who is the leader of many other mythical creatures in the land of Narnia, otherwise known as disciples. From his dialogue and actions, it is clear he is old, and there is not much detail of his skills, but it is assumed that he is able to provide for his people, ie good with loaves, fish, water, and wine. Once learning of who the children are, he quickly accepts them into his camp and is very generous and kind to them, showing he is good with children and, though he physically can’t outstretch his arms since he is still a lion, he makes it clear through his kindness that he is very open and welcoming. The most obvious comparison of Aslan to Christ, is the way both figures sacrifice themselves for the salvation of others. Many are familiar with Jesus’, but with Aslan, he self-sacrifices himself to Jadis, the White Witch, in order to save Edmund, one of the children, from being executed on the stone table. During this scene, there is much agony within Aslan, but he does not allow it to show too much, as he is surrounded by the White Witch, who quite frankly seems to take the role of the devil, and her followers, who act as the thieves in which Christ is last seen in company with. Although Christ was buried, then rose on the third day, Aslan was killed and rose from the stone table with the rising sun during his resurrection, as much time could not pass without his guidance. After the finale battle is won, the children are rightfully crowned, and the last scene of Aslan is of him walking along the shoreline, appearing to walk on the water from the waves, a farther, but still similar scene as when Jesus walked on water. Though Aslan does not share all of Christ’s qualities, he is still qualified to be named a Christ Figure. Christ Figures are in all different kinds of literature, even children’s stories.
Chapter 15: Flights of Fancy
When thinking of flight, one may think of planes, birds, helicopters, maybe even the occasional squirrel, but the one thing no one ever thinks of when hearing flight is people. If a human being is flying or somehow suspended in the air, then the odds are that the reader is not actually dealing with a person, because people don’t fly. When people are involved in flight, the writer will add a trait or ability to them that removes them from the human category and into another. Those that have the ability to fly will in turn be using it as a symbol as flight generally represents freedom. Writers will not just place a character who can fly in their work unless they are trying to use that flight to mean something. Foster gives an example of this idea of flight signifying freedom when he discusses James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In this novel, James Joyce uses a symbolic version of flying, as her character is a young boy, Stephen Dedalus, in Ireland, who does not possess the ability to fly. The young boy feels trapped on the small island of his as he feels constricted by Irish life, but that all changes when he has an epiphany of a young girl. This epiphany causes him to change his dreams of being a writer, to being a painter, and soon finds himself painting the girl as a bird. His choice to be an artist shows that he will not allow himself to be persuaded to live by the boundaries that his family, country, and religion have placed around him, but he will use his newfound discovery of art to be his outlet of expression. After his epiphany and creating works relating to birds and constantly thinking of how he must free himself from all of the restraints that are placed on him in Ireland, he finally leaves the small island and continue his journey to create his own wings to fly over any other challenges or obstacles that cross his path while trying to live his life as an artist. Though flying is purely symbolic, it still demonstrates its relation to escape and freedom, as Stephen surrounds his mind with flying and birds who fly, showing that symbolically, he does fly off the island of Ireland.
Chapter 17: …Except the Sex
For many literary works that involve sex, the scenes in which describe and display it in a more natural manner tend to not even involve the act itself as writing sex scenes are difficult when there is not much that a writer can add that hasn’t been done before. As Foster states, “scenes in which sex is coded rather than explicit can work at multiple levels”, meaning that it is often easier to write about sex without actually including the act as the scene can involve more ideas, making it more intense than it would have originally been (149). The Handmaid’s Tale excels in demonstrating both types of scenes, the literal as well as suggested. In the novel, Offred takes part in both of these acts with the Commander, though it is only her who feels the emotions of the two. During the Ceremony which has literal sex, the scenes are full of discomfort and no one ever appears to be happy after it all. In fact, Offred doesn’t even talk about it as an enjoyable time, but talks of it as it’s a job and as if she is not taking part in what is happening, only her body is. Atwood even includes that even though during the Ceremonies, it is not consensual, it still isn’t rape as her body is at the Commander and Serena Joy’s disposal. However, during Offred and the Commander’s private “affair”, sex is rarely brought up, but the times in which Offred describes when they are just playing scrabble is more passionate and emotional than any of the times during the Ceremony. During her “affair”, Offred is actually taking part in something that brings her joy, and though it isn’t by her choice, the activities are things that she feels exhilarated as her involvement in anything dealing with words has been made illegal for so long, she has a feeling of thrill that she had never felt during the Ceremony. The difference between the Ceremony and the “affair”, is that the Ceremony is done like a chore and there is no emotion put into it, while when Offred is playing Scrabble, or even sitting there reading, she is taking part in activities that she has been long stripped from and she gets to do it in secret, which makes it even more enticing.
Chapter 18: If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism
Almost all works of literature involve water in them, whether symbolically, or to just incorporate it as a detail. The times a reader must pay attention to that water is if it is dealing with the weather, or a character becomes completely submerged by it. Now, if they go under but never come up, then most likely the character died and their death simply meant that. But when characters are submerged by water or cleansed by it, the writer adds this to show that when it is all over, that character has been reborn, and they’ve been baptised, though it doesn’t have to be religious. To see an example of that, there are many works that include their own types of baptisms and rebirths. In the novel Hatchet, a young boy gets into a plane crash while on his way to visit his father. The plane goes right into a lake, and he is taken down with it, though luckily gets out after some struggling. When he reaches the land, he is reborn, as he is no longer just a boy, but a survivor. The rest of the novel covers his rebirth as he demonstrates new strength and abilities that he did not know he had before the crash. This character, Brian Robeson has become a new person when he emerged from the water as he can no longer act as his old self if he wants any chance of surviving in the forest, though luckily he has his hatchet. Baptisms transform people whether they are aware of it or not, as they are cleansed of their old selves and have been given a new start to life that they may not have wanted it, but needed it.
Chapter 19: Geography Matters…
`Geography factors in people’s lives everyday, and for characters this is the same as well. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster explains, “literary geography is typically about humans inhabiting spaces. And at the same time the spaces inhabiting humans” (173-174). This definition of geography is a little different from literal geography, but it by no means is incorrect. In actuality, this definition simply adds in human geography. But what is really up for discussion is how geography functions in literature and how it can develop themes. Referring back to The Great Gatsby, one can see how geography plays into the themes of this novel. To begin with, there are both the West and East Egg, two similar, yet completely different places socially, and then there is also the Valley of Ashes. The West and East Egg depict the theme of the wealth and its corruption on one’s morals. On the West Egg, the new money reside with their vulgar and ostentatious personalities, while on the East Egg, the old money lives which include families who have been wealthy for years, as they are considered the old aristocracy. The East Egg residents are presented to be more mannerly and high class, not participating in anything that doesn’t involve social grace. Where one lives, on the East Egg or West Egg, will contribute to how they treat others, as the new money appear to be slightly nicer and less corrupt, while those on the East Egg have corruption in their veins as they’re used to money’s ability to protect them from practically everything. Moving away from the Eggs, and toward the Valley of Ashes, again one sees how geography plays into themes. The Valley of Ashes is the land where people live in squalor and all of the waste and ash is put for the poor to clean up. It also doubles as a route into the city, as the Buchanans and Gatsby often drive through it, never thinking twice about how these individuals live. This geographic point in the novel plays a role to show how the wealthy interact with the poor when they do stop, showing the rich care little for them as they do not see it to be their problem, and the people inhabiting this land will forever remain there no matter what they do. In The Great Gatsby, the geography very much contributes to the theme of corruption and displays the interaction of classes.
Chapter 20: …So Does Season (and Chapter 9: It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow)
In literature, no matter what type of work, when a writer takes the time to describe and implement the weather into their work, it is because weather in literature is never just weather. The same goes for seasons. These different natural events are usually put into work to be symbolic and to add to the plot, theme, mood, tone, or whatever reason the writer sees fit. For example, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the weather plays a leading role in the events that occur throughout the short story. The story is about a man who travels through the snow during a harsh winter in the Yukon. He travels with his husky, and is trying to make it to a camp to meet with his friends. As he sets off, he shows no struggle in the weather, though the narrator describes it to be extremely cold. During the two companions journey, their situation seems to only get worse as the man continues to believe that the weather will not phase him. The story goes on explaining the different problems the man and dog come across, and it ends, unfortunately, with the man dying from the cold, while the dog, who consistently presented itself to be the smarter of the two, continued on to the camp. The lesson and theme this story portrayed was that the weather, as well as nature, is indifferent to human existence. London had used the weather in a traditional way, but merely intensified the cold darkness in which the man traveled in. The purpose to the use of the weather in this novel was to show readers that one cannot go head to head with nature when underestimating it, because nature will win. The man had believed that he could survive the weather with his limited amount of supplies and aid, and he was soon proven wrong, while the dog, who did understand how cold it was and how they should not be traveling survived. The story comes down to the fact that human’s tend to be too cocky in themselves that they lose sight and can be bested by nature.
Chapter 21: Marked for Greatness
As writers think up characters as well as their appearances, their initial thought is not to just add a physical deformity or mark merely just to set that character apart from anyone just cause. When a writer adds a mark or distinction to a character, it will mean something symbolically, so if there’s a character missing a limb, it’s time to start paying attention. In addition, a character with a mark will be separated from everyone else and will appear singled out, causing the reader to understand that they are different from everyone else, physically, and even possibly mentally. A popular character who has been marked that many know from both reading the books and/or watching the movies is Harry Potter. When Harry Potter was a baby, Lord Voldemort, after killing both of his parents, tried to kill him but was unsuccessful due to his mother’s love that protected him, leaving a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt. As Harry Potter grows up, the scar remains, and it works in his favor, as it throbs and hurts when danger is near. The scar defines him as the “boy who lived” and causes him to feel different from everyone as a powerful dark wizard had tried to kill him. This scar does not exist simply to be there, but JK Rowling included it to separate him from all of the wizards, as well as to show that he is the chosen one who, when the time comes, will defeat Voldemort permanently.
Chapter 23: It’s Never Just Heart Disease…And Rarely Just Illness
From reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, it is evident that usually, what a writer puts onto their pages never means exactly what it says. For instance, when a writer incorporates an illness, it’s not simply a disease, especially it’s heart disease. As Foster said, “in literature there is no better, no more lyrical, no more perfectly metaphorical illness than heart disease” (216). Heart disease is commonly used because it deals with the most vital organ, the heart, and that, in literature, is where all emotions come from. Of course heart disease is not the only illness that can mean something else, for example cholera could be used. Foster includes some principles for the types of diseases that are used in literature, which states that not all diseases are equal to each other, as well as the disease should be picturesque, the origin should be mysterious, and it should have the ability to be symbolic and metaphorical. In the common Disney story, Cinderella, Ella’s mother is shown to have fallen ill, most likely from tuberculosis, though the disease is never identified. While she lies on her deathbed, her mother, though terribly ill, still looks beautiful and glowing, as her skin becomes a fair light color. In addition, when Cinderella’s mother first collapses from the illness, it is very sudden and comes out of nowhere, fulfilling the mysterious origin of how she got sick. Finally, as she spends her last days laying, waiting for death to come, she tells her daughter to always be kind and to be brave no matter what trials are brought to her. Her death, for Ella, symbolizes her promise to always be a good person and to make her mother proud. This promise follows Ella throughout her entire life and adds to who she grows up to be, despite the cruelty that she faces from her Lady Tremaine and her step-sisters.
Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies
Throughout Foster’s novel, there is one mark that he has constantly made, and that is that, “irony trumps everything” (26). Irony involves taking the audience’s expectations, turning them around completely and using them against one’s own thoughts. In the Historical Notes in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood includes irony to create almost a comic end to her novel, as through its entirety up to here, it has had a bland tone. In the historical notes, one would assume that it would be written similar to the chapters, while it in fact takes a different approach. This section of the novel includes both the probable origins of the narrative, as well as discusses how life is like in the future, roughly 150 years since the narrative actually took place. The irony within these last few pages, is that throughout the different chapters, the officials in Gilead consistently would speak of their new society with such greatness and spoke of how perfect it was, while at the same time they would talk down on the old society. But in the Historical Notes, this society that is farther in the future, is discussing the flaws within the Gileadean society, while they praise theirs. This irony is put in this section as Atwood is commenting on how society is constantly thinking highly of itself until an even better version of society is introduced, and the people who live within it are subjected to this endless loop. Another irony is that the whole story was a tale solely about one individual, and the notes, discussing all of society, shows how a small story can easily be forgotten in the greater scheme of things.
Chapter 27: A Test Case
The short story, “The Garden Party”, is signifying the different social classes and their interaction with one another. In the story, Mansfield is trying to show how the wealthy and aristocratic class cares little for those who live below them, physically and monetarily. In the story, a young girl, Laura, is helping her mother and sisters prepare for their garden party and is getting into the spirit of the party when all of a sudden news that a man had died. Laura naturally thinks that the party should be canceled or postponed as she surely does not think that a party should take place after the death of someone in the town. However, when she tells her family members, they quickly dismiss it, as they have accepted their role in their high class, and see no reason to cancel a party for someone who lives in the shacks down below. For Laura, she is confused as she has not yet accepted her place in society, but shows agreement to allowing the party to go on. Once the party ends, Laura’s father brings up the accident, and her mother decides that Laura should bring a basket of their leftovers down to the widow. Laura is unsure of giving them their family’s scraps but soon agrees to take the basket and sets off. As soon as she gets to the small and beat up homes she feels as though she made a mistake and out of place. She reaches the house of the widow, and though all she wants to do is drop off the basket and go, she is invited into the house and even sees the dead man rest peacefully. After see the horrific site she runs out to be comforted by her older brother, and the story ends with her unable to finish the line, “isn’t life-“ (281). Throughout the story, Laura is fighting a battle with her morals and with what she is expected to do, and it isn’t until she sees the body when she decides on the path she will take. Rather than go against the norms of her class, she adopts their views on others and succumbs to the pressure to agree with them. This story is signifying the plight between the wealthy and the poor and how those who live lavish lives care little for the people who aren’t as fortunate, merely due to where they rank in society. When comparing my analysis to the examples within Foster’s chapter, I would place my description between both the first example, which was not an analysis, merely a theme statement, though I would not say I went into much depth as the second, as they caught on to more ideas than I had. The third examples was very detailed and descriptive and I did not read the novel in the way that writer had, though Foster had stated that it was from one of his students who also took a creative writing class. In my writing, I feel as though I could have written more descriptive, and as I read the story I should have looked at the imagery and symbols as the third example had incorporated. I do feel though I succeeded in answering the questions as I understood what Katherine Mansfield was trying to say to the public with this story.
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