Friday, September 19, 2008

Freedom to Chose and Freedom from Choice: Margaret Atwood ' s " The Handmaid ’s Tale "

While on the surface Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paints the picture of a time and place not far from our own where the utopic ideals of one group of people appear to be a dystopic hell for another, beneath these circumstances it is, among other things, a story about freedom and choice; the freedom to make your own choices, and the freedom from making your own choices. When freedom is at stake some choose escape, some choose to fight, and others adapt. In the end however, how can we know if we’ve made the best choices?

Some characters in Atwood’s story saw their freedoms being limited and chose to escape. They tried to escape their captors through means either physical, mental, or both. The handmaid Janine tried escaping mentally, escaping to insanity. Others, including Offred’s predecessor, escaped through suicide. Some escaped by leaving the country through covert means, as Offred and her family tried to do in the beginning of the story, and as she may have managed in the end. Even those within the Gilead regime had methods of escape, whether through an underground nightclub or the fantasy of motherhood.

Other characters chose to fight. This may have only been a stage in their struggle; Moira tried to fight the system but in the end chose mental escape, resigning herself to her fate and living out her days as an underground prostitute. The Mayday group chose fighting on a more obvious level, elevating their struggle to the level of a war. Throughout the story characters chose to fight in small ways, exchanging a forbidden glance or touch, stealing butter to keep the skin soft, or hiding a match just to entertain the potential for starting a fire.

Some chose to adapt, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The girls at the Red Center tried to adapt in order to avoid punishment or death. Nick and others in the Mayday movement tried to adapt so they could work from within, furthering the work of their group. To an extent, many within the Gilead regime tried to adapt; Serena Joy tried to adapt to the idea of sharing her husband with a handmaid. As Offred observed, it is amazing what one can get used to.

Offred is faced with her own freedoms and her own choices. As a handmaid the freedom from many choices is thrust upon her, but other choices hang over her head throughout the novel. Literally so, since the remains of a light fixture that looked like a big eye hung over her bed as both a reminder of the suicide choice another girl made there, and of the eyes that are watching her every move. She has to chose how to fill her time and thoughts, who to trust, how to act, what to say, and to whom she could say it.

It’s possible one message of the book is that if we don’t make our own choices, choices will be thrust upon us. In the time before this story takes place, the nation behaved in an irresponsible manner; it was quickly becoming a toxic wasteland in a state of moral decay. Without noticing, people were led closer and closer to a place where the Gilead regime could move in and take over. Often when we make poor choices someone or some group will step in and make other choices for us. By the end of the story Offred has taken very few stands and made few real choices, and the Mayday group makes a choice for her and plans her escape.

Another theme ran through the choices each character faced along the way, and that’s the question whether our choices are right or not. Is it best to adapt and live, or would death be better? If we trust someone, will they betray us? We can’t look into the future and see how things will turn out, so how can we really know what’s best? We never know how things will end up, and that’s why we are never told what becomes of Moira, what happened to Ofglen, what really happened to Luke, and in the end why we don’t really know what happens to Offred once she climbs into the black van. The results of real choices are not cut and dry.

When I sat down to write this essay I didn’t know what to say about The Handmaid's Tale. It moved me on several levels in many different ways, and like all similar circumstances these things cannot be easily reduced to a page or two of text. The movie version faced a similar task, trying to simplify the complicated textures of Atwood’s work and leaving details behind in the interest of time. It’s easy for me to say there could have been more, but like this essay, there is only so much you can say in a limited format. Like the characters in Atwood’s story, we have to choose what’s important to us at the time; other things have to fall by the wayside.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Religious Parallels in Ayn Rand ’s " Anthem "

Ayn Rand’s Anthem utilized religious symbolism to emphasize the work’s humanistic message. As in the Bible’s account of creation, man is expelled from paradise for his transgressions and the sin leads to self awareness. In both stories light represents understanding and truth, and the “Word” is a god given to mankind. Rand also makes use of a narrative style reminiscent of Biblical narrative. The very name “Anthem” has religious implications. But in spite of all these parallels, Anthem is not a religious story, but a glorification of man’s humanistic potential.
Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One show similarities to the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve.

Where in the Biblical account transgression lead to mankind’s self awareness, Equality 7-2521’s transgressions lead him down a path which ultimately provided awareness of individuality and ego. Where Biblical man is expelled from a Utopian garden for his sin, Equality 7-7521 flees and is left to wander The Uncharted Forest. As Adam was given the task of naming woman and his surroundings, Equality 7-2521 names himself, the woman who has come after him, and presumably will name their children. In Biblical tradition Adam and Eve were the mother and father of mankind, in a like fashion Equality 7-2521 and The Golden One will give birth to a new society. When Equality 7-2521 chooses a name for The Golden One, he names her Gaea, “who was the mother of the earth and of all the gods” (99).The use of light draws another parallel between the Bible and Rand’s Anthem. Biblical narrative describes the entrance of a light into the world. This light was to be the delivering light of men, but man in his ignorance rejected it. Equality 7-2521 brought light to his “brothers” but they did not understand the light, rejected it, and persecuted him. Rand went as far as recreating the lashing tradition ascribes to Jesus.

Although it was rejected by men, the light in Rand’s story brought the deliverance of man from the darkness and led him to establish a new society; this parallels the Bible’s prophesy that the light will lead to the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. When Equality 7-2521 chooses a name for himself, he chooses the name of Prometheus who “took the light of the gods and he brought it to men, and he taught men to be gods. And he suffered for his deed as all bearers of light must suffer.” (99)

A parallel can also be drawn from the Biblical concept of the “Word” being given to mankind, the Word which leads to the fulfillment of man’s potential. In Rand’s story, the word “I” is given to man and it is called a god (97). It “can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory” (105). This word leads to man’s realization of the “self”.

A less direct religious reference in Anthem is Rand’s use of a semi-archaic narrative style. It’s formality is reminiscent of Biblical narrative. Since an anthem is “a piece of sacred vocal music, usually with words taken from the scriptures” (from the book’s introduction by Leonard Peikoff), use of a style which imitates scripture seems appropriate. In a letter written by Rand, she notes that the actual anthem is the book’s final two chapters. However, the preceding ten chapters does much to establish the mood and effectiveness of the final two chapters, the anthem.

Again, in spite of the religious parallels Rand employed, her ultimate purposes for writing Anthem were not religious. Rand has stated, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.” ( This statement is echoed in “My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose” as well as “neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish” (95).

I wouldn’t say this book borrows any authority by imitating its religious counterparts, but is meant to stand alone, drawing parallels to other truths, but standing independently as a truth in its self.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Confinement in Charlotte Bronte ' s " Jane Eyre "

Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre addresses the prevalent gothic theme of prisons and confinement, but on a level deeper than some of its literary predecessors. Bronte’s prisons are more than romantic castles of bygone days, but include prisons imposed on us by others, prisons we create for ourselves, and prisons which exist within our minds. These prisons may consist of society and social rank, law and religion, as well as thoughts and reputation. But not all such confinements keep us locked in; some confinements exist when we are locked out. Also not every form of confinement will bring us harm; some types of confinement are a type of protection and can keep us from harm.

One of the earliest ideas of confinement Jane faces in the novel is that of social class and standing. As a child, although living in a wealthy home Jane is not accepted by her aunt and cousins. She is forced to exist somewhere between the role of family member and servant, but without fitting into either position. In these circumstances Jane has also become a prisoner of reputation, shielded from the family’s regard by Mrs. Reed’s low opinion of her.

At school Jane observes the difference in class between her classmates and the children of the schoolmaster, Brocklehurst. When Jane advertises for a new position, she seems more concerned with following proper protocol for her class than getting into a situation she will enjoy. Social class is of course a dominant theme in Jane’s relationship with Rochester, a determining factor which made Mrs. Fairfax doubt the match and brought condescending glances from Mr. Rochester’s wealthy visitors.

The law is also seen as a source of confinement and a type of prison for some within this novel. Jane is confined to her low station in life because she is denied her legal rights as a family member and heir, both in the Reed household and in association with her uncle John Eyre. Rochester is confined by the law in his marriage to Bertha.

Perhaps the most profound example of confinement, and a type of prison, is the realm of thought. This is where all the other types of confinement merge. Jane’s actions are dictated by, and she spends a considerable amount of time pondering, her own thoughts. Jane reasons and evaluates, sometimes finding freedom because of it, but other times creating or at least enforcing more types of confinement. Helen Burns finds the confinement of religious thought a source of comfort and a reason to share her love with others, while Jane’s cousin Eliza uses the confinement of religious thought as an escape and a refuge where she can distance herself from the world. Mrs. Reed spends her entire adult life and her final minutes in a prison created within her mind, the prison of jealousy and hatred. Of course, thought is a prison for Bertha Mason as well.

But of the veritable prisons Jane Eyre is forced to endure, many of these confinements do more to protect her than keep her from liberty. If she hadn’t been locked away from Mrs. Reed and her cousins, she may have suffered a similar fate; she may have become as shallow, as wayward, as stilted or as resentful as any in the class of her “superiors”. If she had not endured the confinements of reason, she might have fulfilled the reputation of her childhood, and if she had not learned to control her reason she could have become as deranged as Bertha.

Without having experienced the many various forms of confinement in her life, she would not have been able to ultimately conquer them and eventually find herself living a happy and fulfilled life.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ambiguity in Emily Bronte ' s " Wuthering Heights "

Although little is known about the inner life of Emily Bronte, who died two years after the publication of her novel Wuthering Heights, it seems evident the work was born more of her mind than her experiences. There doesn’t seem to have been any real-life Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Irish forebears or Yorkshire neighbors. The work Bronte left behind is sparse, the one novel and several impressive but baffling poems.

But the drab life of this genteel English spinster who wrote Wuthering Heights doesn’t lessen the work; to the contrary, it makes the work even more remarkable. To realize the fiery, beautiful Catherine and the brooding, handsome Heathcliff were born entirely of the imagination means their traits were a thing of design; their characteristics were built with a purpose in mind, and each of their idiosyncrasies were a thing of choice. The only thing left to do then is decide what those choices meant and how they supported Bronte’s purposes.

Wuthering Heights did not sell well upon its initial publication and had she lived longer, Emily Bronte’s options for a subsequent novel would have been limited. Her contemporaries found the rugged sensibilities of Bronte’s characters difficult, lacking the idealistic appeal of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Therefore, it could be deduced Emily did not write for mass appeal. The Dictionary of Literary Biography states Bronte’s later poems seemed to be grappling with metaphysical questions raised by her novel.

If this is true, and Wuthering Heights was at least in part a novel where the author wished to explore ideas, a discussion of the work should in turn explore those same questions. However, the purposes of the book are not readily apparent, and like the characters within there is a certain amount of ambiguity.

Despite Cathy’s selfish nature and Heathcliff’s cruelty, they are not unattractive; both characters in some ways seem superior to others in the story. The Lintons are spoiled and weak, but the suffering of Isabella and Edgar’s devotion to his wife and daughter inspire the sympathies of readers. Like Heathcliff, its principal character, a story harsh as the moors where it takes place has managed to find a warm place in the hearts and minds of readers for generations.

In spite of its apparent dysfunction, the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff is often regarded as the romantic ideal. It resonates as a tale of deep and eternal love. Cathy’s statement, “I am Heathcliff”, speaks of a unity which other lovers have sought to emulate. Heathcliff’s plan to join with Cathy in death by the removal of coinciding sides of their coffins (Signet, 274) seems a romantic gesture in spite of the obvious grotesque element. But the novel is fraught with ambiguities such as this.

Early in the story Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff to live with the family as a sibling, although no apparent relationship or other reason is given. He was to be raised as Cathy’s brother, yet incest is never considered outright when their ensuing relationship is discussed. Heathcliff’s origin is unknown, and although he appears to be a gypsy child he later returns having made a fortune. But no source of that fortune is ever pinned down.

In a similar fashion, other characters add to the list of ambiguities. After his father’s death, Hindley returns home with an unannounced wife of unknown origin (Signet, 48) who has an unexplained fear of dying. The servant Joseph appears deeply religious and devout, but is one of the most cynical characters in the story. Later Hareton has lived a life of neglect and abuse, from Heathcliff and later from Catherine, but he still seems to maintain affection for Heathcliff and easily forgives Catherine when she changes her mind. Each of these hypocrisies is accepted as normal within the context of the story.

But these little hypocracies are similar to those we face in real life and may be one of the keys to Wuthering Heights’ overall success as a piece of literature. While Emily’s sister Charlotte had more immediate success with the more straightforward themes of Jane Eyre, through the years Wuthering Heights has received more attention and study. It might then be assumed that the book's ambiguities touch something deeper, and possibly closer to the heart.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...