Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale

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Margaret Atwood uses the first chapter of the Handmaid’s Tale to show us that much has changed between the past and the present. She fuses the two together by the use of the Protagonists memories and thoughts. This creates a profound contrast with the past and the present. Only by comparing what the Protagonist has had in the past can we become to realise the enormity of the constrictions that must be placed on these women by the end of Chapter 1.

To start from the first sentence of the chapter, ‘We slept in what had once been a gymnasium’. This straight away leads us to believe that something catastrophic must have taken place. Normally people are only moved to such areas when they need to be evacuated from their homes in a disaster. But here we are left to wonder why the narrator would be sleeping in a gymnasium? This however becomes self-evident in the second part of the chapter when we jump into the present.

We then travel through the memories and images of the gymnasium, ‘girls with different clothes and styles, where they chewed gum and wore perfume’. This shows us the freedom and individuality these girls had, back then in the echoes of a bygone time. We see the dances that were once held there. ‘People having fun, dancing and having dreams and desires’. The Protagonist refers to the sex as old sex, this brings into focus that all sexual activities in this present time have been outlawed and are for one purpose only. Although we see the contrast that the Protagonist still has her desires, she makes this clear to us the reader when she fantasies about the men outside the window. Her fantasy is to have her body to give freely to one of these Angels in exchange for some pleasure. We are to then deduce that although these women are confined, they still have not lost any of their humanity; they still have the same thoughts, feelings and desires. We also see this later in the novel when she uses her body to attract the attention of the male guards. She knows that she can still use her body to attain a little power over these men, they too still have their feelings of desire and she could manipulate this to her advantage.

The protagonist then jumps very quickly back into the present time. Offred it seems is in the gymnasium with girls in the same situation as herself. They are kept in the gymnasium like some sort of prisoners, although the only crime they seem to have committed is that they are capable of being able to procreate. These women, it seems, are being confined within the gymnasium for the use of there bodies. To act, as oven’s to incubate babies, not there own but someone else’s, a living commodity. We also see later in the novel that these constraints have put a lot of pressure on these women that they are desperate to escape from this lifestyle. Some through suicide, this is the reason the glass is shatterproof and that they remove anything that a rope can be tied too. However, through the voice of the Protagonist we hear her self-preservation in the fact ‘I intend to last’.

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We then learn of the mistrust in this new world. The aunts for example patrol between the rows of beds with ‘electric cattle prods strung on thongs from their belts’. However, the men outside are allowed guns. Why should the Aunts not be allowed guns? Is this because it is a male dominated society?

But we also see mistrust for these Angels too, they are not allowed to go into the Gymnasium unless there is a situation the Aunts cannot deal with themselves, and they must stand at the windows with their backs to them. But is this mistrust of the Angel’s or the women? What is the society afraid of? Is it that if these women were allowed to access to the men something would be exchanged; some pleasure or satisfaction

The last paragraph of chapter 1 shows us that even with the constraints these women had they still managed to carve themselves an identity. They do this by learning to lip- read and by doing so find out each other’s real names. This gives them there own self-sense and identities.

The significance of this chapter in the novel so far, is it shows us what the Protagonist has been through. It makes us aware of the feelings of desperation, loneliness, confusion, fear and desire. Offred tries to make us understand the circumstances surrounding her and what it must be like to be a woman in that situation. In a male dominated society where women are treated like slaves and equipment to be used as and when the need arises, having their thoughts and identities suppressed. To be in a society where women are not allowed such basic things as physical contact or even a name of their own.

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