Revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale: Reading the Novel through a Scientific Lens

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   International Journal of Education and Research Vol. 1 No. 7 July 2013 1 Revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale : Reading the Novel through a Scientific Lens   1 Wan Roselezam Wan Yahya and 2 Chin Koon Poh Author 1 (corresponding author): Wan Roselezam (Given Name), Wan Yahya (Family Name) Department of English Faculty of Modern Languages & Communication Universiti Putra Malaysia 43400 UPM, Serdang Selangor, MALAYSIA E-mail: Mobile Ph: +6 012-334 7752 Author 2: Chin (Family Name), Koon Poh (Given Name) Department of English Faculty of Modern Languages & Communication Universiti Putra Malaysia 43400 UPM, Serdang Selangor, MALAYSIA Sponsor: Universiti Putra Malaysia Research Grant RUGS No.06-05-10-1102RU Paper Abstract: Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has enabled us to see how science can be used to interpret, analyze and relate to the various aspects highlighted in it. Prompted by the seminal reading of this text by June Deery (1997), this article revisits the scientific approach relating to  physics to explore different elements in the novel. The representation of time and its relation to space and matter is explored in a manner that casts new light on the understanding of: how time could actually affect characters’ past, present and future; how the effects of the space-time relation could affect one’s energy by relating it to the characters’ disorientated state of mind; how science makes a connection between nature and male dominance, and the portrayal of women and men  based on Newtonian mechanics and quantum physics. From this novel, much can be analyzed and explored using science as an instrument, thus offering many possibilities and a different perspective to readers consider and which revolve around the issue of how men and women are viewed. Keywords : Canadian literature, Newtonian Women, Quantum Men, space, time   ISSN: 2201-6333 (Print) ISSN: 2201-6740 (Online) 2 1. Introduction First published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale revolves around a fictional depiction of the Republic of Gilead, a radical, rigid and authoritative government which has overthrown the United States. This novel also revolves around issues of power, women's oppression, and religion being used for political purposes, fertility issues, sexual violence and colonialism. A novel which has been banned in schools, it garnered critical reviews and was made into a movie. Atwood adopted a more scientific approach to constructing this story, making it possible for the reader to view feminism from a more scientific perspective. In general, this paper revisits the seminal paper by June Deery on “Science for Feminists: Margaret Atwood’s Body of Knowledge” (1997), which touches on how time and space are interconnected and relate to the representation of men and women (hence the Newtonian and quantum men and women). First, the concept of time itself is analyzed regarding how it is represented in the story and the use of time as a tool to preserve past memories. Throughout the story, it can be seen that the concept of time is used to demonstrate the changes that have taken place in society whereby a  backward shift has occurred, with a modern-day society reverting to a rigid, uptight and religious one. This particular shift in time and space has made a big impact on the whole community in general, not only apply to the lifestyle of the people but also the psychological aspect and gender roles in society. That said, the community of women is the one most affected by this sudden change, as portrayed in the novel. Thus, the concept of space-time is seen as one of the main influences for change in women’s mindsets and their present actions. The constant reflections on past memories and privileges lead characters in the story to reflect on their current attitudes towards life, and hence to make certain decisions and also probably use these reflections on the past as their only hope to alleviate their present misery. The backward change in space-time from a modern to a mediaeval community has also led to a loss of identity and personal freedom for women in the story, which has made a significant impact on their psychological state. As these characters are lost in time, they come face to face with notions of uncertainty and confusion, which leads them to be easily contented, as they are already in despair and have lost all hope due to having to live under such circumstances. Time is also seen as a main factor in determining and influencing the characteristics of the women and men in this story. In this paper, science is used as a tool to represent and analyze gender in relation to the concept of time. As the story mainly revolves around Gileadean times, the division of labour in that particular  period, under rigid governmental rule, has resulted in gender stereotypes. The Gileadean government, which echoes mediaeval times, has created a platform whereby men are placed high in the hierarchy of society and women are treated as mere objects to observe. It is understood that women can be treated and examined in a particular way by men at that particular time, under such rule. As for traditional gender roles, men in the story are perceived as stronger than women, and thus they are given higher positions in society. Meanwhile, women are portrayed as taking on a more liquid form, as they can easily be manipulated and changed according to circumstances. This is understandable as most of the women in the story hold no significant position in society. Most of   International Journal of Education and Research Vol. 1 No. 7 July 2013 3 them are used either for childbearing purposes or as servants in different households. In comparison to pre-Gileadean times, which mirror modern-day communities, the gap between the two gender roles is not as evident, as at that time women work for their living and do not depend on men entirely for their livelihood. As such, the discussion in this paper aims to analyze the representation of space-time in the novel, the relationship between the concept of space-time and women’s mindsets, and their actions and the influence of space-time on the representation of men and women under Gileadean rule through a scientific lens. 2. Representation of time In the  Handmaid’s Tale , throughout the story, the concept of time is shown to demonstrate the past, the present and the future; as in Newton’s world, time is viewed in a linear way, past, present and future all are separate though causally related. According to June Deery (1997), “Scientists, like historians, shape and measure time for human purposes: In other words, science is another way to give time meaning” (481). Science is portrayed as a masculine theory. It goes hand in hand with the nature of male dominance, as males are seen to exert authority and dominance over things they can control. Science also tries to apply meaning to everything, and this is the same for the definition of time as well. The concept of time as we see it is thus measured and designed for the convenience of humans, and science is used as a tool to measure time. For many centuries, since the beginning of evolution, the human species has been constantly trying to figure out methods to define the concept of time and its relation to space and matter. Humans have been determined to decide how they should measure the beginning, middle and end points. For people in the past, they were interested in knowing when summer would come, when the next harvest period would be and when winter would end. They were curious the sequence and duration of events and how they should be measured, thus instruments are invented to fix and give meaning to time. In ancient times, people relied on such factors as the sun, the moon and the stars, and the movement of planets to keep track of time. However, as time evolved and history  progressed, other more reliable instruments, such as watches, clocks and calendars, were invented  by scientists to define time. Despite all these instruments and methods for measuring time, humans are still not able to define its meaning. Hence, as we can see, time is actually very subjective.  Nobody can offer a definite meaning of time. This question has been left unanswered for many years, and even now people struggle to express and understand time: The bell that measures times is ringing. Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries.   (Atwood, 1985: 8) Time, as portrayed in Atwood’s novel, is given meaning by the citizens of the Republic of Gilead. Through the centuries, humans have tried to apply order to time, even until this very day; hence the clock, or bell, was created by humans symbolise how humans perceive time: There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those  pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.   (Atwood, 1985: 23)   ISSN: 2201-6333 (Print) ISSN: 2201-6740 (Online) 4 In Atwood’s novel, Deery also asserts that “both art and technology are employed to try to fix or stretch time: Museums, photographs and monuments are all seen as devices to halt its movement” (1997: 481). As shown here, the narrator describes the situation of the street, comparing it to the olden days, as seen in pictures, whereby change has occurred and whatever existed before is considered as being from the past or already part of history. Again, this reinforces the notion that time is very subjective. For example, the picture as seen by the narrator does not literally stop time. It is again up to the narrator as to how she perceives time or the past in relation to whatever is currently happening in her country. 2.1 Representation of Space-Time In the  Handmaid’s Tale , the author divides her novel into sections, in the past and the present, in the Gileadean period. The novel ends with a representation of the future, whereby a professor is giving a lecture to a class of students in the year 2195. The author also allows her readers to travel back in time, with various flashbacks scenes, especially when the protagonist, Offred, recalls events in the  pre-Gileadean world; just as in Newton’s world, time is viewed in a linear way, past, present and future are all separated though causally related: Or in a park somewhere, with my mother. How old was I? It was cold, our breaths came out in front of us, there were no leaves on the trees; grey sky, two ducks in the pond, disconsolate. Bread crumbs under my fingers, in my pocket. That’s it: she said we were going to feed the ducks.   (Atwood, 1985: 38) As this paragraph shows, Offred reminisces about her days as a child with her mother. She often retreats into her room, and usually, at night-time, recalls whatever is left of her memories of pre-Gileadean times, when she was still with her best friend Moira, her partner, her daughter and her mother. It is memories like these which have kept her alive and kept her going while stuck under the rigid rule of the Gileadean world. Atwood also demonstrates the concept of space-time through the mentality and psychological state of her characters and the setting of the story. Certain characters, like Offred and Moira, are depicted as being disoriented within the concept of space-time. The Republic of Gilead itself is portrayed as a government which rules in a backward way, instead of moving forward and evolving with space and time. And as such, the citizens of the country are obliged to move backwards under the rigid and authoritative rule of the government. Moira, for example, is shown to be living during Gileadean times, yet her mentality and perception of time are from the pre-Gileadean world. Portrayed as a lesbian, she is a very modern and rebellious character. Often saying and doing things deemed to be controversial, she is never afraid to stand up for herself and is brave enough to face up to the odds and fight for her own freedom. 2.2 The Reconstruction of Self Based on the Past In the novel, the author closely inspects how actions in the past affect the present. Deery posits that “Atwood’s predominant interest is her characters’ reconstructions of the past in the light of the  present and their coming to understand the past’s effect on their present selves” (1997: 478). For example, the characters in the novel are portrayed as taking their previous freedom for granted   International Journal of Education and Research Vol. 1 No. 7 July 2013 5 during pre-Gileadean times. Previously easily accessible items, such as lotions, magazines and cigarettes, which were taken for granted, are banned by the Gileadean government, and so, many characters, including Offred and the Commander, now long for these privileges in the Republic of Gilead. Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd,  because I’d taken such magazines lightly enough once. (Atwood, 1985: 156) Hand lotion, I said. Or face lotion. Our skin gets very dry. For some reason I said our instead of my. I would have liked to ask also for some  bath oil, in those little coloured globules you used to be able to get, that were so much like magic to me when they existed in the round glass  bowl in my mother’s bathroom at home.   (Atwood, 1985: 158) Handmaids are also shown to sneak in and use butter to replace lotions, as these can now only be used by the wife of the Commander. Even the Commander himself is shown to have kept copies of old fashion magazines and made visits to an underground club, even under the rule of the rigid government. Apart from that, Offred constantly reminisces about the days when she and her husband Luke were living together. She realizes that she often took for granted the little details about Luke that she now longs for. Another instance that reflects how actions from the past affect the present is when Offred obeys orders given by the wife of the Commander to copulate with the driver, Nick. She agrees with this plan, as she is aware that the Commander’s wife has updates and news about her long-lost daughter. Desperately longing to seek her daughter again, she has no choice but to obey the order, even though it means risking her life and her dignity. 2.3 The Effect of Space-Time formation on Energy As explained earlier, the concept of space-time formation also affects the energy of the characters. With the characters living in such a disorientated state, it is no wonder that their mentality is affected and thus reflected in their actions. As explained by Atwood herself, “You can only indulge in the luxury of finding yourself when you’re oriented in space and time” (Deery, 1997: 480). It is very evident that the Republic of Gilead lacks such orientation, as it has a traditional and old-fashioned government which is running in a modern time frame. The main character, Offred, is seen to be struggling with her self-identity. She resists Gilead inwardly, however she is not brave enough to make a move or even plan her own escape, unlike Moira. And at one point, Offred even feels that life in Gilead could be bearable with the existence of Nick. Another instance, which shows disorientation, can be seen in the character of Moira. Moira, an independent and rebellious character who embodies female resistance to the rule of Gilead, is depicted at the end to be working as a  prostitute in Jezebel. Being a lesbian, she has always rejected sexual interactions between a male and a female, however it seems that in the end she resigned to her fate and accepts the brutal reality that being a prostitute is the only freedom of choice she has while in the country. With the constant
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