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Identity in 'The Handmaid's Tale and Frankenstein.'
Transcript of Identity in 'The Handmaid's Tale and Frankenstein.'
The Handmaid's Tale
This is seen in several ways- the impact of people's behaviour because of society's hierarchical structures/regimes and punishments. This is seen through speech (reported speech and through Offred's 'voice') and action.
Social identity and Gender
Identity and the nature/
Identity in 'The Handmaid's Tale and Frankenstein.'
'Who am I?' is such a classic ontological question and it underpins both texts. There are key areas that stand out and should be considered and we will explore these in more detail, looking at the essential question of what it is to be human.
Identity and otherness
Identity and reflection
One of the key ways in
which the writers see
identity is through the
filter of gender. A Feminist
reading of both texts would
provide us with different
ways of being human.
This is a central topic in HT, especially as we have everything filtered through a woman's voice. There are several key thoughts here- women as society forces them to be and the natural 'voice' of a woman. These are rarely the same. Society sees women as generally second-class and as dependent on men. the key scene here is when the military coup takes over and women no longer are able to have money. In a capitalist society this makes them powerless and takes away their individuality or identity. They sign in as 'F' or 'M' and are treated accordingly. They are only allowed to be a part of Gilead society if they see their identity through men. Identity through ownership of money is a particularly medieval attitude. They are also seen as a business transaction for the guardians and later on in the novel at Jezebel's. Names are part of your identity and the women are only known as 'Of' a man (Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren). So they have no name of their own and are as replaceable as their name, 'If your dog dies, get another.' This patranymic system means that as a woman they are seen as 'invalid, one who has been invalidated. No valid passport. No exit (pg 236). Women are literally branded and later Offred feels like a piece of 'luggage' at the airport with a tag on it. Women are also only identified by their ability to reproduce, hence Offred's comment that she feels like a 'two-legged womb' and later in the text she is trying to define herself and says, 'I have viable ovaries.' She also sees her identity as washed away, ' Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I am nothing more than a woman of sand...to be erased like that' (pg 240).Offred always seems to gain her identity through men- Luke, the Commander, Nick. She does not seem to find happiness unless thinking or being with them and her escape is dependent on them. Mass identity is also key in this novel- the women are often seen acting together but this gender identity is forced on them- particularly key here are the Birth Day scene where everyone even feels the birth pangs, 'The soft chanting envelops us like a membrane...WE ache' and the Salvaging they all act together as one violent force. However, there are also signs of a lack of identity in the previous society- Offred's mother objectifies her and she reacts saying, 'I don't want to be a model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas'(pg 132) and she at times rejects the role that society has created for her in that she sees herself as an individual, ' Each one remains unique.' The fact that she has her 'Tale' also suggests that she has an individual voice, a story to live and tell.
Women in F'stein also have their roles defined for them by a male narrator. They are nearly always seen as victims (ill-health, injustice or murder) and angels (lots of references to different women as angelic- Victor's mother, Elizabeth, ' a celestial stamp in all her features' Safie) and caring- often nurturing the dying as their social responsibilities dictate. With Shelley's mother being Mary Woolstonecraft who wrote, 'A Valediction according to women' and was a famous liberal pre-feminist, it is hard not to see Shelley's presentation of women as disappointing, perhaps a critique of how women were at the time. Victor's taking over the mother role as producer of a 'baby' and his lab as a place of labour is perhaps a reason for his demise. women are also seen as possessions- Frankenstein's mother gives Elizabeth to him, 'I have a pretty present for my Victor- tomorrow he shall have it.' The women exist to look after others, to be a tonic and ultimately to be objects of revenge for the men in the novel. However, the other side of women is also hinted at when Frankenstein is considering making a female 'monster'- 'she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man and hide himself in deserts but she had not.' This suggests that perhaps the hidden side of women has a potential to be far worse than her male counterpart. This reflects C19th views of women as dangerous and deadly.
Men in HT are often seen in terms of power and sexuality. They are occasionally seen as victims of the social system. So, there are many references to The Commander (itself a hierarchical military title) as in charge and his black shoes and car suggest a slick political fascism. In the Ceremony the 'signs' such as the book, the leather seats, the fact that he is above them, the fact that it is called a 'Household' with The Commander being the head all point to male power. His trip to Jezebel's also shows his abuse of power- many people would have been killed for doing what he gets away with. There are also signs of his weakness, such as the reference to his 'slug' in the Ceremony and the fact that he seems to have 'shrunk' at the end of the novel suggestive also perhaps of his weakness and inab ility to fight the system- he is just another cog, albeit a high-up one. The Guardians and Nick take power when they can get it- usually by conforming to the system and its underhand ways. The doctors are abusers of their power and push the boundaries for their own gratification. There are many men who are nameless victims on the Wall and the man in the Salvaging calls to question whether this is a patriarchy at all, or a society where women are given power to make them behave in the opposite way to their usual nurturing identity- Aunt Lydia is also a classic example of this.
In F'stein there is much that is said about men and ambition and how their identity is bound up in hubris and revenge/violence. Two myths abound- the creation myth (Adam means 'man') and Prometheus (both the stealer of fire to the gods and the moulder/creator). In both myths man is seen as over-reaching and trying to be like a god. F'stein has corrupted nature and must pay the price. The creature has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in terms of violence in society and he must also pay the price. There is much suffering because of the breaking of the boundaries of acceptable masculine roles. Walton also has these attributes- he is willing to go to the ends of the earth for glory, 'How gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise...for the acquirement of knowledge.' So no-one is immune- even Henry, who seems far more balanced, is following his thirst for knowledge and dies for it. There are also satanic references and the 'fall'- he too suffers from a wish to be like God and the creature aligns himself to satan wreaking havoc in a civilised society. The main men all think that they have power over destiny and that this is their identity, what it is to be male and human- there are many references to voyaging as men reflecting their restless spirits and their wish to probe into Nature's secrets. 'success shall crown my endeavours' with its desperate modal verb suggests that this is unattainable. Is Shelley commenting on male pride here, the need to possess and be seen to be wanting in this?
Society tells us who we are and if
society is dysfunctional then we
become distorted or learn to hide
our real selves. In both of our texts
this is seen mainly through the filter of gender,
class, 'otherness,' 'Nature and Nurture.' In
Gothic, tragic and dystopian fiction this
always has a negative impact on the individual.
This debate is seen in both of our texts. We ask throughout- to what extent does society 'create' the
individual and influence his/her thoughts/feelings/
decisions/actions and how does society
influence a change in people's
Speech is a good signifier of those who have been affected by the 'nurture' (an ironic word, as is the use of the word 'Aunt' to describe the most sadistic members of the society) of the Gilead regime. The Aunts are a good example of the use of propaganda- especially when looking at the past, 'too much choice' and the present- encouraging the Handmaids to live for the 'common good.' Moira's speech is the opposite- she often swears, talks about 'underwhore' parties and is generally seen as rebellious in her discourse. Her refusal to change her identity is seen as frigthening by the others- an elevator with no sides, in free-fall. There is a moment at Jezebel's when Offred sees a deep change in Moira but she bounces back talking in her usual colloquial way about 'butch paradise' but we do wonder whether this is Moira using words to hide her true self unlike the rest of the novel- 'nurture' has finally won in this battle? The Commander's speech in The Ceremony is heavily religious, patriarchal and reflects a system of hierarchy. Offred's speech in public is heavily self-censored- she uses the official discourse, 'Praise be' 'blessed be the fruit.'
Offred's inner voice is interesting because when she reports what she says on the outside it reflects an acceptable social identity. Her inner voice reflects the movement from 'nature' (seen as free/loving/happy/imaginative) to 'nurture' (seen as restrictive and self-regulating once fear has set in). in a Dystopian regime, the identity of a person and a cultural identity is gradually erased and, as the Aunts say, in a generation or so no-one remembers what it used to be like so people become more accepting both outwardly and inwardly. There are worrying signs in Offred's inner voice that she is changing and starting to think in a Gileadian way, 'We were revisionists, what we revised was ourselves.' When her natural reaction to Janine's baby being alive is 'Praise be' we realise that, despite her flights of imaginative freedom, her identity is being moulded by her society- mostly through fear of anything else and when the Japanese tourists arrive she is able to say that she is happy. Those who rebel become voice non-entities on The Wall- no longer faces, or people but an 'ironic smile.'
Usually we understand people's identity through what they do. In this novel that is true to some extent. We see the Aunt's moulding of their identity to the state in their sadism and love of power. We see the acceptance of the situation in the rituals- like the Prayvaganza, the Birth Day, the Salvaging- everyone acts in a corporate way, usually speaking in one voice- no-one wants to be seen to be different. We see Serena Joy's suffering and jealousy in the way she speaks and acts- usually with cruelty and a patronising attitude to Offred. We see Moira and Offred's mother's identity in the way that they rebel against an unjust system- they don't change their identity (although both have to comply in the end and probably both die because they won't follow the 'nurturing' of their society). The Commander's actions seem always to have a selfish aim- especially at Jezebel's when we see that he really is just after his own pleasure and doesn't really care if others suffer or even die for his own sexual needds. But there is also the fact that the outside actions are not always a refection of the inner identity. Nick, Offred, Ofglen all have a different inner life- both Nick and Ofglen are often seen as using secret signs, passwords, a nod, a wink, a turn of the cap to show that there is something else going on underneath and it is interesting that the many different rituals often have a chance for people to pass on ilicit information. Also, Offred's many flights of fancy indicate that her true self has not been changed and that ultimately this is an optimistic novel (even though the ending is enigmatic).
Nature/nurture was a key debate in the C19th with many famous philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke being fascinated with this issue. Rousseau's Emile and his idea of the 'noble savage' is often echoed in the text and Locke's 'Tabula Rasa' (the blank tablet)in his 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding' (1689) is also important. Both of those writers see human identity as innocent until society's puts pressure/the person has experiences of life that corrupt. The creature's story is very much along those lines as his 'default position' tends to be innocence, kindness and goodness. Wordsworth also felt the same and that people and particularly urban civilisation had a detrimental effect on individual identity. The creature is constantly hoping for people to accept him- he is kind (fetches wood for the Delaceys because he sees it is difficult for them) but they only see the outside of his face (C19th attitudes to physiognomy) and don't see his true identity. He, like Offred, is different on the inside. Frankenstein and Walton become obsessed by power/glory/journey etc perhaps because their society encourage men to be like this. There was a huge amount of scientific/medical discovery in the C19th. Shelley hints at the problems with over-reaching- particularly at the end when Frankenstein is still encouraging Walton and his men to stick with their plan, despite the fact that the ice is very likely to break. However, the micro society (Frankenstein's family are used to show the effects of such a social identity- they try to pull him back and are eventually ruined because of this.)
Society and class/
In HT this is central to social identity. Gilead is run on the grounds of a clear social structure and expects its members to dress/behave, speak and even think in the way that is appropriate to their place in that society. Authoritarian states function in this way. The roles of Unwomen, Handmaids, Marthas, Guardians, Angels, Wives and Commanders are very clear and the penalties are severe or fatal for breaking out of those roles. There are many references to class/status through colour (blue/red/grey/black and green), clothes and even speech (the Marthas speak in a cockney accent). All of the rituals reinforce status through cultural signifiers such as - where people sit (Handmaids often have to kneel and the Wives are on a 'throne'), who gets to hold the weapons (usually the Aunts, Guardians and Angels) and who gets to speak (usually the Aunts or The Commander). This system also encourages patronage so your identity becomes wrapped up in who you know- the Handmaids are often seen as a 'reward' for those of lower class who have done those who are higher up a favour, such as spying. The Handmaids are branded like slaves, with a tattoo on their foot. This is indelible. The women in Jezebel's are simply owned, like 'luggage' by the men who come by.
In F'stein, class is central to Shelley's social satire.
Some critics see the novel as a warning to those who are looking for a similar revolution to France (and some of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth) that this will only create a 'monster' that will challenge all levels of class/order and the orthodox. Another reading is that she is criticising the elite- especially in her presentation of how the Delaceys are treated by their cruel landlords and how Safie is treated once she has no money. Is the creature reflecting Shelley's views or views that he has read in the books, such as, Volney's Ruins of Empires and Plutarch from which he gains, 'an insight into the manners, governments and religions of the different nations of the earth' when he says that the Delaceys have, 'a gentle demeanour, unlike what I have since found cottagers and farm-servants to be.' Certainly the unruly 'mob' in various places indicates a judgment totally based on outward appearance and Safie and Felix face an even more barbaric 'justice' in Paris which is run by the mob. Those with better breeding or a better lineage are generally treated better. A Marxist reading would also consider the master/slave relationship between Frankenstein and his creature but this switches in Volume Three where the former sees himself as slave and uses this semantic field increasingly. The creature also sees himself as the master- neither relationship is seen in a good light- Shelley aiming in an ideal society towards a meritocracy such as with Safie and the Delaceys. The creature sums up his weak social identity in the quote, 'And what was I? I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property' (pg 123). In the C19th money equalled class equalled status and success.
In HT thi is seen through the ways that society sees rebellion and classes those rebels as 'other.' In fact in a Dystopian novel the whole of the past is seen as 'other' and anyone who clings onto it (Moira/Offred's mother) is seen as 'other' an 'Unwoman' totally taking away their identity and sending them either to their deaths (shovelling radioactive waste and dressed in grey which lacks vibrancy and life) or kills them on the Wall (the Underground/those who transgress such as doctors, abortionists, gays) or sends them to Jezebel' anad makes them embrace only the bad side of the past- the mistreatment of women as prostitutes, as 'branded' other to abuse as slaves. Safety is certainly in numbers (or at least twos!) and society encourages a 'We' and 'They' situation where the Wives see themselves as different and superior, talking about the Handmaids as objects, 'You have to create an 'it' where none was before.' The safety in the group identity is seen in the rituals but this is still seen as opression by Atwood and Offred is often thinking of escape through death. In an ironic twist, 'The Historical Notes' suggest that this 'other' is a place which is now central to the world's thinking post-Gilead. This is based in Canada- probably because Atwood was Canadian and would like to see more power move from America to Canada- The names of the speakers, Johnny Running Dog and Piexoto also suggest a sense of power returned to the indigenous or marginalised- this has been a positive 'redrawing the map of the world.' Many of the speakers are multi-cultural and multi-faith suggesting a different kind of Utopia. However, many critics have seen Piexoto as mainstream and 1970s sexist in his views and innuendos so perhaps she suggests that there is always a problem for women even in an 'ideal' world.
In F'stein much surrounding the creature is about it being 'other' not recognisable, although it is clear from his narrative that he sounds and thinks just like 'us.' He is seen as having a similar learning experience to 'us' in that he learns from listening and observing. He has the same body parts- albeit ill-fitting (a reason to consider him as different). He feels the same and has the same inner conflicts and is often seen as a 'double-ganger' of Frankenstein. the idea of God making man in his own image is heavily ironic here- in fact the creature does not suffer from Frankenstein's glory-seeking, hubris and ambition- possibly because he is not brought up by him (nurture rather than nature). We see very little of the creature's kindness in his maker- the creature in many ways seems better than the maker. Post-colonial readings might suggest this as a possible interpretation, yet it was central to later Victorian and Darwinian thinking that the 'other' was lower, more likely to be violent and morally deficient. The rpesentation of Safie is also interesting in this respect because of her muslim/arabic background. Readers would have seen her as 'exotic other' and Shelley is at pains to show how she behaves like the women of her society (gentle/caring etc) but is also bold and rebellious in running away with Felix and rejecting the worst side of her father's patriarchal attitudes. She finds happiness in poverty.
Identity is seen through the good and bad elements
of what it is to be human. The fact that we have these inner conflicts make us by nature human. Good and bad are social constructs but the writers explore obvious ends of the spectrum, as well as blurring the lines a little as to what is good and bad and also how good can become bad and vice versa.
In HT there is much that shows the dark side of human nature. This is usually in the repesentation of the hierarchical powers such as the Aunts sadism (they carry electric cattle prods), the torture of rebels (all of the descriptions of the dead people on the Wall), the abuse of power, violence, murder and a network of evil (seen in the 'Eyes' and their ubiquitous vans). What is shocking is that this is all supposed to be for 'the common good.' Atwood here seems to be criticising totalitarian regimes which justify such actions under the name of morailty and religion. Much of Gilead is based on different religious practices throughout the ages (Judaism/Islam/FundamentalChristianity). The good side of humanity is also focussed on through individual self-sacrifice such as the Quakers who put their lives on the line for those who escape on the Femaleroad (the old slave road) and the Underground who exist solely to help others (perhaps at the end?). There are also elements such as a love of beauty and nature and love which are part of the positive side of being human. Beauty in a dystopian regime is often seen in unusual things such as an egg, a window, the hard-ware in the sky. Offred has an aesthetic imagination which can see a simple object such as an egg or a tulip and her soul expands. This Post-Romantic sensibility is linked to her enjoyment of simply being, 'I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded into the sunlight.' She relishes the senses, even the sensory enjoyment of words which are like 'lime' in her mouth during the Scrabble game. She sees love as a hunger and her view of her relationship with Nick is idealised, 'falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending' (pg. 273). The love she has for her daughter and their intimacy is also a symbol of all that is good in human nature.
In F'stein the debate about the dark side of human nature is fierce. This seems to be added by experience and social rejection, rather than innate. Passion is seen as both good and bad but an intrinsic part of human identity. Percy Shelley talks about the novel as being about 'the delineation of human passion.' The dark side of passion is seen in ideas such as revenge, hatred, over-reaching and it comes out in shocking violence. We sympathise with the creature because of his maltreatment but there is no excuse for the murder of the innocent- William, Justine,Elizabeth's father, Henry and Elizabeth all suffer- usually with a dark mark on the neck- they 'belong' as Offred did to another- this time the 'monster.' Passion out of control creates the creature- the scenes leading up to and the event of the creation show us Frankenstein's obsession which leads to the neglect of others and his sense of his proper place in the universe. The fact that the 'monster' is large is also symbolic of how things can get out of control and have super-human strength in a negative way when there are no boundaries. 'Paradise Lost' references are central to the second and third volumes because they show the results when man chooses to break the rules. Another reading though could be the fact that the creature has reasonable grounds for his killing- it's not just a killing spree, 'Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?' he asks. This is also linked to restlessness. Both the doctor, his creature, Henry and Walton are all restless for more knowledge and glory and all end up dead because of this. The scientific background adds to this- this century was not kind to its scientists who wanted more knowledge ('science' meaning knowledge). 'In a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder' is the scientist's idea.
The positive sides of human identity are also seen. Guilt for instance is central to Frankenstein, Walton and the creature. In fact it is what makes us sympathise with them because they are human like we are. The creature has a stronger moral sense of right and wrong than the doctor at times (the latter doesn't see himself as guilty initially). He is innately kind and good and feels a social obligation to help others. There are many links to 'Paradise Lost' which show that there was an ideal but that this order was disrupted. Frankenstein sees himslef as an 'Adam' figure fighting against God and the creature aligns himself with Satan, 'I like the arch fiend bore hell within me' when before he thought he should be like Adam. key to this novel as well is the fact that essential to human nature is a love of beauty. This is clearly linked to the Romantic movement and the feelings of the 'sublime.' It is interesting that the creature also has these innately and both Henry and Elizabeth enjoy moments of beauty- usually in the mountains and the lakes, far away from the urban. Frankenstein could be seen as a 'Romantic hero' in both the positive and negative aspects of what this means- Ovid's Promethas creator and rebel was adored by the Romantics who saw him as a symbol of rebellion and individuality. Shelley was clearly exploring this myth and its relevance to her own society.
Mirrors, reflection and the 'double-ganger' twin idea. This is seen in both texts and is used to explore issues of identity.
In HT Gilead sets up a 'double-ganger' situation when it makes the Handmaids always walk out in pairs. Offred sees Ofglen as herself, 'a siamese twin,' 'something that repeats itself.' Society does this to stop them rebelling because they are both inistricably linked, liked siamese twins. There is amoment of shock when they see each other's reflection- here the shock occurs because the reflection shows the reality, rather than the other way around. Mirrors are referred to throughout as ways of seeing yourself. There are two mirrors in the house - the one in her room is not made of glass so that Offred can't harm herself (there is an assumption here!) and the other a distorted 'fish-eye' mirror which creates all sorts of weird filmic distortions. Neither shows the real 'Offred' but she sees herself as 'a brief waif in the eye of glass' (an allusion to the fact the mirror might also be a spy, an 'eye'). She sees herself and Serena Joy in the 'brief glass eye of the mirror' as 'a blue shape, a red shape...Myself the obverse.' So she sees herself in profile, 'a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke' not in detail nor substance and that Serena Joy and herself are 'double-gangers' twins almost in their role-playing. In Jezebel's there are many mirrors because you need to know what you look like to survive and there is an 'ample' mirror in the room that the Commander rents out but it is 'under a white light' and suggests exposure and even a fascist regime. Serena's mirror is 'sliver-backed' to relect her posution of social privilege.
In F'stein there is only one reference to a literal reflection and it is when the creature sees himself as others see him. His face, which is seen as ugly and malformed does not reflect how he sees himself. In fact he sees himself many times when others' react- he believes that the old man who is blind will accept him, and he does, but tragically Felix judges him by his appearance and thinks that he has come to harm his father. The subsequent reactions of villagers confirm to the creature his 'monster identity.' The main treatment of this idea in this novel is the 'double-ganger' references to Frankenstein and his creation. In our cultural imaginations they are also the same. Frankenstein does everything he can to avoid meeting his double, his twin. They have similar feelings of remorse, guilt, revenge, suffering and a similar wish for a better life- although the doctor sees his ideal in science and the creature in having a mate who would be a 'double-ganger' and therefore not reject him based on appearance. They are both restless and both attach themselves to Adam in Paradise Lost, although the creature breaks away and links himself with Satan- Adam's nemesis. the novel is strewn with references that are interchangeable like the master/slave relationship, their Romantic love of the mountains and lakes and the beauty of the universe. When Frankenstein dies there is a true sense that his creature dies also.
In F'stein the creation of the monster is key to an understanding of all of Shelley's ideas.
Both novels look at how science
can both create and destroy identity.
In HT this is seen in terms of the science which has gone wrong and created a problem with fertility. Gilead is based on scientifically worked out rituals for recreating itself. Offred also sees herself in terms of scientific imagery, showing how she is now part of the system.
In F'stein the creation of the monster is key to an understanding of all of Shelley's ideas.
Science and I