Critics read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a cautionary story of oppression against women as well as a critique of radical feminism. Some who focus on Offred, the narrator and main character, criticize her passivity in the face of rigid limitations on her individual freedom: Gayle Green in her article, “Choice of Evils,” published in The Women’s Review ofBooks insists, “Offred is no hero.” Barbara Ehrenreich in her New Republic article, “Feminism’s Phantoms,” finds her to be “a sappy stand-in for [1984’s] Winston Smith. Even her friend Moira characterizes her as “a wimp.” Yet, although Offred cannot be considered a more obvious traditional hero like Moira, an examination of her more subtle rebellion against the oppressive totalitarian regime which governs her life illustrates the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.
The Republic of Gilead is a typical totalitarian society . . . Read More
In the 1980s, the political climate around the globe turned toward fiscal restraint and social conservatism. In general, this shift was a response to the permissiveness and unchecked social spending that occurred in the 1970s, which were in turn the extended results of the freedoms won by the worldwide social revolutions of the 1960s.
This conservative trend appeared in different forms in different countries. In Margaret Atwood’s home country of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader who had been Prime Minister since 1968 (with an eight-month gap in 1979-80), resigned in 1984, and the voters replaced him with Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney. Margaret Thatcher, who was elected Prime Minister of England in 1979, reversed decades of socialism by selling government-run industries to private owners. In the United States, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan created such a turbulent . . . Read More
The events in this novel take place at different points in the life of the narrator, but the primary setting, the present tense of the novel, is Gilead, where she has been a handmaid in the Commander’s house for five weeks. The reader is introduced to new characters that she meets from this point forward, such as the doctor and the new Ofglen, while others that she is already familiar with-Rita and Cora for example-are taken for granted and woven into the narration without explanation.
Because the narrator’s life had been designed by the government to be uneventful and to not require independent thought, the tone of the novel is drab, flat, desensitized. Information about how her life came to be this way is conveyed through flashbacks, most of them drawn from two sections of time in her past: her memories of Rachel and Leah Re-education Center inform readers about how she came to be the way she is, and her . . . Read More
The roles that are assigned to the two genders in this novel are exaggerations of the roles traditionally played: women here are responsible for domestic duties and men in Gilead run the government functions (since this is a totalitarian state, business and military concerns are part of the government). To most of the people ofGilead, the strict assignment of these roles seems reasonable, a natural outcome of the physical traits that define males and females.
Industrial pollution has caused sterility in ninety-nine percent of the female population and countless numbers of males, creating a crisis for the ability of the human race to survive into the future. From this the government had claimed the right to require any fertile females to participate in government-supervised child-bearing programs. This has caused a need to keep all non-fertile females in structured domestic roles, in order to assure the passivity and . . . Read More
The Commander is a powerful figure in the Gileadean government. He is apparently sterile, although this is not confirmed because, according to law, only women are tested for being fruitful or barren.
The first time the Commander is seen breaking the strict social structure is when he sends for the handmaiden to come to his office alone at night: it is arranged like a sexual rendezvous, but she finds to her amusement that he shyly asks her to play Scrabble. As her night visits to the office increase, she becomes increasingly informal with him, sometimes even correcting him, as when she tells him “Don’t ever do that again,” after he nearly becomes affectionate during the impregnation ceremony.
He acts amused when she shows strength. The gifts he offers her show that he underestimates her intelligence: skin lotion, glances through magazines, and a secret trip to a house of prostitution. These are . . . Read More
In the Victorian era, reading fiction was an extremely favorite pastime, and new novels were commonly published in serial format in periodicals. Many writers such as Charles Dickens became quite popular and developed huge followings that dutifully bought the periodicals in which they were published month after month, hooked by the entertaining and suspenseful stories. Dickens began Great Expectations in the fall of 1860, publishing it in weekly installments that began in December of that year in his popular periodical All the Year Round. Many of Dickens’ earlier novels had been published serially as well, but usually in twenty installments in a periodical issued only once a month. Because a weekly serial was necessarily shorter than one that came out only once a month, the installments of Great Expectations needed to be much more concise, a publishing requirement that had a great effect on the ultimate structure of the novel, which is indeed more concise than many of . . . Read More
Nineteenth century England had flourishing cities and emerging industries. Machines made it possible for those with money to invest to earn great profits, especially with an abundance of poor people who were willing to work long hours at hard or repetitive jobs for little pay. By contrast, the rural system included landlords, farmers, and common laborers who owned no land. In this rural system that had existed for centuries, those without land had no hope of bettering their lives: once in poverty, always in poverty. These hopeless poor moved to the city on the dream of making their own fortunes; it was usual for working class families to send young children off to the factories for twelve to fourteen-hour shifts or longer. Child labor laws would not be enacted until the 1860s.
Meanwhile, children and women were ideal workers because they did not form labor unions, and were easily intimidated, beaten, or fired if they . . . Read More
Point of View
The first-person narrator of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is an adult Pip who tells the story in his own voice and from his own memory. What is distinctive about that voice is that it can so intimately recall the many small details of a little boy’s fear and misery, as well as the voices and dialects of others-from the rough country speech of Magwitch and Orlick to the deaf Aged Parent’s loud repetitions or the mechanically predictable things Jaggers says. Yet other details seem to be forgotten. Pip tells almost nothing of his beatings from Mrs. Joe, but a great deal about his fear of them, using adult vocabulary and concepts in these reflections. The opening scene with little Pip in the cemetery recalls the tombstones as looking like “lozenges,” soothing the throat of this mature narrator. This way, the adult Pip not only evaluates events as he remembers them but also adds a deeper insight than . . . Read More
Alienation and Loneliness
Beneath Charles Dickens’ major theme of a great respect for wealth is an analysis of the fate of the outsider. At least four known orphans-Mrs. Joe, Magwitch, Estella, and Pip himself-have suffered loneliness, but each character reacts differently. Pip begins his story as a child standing in a gloomy cemetery at the grave site of his family, so pitifully alone that he can do no more than imagine his mother as the “wife of the above,” which he can only interpret as directions to his mother’s current address in heaven. Pip himself is often threatened with death by his sister and again by his convict, Magwitch. Even Orlick, the town lout, tries to kill an adult Pip. Joe Gargery is Pip’s only friend on the marshes, and even after Pip is introduced to city life friends are few compared to the number of those who are coldly uncaring or dangerous. On the other hand, Estella’s odd childhood, . . . Read More
The First Stage of Pip’s Expectations
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations opens as seven-year-old Philip Pirrip, known as “Pip,” visits the graves of his parents down in the marshes near his home on Christmas Eve. Here he encounters a threatening escaped convict, who frightens Pip and makes him promise to steal food and a file for him. Pip steals some food from his brother-inlaw, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, and his cruel sister “Mrs. Joe,” with whom he lives, and takes it to the convict the next day. The convict is soon caught and returned to the “Hulks,” the prison ships from which he had escaped.
Pip is invited to visit the wealthy Miss Havisham, and to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham lives in the gloomy Satis House, and Pip discovers her to be an extremely eccentric woman. Having been abandoned on her wedding day many years earlier, Miss Havisham has never . . . Read More