Literature as Warning

U6th IB pupil, Yahoo Ho, looks at The Handmaid’s Tale and A Doll’s House and explores the contention that the value of much literature lies in the warnings it presents.

Literature has often been used throughout history as a medium to convey messages of warning, be it through allegory, as Jesus did in the Gospels, or grim depictions of a dystopian reality in the vein of George Orwell’s 1984. This type of literature has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, an invaluable source of foresight, a creative expression of what is to befall humanity should we continue to make the same misguided choices. I will explore this question with reference to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

With The Handmaid’s Tale being the work of dystopian science-fiction that it is, it is no surprise that many themes within it are of a cautionary nature. As such, it is ironic that the main plot recounts a Gileadean society modelled on the USA in the 1980s – which would be the past for present-day readers. This period of US history saw the rise to prominence of the neo-conservative New Christian Right, a movement with extreme fundamentalist ideals regarding politics, religion, and moral behaviour – three themes that Atwood explores.

Politics and religion are inextricably linked within Gilead, as religion is used as the vessel through which oppressive political decisions are made. The Wall and Salvagings are cruel concepts that would contradict the teachings of any religion, and yet they exist to deter activities such as abortions – forbidden by fundamentalist Christian values. This may serve as a particularly relevant warning to modern day readers about how religion may be used for nefarious purposes, or taken out of context in order to radicalise others – ISIS is a recent example, with life in its captured territories drawing parallels with Gilead, where ordinary domesticity and military regimentation exist side by side as illustrated by the ” Guardians” that are at every check-point. The population is also constantly surveyed and oppressed by the ” Eye”, an enigmatic motif that is prevalent throughout Offred ‘s recounting, a warning that may be applied to the increasingly intrusive government of which modern technology is capable. Even the most basic tenets of religion are distorted in this dystopian future: for example, prayer has become a public spectacle and an act of patriotism with the existence of “Prayvaganzas” – a portmanteau of ‘pray’ and ‘extravaganza’ – a profoundly absurd concept which lends The Handmaid’s Tale an element of satire, adding to its value as a literary warning by inducing humour whilst provoking thought within the reader.

A further commentary on the bastardisation of religion within Gilead is found in its ties to capitalist values, specifically the neo-classical market-oriented version of which Ronald Reagan was an avid supporter. One of Gilead’s slogans reads,”God is a National Resource’, suggesting that God is merely a commodity for the government of Gilead. This is emphasised with the employment of allusions to biblical stories and ideas in reference to merchandise that may be bought and sold, such as the store “Milk and Honey”, as well as cars named “Chariot”, which may be a warning against the effects of consumerism. Even the most sacred aspects of society are reduced to a price tag in order to feed humanity’s growing desires, with the religious tourism industry in Saudi Arabia already in full force.

The Handmaid’s Tale also offers readers a commentary on totalitarianism, presenting readers with a warning as to what might happen were an authoritarian government is freely allowed to define morality and control social behaviour. Gilead’s totalitarian leadership is built upon a patriarchal system, and oppression of women is institutionalised; all state apparatus is designed to confine women to the essentialist “two legged wombs” they are seen as. Their individual identities are lost to prescribed roles, reducing them to functions such as Marthas and Handmaids. This objectification of women is highlighted through the use of metonym, when Offred visits the doctor who “deals with a torso only”. The coloured uniforms that the women are forced to wear further dehumanise them, such as the symbolic red costumes of the Handmaids which reinforce gender roles by connotations of fertility and menstruation. Even names, an enduring part of one’s identity, are stripped from the Handmaids, who are known instead by patronymics such as Offred.

This oppressive theocracy even pervades into areas of life which form cornerstones of society: the home. The Commander’s household is a model of the Gileadean concept of a ‘home’, and yet it is filled with tensions and deception, such as Offred ‘s clandestine Scrabble games with the Commander, as well as the perverse Ceremony which leaves Serena Joy “stiff and straight as an effigy”, with the simile containing connotations of death, the exact opposite of what a homely, intimate relationship should be. The Handmaids in particular have nowhere to call home, as Offred refers to the sitting room as “Serena Joy’s territory’. This suggests that, despite the references to the time before, like unchanged wallpaper and pats of butter, the totalitarian state has stripped away her sense of belonging, which perhaps draws parallels with the insidious Nazi state.

However, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a glimpse of optimism in the gloom of its dystopian society, as Offred retains a consciousness of her own mind. The reader is granted access into her thoughts through a stream of consciousness writing style, which is particularly evident during the ‘Night’ episodes, where she can retreat into the security of her own mind. Though this may sometimes render her message distorted, it is only by storytelling that she retains a means of survival against the oppression and bleakness of Gilead. In particular, she combats the dystopian language of Gilead, an example of which is the “Particicution”, an almost Orwellian construction which blurs the line between fantasy and reality. She does this by employing image clusters of nature in her memory narrative, marvelling at Serena Joy’s beautiful garden, and insisting on maintaining a difference between the red of blood and the red of flowers. Moreover, her awareness extends to the incongruities she identifies in her life, remarking that “there is something hilarious about this” in the sinister, emotionless Ceremony. Although this may undermine the text’s purpose as a warning, it is comforting, and somewhat restores one’s faith in the strength of human individuality – which perhaps works to remind readers of our innate strength that may be drawn on when faced with adversity, as well as to emphasise that, regardless of the power of an oppressive state, individual identity is not so easily broken.

However, literature may also be valuable if it challenges perceptions with controversial themes for its time, provoking discussion from which improvements to society are engendered.

A Doll’s House was written in 1879, in a Victorian era dominated by the idea of patriarchal society. However, Ibsen’s work did not adhere to the contemporary status quo regarding gender roles, and came at a time in which there was a growing sense that the figure of the New Woman was a threat to conventional ideas about the ideal 19th century woman at the fin de siècle. As such, it was shocking to contemporary audiences when the play was first performed, with many encountering a censored version instead. Yet more than a century on, female empowerment is not only widely accepted, but also greatly admired and regarded as progression. A controversial play written by a relatively obscure Norwegian playwright may not have contributed greatly to solving gender inequality, but its value is undeniable in that it brought the issue into mainstream public discussion.

One way in which A Doll’s House challenged perceptions was through the presentation of Nora, the antithesis of the contemporary female, having to contend with the regressive society in which she exists. Helmer is characterised as the archetypical breadwinner, the head of the family.

Helmer appeals to all aspects of male hegemony – public opinion, the Church, and the law, and this is shown by the legal and cultural infantilisation to which he subjects Nora. Helmer calls Nora “my little songbird”, which has a possessive, dehumanising effect. Nora is also completely financially reliant on Helmer, begging him for “pennies” – making the revelation of her secret loan even more of a shock to audiences, and ironic as it is actually Helmer who was once completely reliant on her. Moreover, her stereotypical subservience is symbolised through the costumes that she and Helmer wear to the party – with her Capri fisher-girl outfit signifying social inferiority. Women were also seen as an extension of man’s empire and reputation, which is illustrated through Helmer’s enraged reaction to Krogstad’s threatening letter: ”You’ve destroyed my future “.

Nora is, at first, represented as the stereotypical housewife, and her domestication is illustrated through the activities she performs: buying presents and caring for the children. Even in her own house she is not allowed into Helmer’s office, quarantined into domestic areas such as the kitchen.  This is shown by the way she gravitates towards the stove, which both literally and figuratively represents her need for warmth. However, the play presents the transformation of Nora from a subservient housewife to an independent woman, as symbolised by the Christmas tree motif which is stripped bare by the end of the play. Her clandestine disobedience is illustrated when she lies to Torvald about eating macaroons, as well as her flirtatious interactions with Dr Rank. Furthermore, it is her greatest secret regarding the forged signature that provides the backbone of the play, keeping the audience in a state of suspense through dramatic irony. Her inner wells of strength are slowly revealed, as the audience finds out how she is capable and willing to violate the law in order to prove that she is more than just a “babe in arms”. Finally, her decision to abandon her “sacred obligations” as a mother by leaving her children is a move that undoubtedly captured audience attention, as well as sparking debates over its morality, undermining long-held views on gender role and the natural capabilities of women. As she herself puts it: “What do I care for silly old society?”

The attention-grabbing nature of the play also extended to Ibsen’s style. Written as a realistic problem drama as a counter to the prevalent Romantic theatrical style, exploring themes using the trivialities of real life such as a bag of macaroons rather than through intense emotion or melodrama, Ibsen rejected the prevalent genre of his time. Moreover, the open ending contrasted the moralistic conclusion many expected, further adding to the originality of the play in the eyes of a contemporary audience.

In conclusion, the value of literature may be derived from both the warnings it presents and its challenging of commonly held perceptions through the exploration of controversial themes – both of which are invaluable sources of wisdom in the search for a better future.

Yahoo Ho, U6th IB pupil

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