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  • I'm John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.

  • So some of you might be familiar with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from the

  • Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, which is a great show.

  • It's especially enjoyable if your favorite emotional experiences are fear, loathing,

  • and waking nightmares.

  • But the book is even better.

  • Now, that's not always the case--the movie Die Hard was better than the book it was based

  • on; The Fault in Our Stars was a very good film--but it is true of the Handmaid's Tale.

  • So read it!

  • OK, so last time, we discussed the historical events that influenced Atwood as well as why

  • she characterizes her novel as speculative fiction.

  • Today, I wanna focus on the narrative's perspective--or perspectives.

  • Although Atwood has said that she wanted to write from a “female point of view,” and

  • she obviously literally did that, I want to discuss today whether there is a distinctive

  • or inherentfemaleormalepoint of view, outside of just narration, and also

  • why Atwood presents her final chapter from the perspective of a male scholar.

  • INTRO The Handmaid's Tale is set in the reproductively-challenged

  • Republic of Gilead, where fertile women are forced to have babies with military Commanders.

  • To maintain her sanity, Atwood's protagonist, Offred, engages in personal rituals, but also

  • connects with other womenlike her college friend, Moira and a fellow Handmaid named

  • Ofglen.

  • But let's face it.

  • Offred's life is terrible.

  • Her husband and child have been taken away.

  • Her mother is missing.

  • If she fails to conceive, she will be forced to clean up toxic sludge.

  • And worse, her Commander appears to be sterile.

  • A handsy obstetrician offers tohelpOffred conceive.

  • (She declines.)

  • The Commander's wife bribes Offred to mate with the gardener/chauffeur, Nick. (which

  • Offred accepts.)

  • Meanwhile, the Commander entreats Offred to play Scrabble, to wear some (seriously) old

  • lingerie, and to visit a brothel called Jezebel's.

  • At Jezebel's, Offred discovers that Moira is working as a prostitute.

  • And it's from Moira that she learns of her mother's fate.

  • Offred begins to lose her grip.

  • When Ofglen asks her to become a spy for theMaydayresistance movement, Offred drops

  • the ball.

  • The Commander's wife confronts Offred with the (recently-worn) lingerie.

  • And right before the novel ends, Offred is arrested.

  • So, let's talk about whether this narrative is presented from a “female point of view.”

  • It's a tricky question.

  • The relationship between gender and narrative has sparked decades of academic debate about

  • how sex (biological designation), gender (social identity), and/or sexuality (orientation of

  • desire) shape texts and their analysis.

  • And I'm not going to resolve it today I'm just going to try to introduce it to you.

  • In the 1960s, the structuralist theorist, Tzvetan Todorov coined the termnarratology”.

  • It's a word accustomed to analyzing the themes, and conventions and symbols of a text.

  • Todorov argued that we should also be analyzing the structure and function of narrative.

  • Soon, feminist theorists began to explore the implications of gender on narrative form.

  • Some fought to define a distinctivelyfeministpoetics.

  • Others resisted the idea that there's a fundamentalfemaleconsciousness or

  • self.

  • In 1975, the French theorist, Hélène Cixous, coined the term écritureminine (loosely

  • translated to meanwomen's writing”)—And yes, I know that my french pronunciation is

  • fantastic.

  • Cixous maintains that misogynistic culture hasdrivenwomen from exploring their

  • desires.

  • She encourages women to use their bodies as a source of inspiration.

  • But she also recognizes that femininity is a social construct, defined as much by cultural

  • convention as by biological characteristics.

  • Cixous associates “fémininewriting withopenness.”

  • For her, women's writing isn't the exclusive provenance of women; it's a non-exclusionary

  • approach to exploring that which is different, orother.”

  • It's a way of regarding the world accessible to all genders.

  • So, let's explore the degree to which The Handmaid's Tale exhibits this kind ofopenness.”

  • We know that Offred often presents her bodily experience by cataloging physical sensations:

  • Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood,

  • in narrow strips, highly polished [....] [A] chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to

  • be dismissed.

  • I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.

  • (7)

  • Now This is a tiny moment of expressing bodily autonomy--putting her own unfolded hand into

  • the sunlight--but it is still real.

  • Offred--robbed of her name and her freedom--still finds ways to express her existence using

  • her body--including, by the way, in her relationship with Nick.

  • And she also expresses her existence by telling stories:

  • ...if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.

  • You can't tell a story only to yourself.

  • There's always someone else.

  • Even when there is no one.

  • (39-40) This is storytelling as a survival technique,

  • as a way of establishing one's humanity when the broader culture is denying it.

  • Those needs to testify and connect are human desires, not restricted to a particular gender.

  • But pay attention to the way Offred writes about her body and her bodily experiences.

  • Sometimes, she describes her body from an external perspective:

  • I know they are watching, these two men who aren't yet permitted to touch women.

  • They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt

  • sway around me [....] I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.

  • (22) Offred's ability to view herself from the

  • outside here is manifestation among many of heropennessto imagining the perspectives

  • of others.

  • At other times, Offred describes her body from a different perspective:

  • I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing.

  • Treacherous ground, my own territory [....] I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object,

  • the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent

  • wrapping.

  • Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red

  • rather than black.

  • Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars.

  • (73-4) Sinking into her body, Offred explores a territory

  • that is inaccessible to others--a “more real,” vastspacewithin, huge as

  • the sky.

  • Her own territory.

  • She says its treacherous ground, but still--her own.

  • It's also worth considering that Offred chooses to have sex with the gardener, Nick,

  • and states very clearly why: I went back to Nick.

  • Time after time, on my own [....] I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely.

  • (emphasis added, 268) So, Offred's descriptions of inhabiting

  • a female body, heropennessto external perspectives, and her exploration of desire

  • exhibit the qualities associated with écritureminine.

  • But here's the wrinkle: Offred recorded her story on thirty unnumbered cassette tapes,

  • and it was two male scholars who usedguessworkto arrange herblocks of speechinto

  • text (302).

  • In other words, it was male editors who created the structure to Offred's narrative that

  • we're reading.

  • So, to use an analysis word, that problematizes a bit what sex, gender, and/or sexuality have

  • to do with narrative structure in this novel.

  • There's this theorist Peter Brooks who famously describes the classic plot as a trajectory

  • of desire that mirrors the sexual experience of a normalizedmalesubject.

  • Like, in Brooks' reading, the start of a story requires arousal; the middle entails

  • expectation, frustration, and suspense; and the end involves a climactic release from

  • desire.

  • Now many readers, including I must say, myself, feel this theory leaves a bit to be...desired.

  • Some feminist theorists have argued that women's stories arepatterned”: they emphasize

  • detail and repetition; focus more intently on the relationships between events; contain

  • circular plot structures; and involve multiple moments of climax.

  • But I would argue it's just too simplistic to say that sex, gender, or sexuality dictate

  • what kind of plot youcanwrite.

  • All narratives are the product of a complex series of choices, some conscious and some

  • not.

  • Men write circular fiction that doesn't resolve; women write books with classic plotting;

  • and all attempts to put story, or for that matter gender, into dichotomous boxes are

  • doomed.

  • That said, Offred's story as we read it has the plot structure that mirrors the classic,

  • so-called 'male' plot trajectory--but is that inherent to her story or created by

  • later scholars?

  • Thinking about that,other questions emerge: how might her story be different if presented

  • in an alternate order?

  • And why did Atwood include theHistorical Notes on The Handmaid's Talechapter

  • in the first place?

  • Well, Let's go to the Thought Bubble.

  • So like the final chapter of Orwell's 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” “Historical

  • Notesassures us that the dystopian regime will eventually be overthrown.

  • And, of course, this is good news.

  • But, we have not left a dystopia for a utopia.

  • In this chapter, we learn that the conference chair is Professor Maryann Crescent Moon,

  • Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavut.

  • Apparently, women will regain the right to education and Caucasians may be marginal to

  • dominant culture.

  • But Crescent Moon works for a fictional university, while the (male) keynote speaker, Professor

  • James Darcy Piexoto, is affiliated with a historic bastion of Caucasian-ness: Cambridge

  • University in England.

  • Also, some readers have posited that Pieixoto's unusual name is a reference to Pope Pius IX,

  • the nineteenth-century Vatican pope known for repressing liberal values.

  • So, that might say something about the kind of society that will dominate 22nd century

  • America.

  • (1) Piexoto's lecture (and its reception) suggest that the culture studying Gileadean

  • Studies is still profoundly misogynistic.

  • (2) I mean, Piexoto objectifies Crescent Moon with some lame pseudo-flirting; he refers

  • to what other historians have calledthe Underground Femaleroad asThe Underground

  • Frailroad,” a joke that is met with laughter, and he says of Gilead, “our job is not to

  • censure but to understand,” which elicits applause.

  • But really, can't your job be both to understand, and to censure?

  • Piexoto even credits Gilead for itseffective totalitarian system.”

  • so he may fancy himself above the injustices of Gilead, but it's not like the structure

  • of patriarchy has been dismantled.

  • Thanks, Thought Bubble.

  • Pieixoto also critiques Offred for not having theturn of mindthat could benefit

  • his own research: She could have told us much about the workings

  • of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy.

  • (310) That is to say, he wishes she had approached

  • Gilead as a prototypical male historian, writing about great men and empire-building, but of

  • course, we as readers recognize the tremendous value in the way that Offred has told her

  • story, and the true heroism telling it required.

  • And then after Piexoto receives his final applause comes the novel's wonderful final

  • line: “Are there any questions?”

  • (311) There are many, of course, but the ones that

  • reverberate for me are: Could this happen now?

  • Could this happen here?

  • I think what makes the Handmaid's Tale so upsetting is that it shows exactly how it

  • could happen here and now.

  • It reminds us that the battles for equal opportunity and equal protection under the law are never

  • over, and they are never won.

  • And that we all must heed Offred's mother's warning: do not take your freedoms for granted.

  • Let us not be complacent.

  • Next week, we'll continue our look at dystopian novels with Voltaire's Candide.

  • Thanks for watching.

  • I'll see you then.

I'm John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.

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