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Author: Alexander Bogomolov

Memory and Influence

The first four chapters of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale introduce us to a dark, dystopian future of the United States in which fertile women are enslaved and extreme religious doctrine govern every facet of life. The story follows Offred, one of many fertile women enslaved to serve as Handmaids for the families of Commanders. One of the first things I noticed was Atwood’s use of multi-clause sentences, misused or missing punctuation, and extremely rich and detailed descriptions of objects, people, and settings. For me, this writing style suggests that we are not reading a memoir or diary, but rather the Offred’s flow of memories. These detailed images include the descriptions of the gymnasium, Offred’s room in the Commander’s house, the detail of  the faces of Nick and the Commander’s Wife, and even the manner in which the Commander’s Wife puts her cigarette out. We are also unaware of the narrators name even through the first four chapters (unless one is familiar with the story or read the introduction).

The detail in Offred’s memories also suggest a way to cope with the monotony and dread of life as Handmaid. Offred notices small details in her surroundings and often infers or questions meaning and purpose. This could be a method of keeping her mind sharp, active, and constantly thinking so that she does not go mad from her situation and the extreme rules that govern her life. Offred’s attention to detail may also be an indication of the boring, repetitive nature of her life in the Commander’s House. With very little variation in her daily activities, she is bound to become familiar with even the smallest details. Vivid descriptions are also utilized in Offred’s reflections of the past and the way life used to be, suggesting the role of vivid and detailed recollection as a means of coping with lack of freedom by grasping every detail from her past life and the society now gone.

Lastly, a connection is clear between the nature of young Guardians in The Handmaid’s Tale and younger members of Iran’s ruling party in Persepolis. In describing the Guardians, Offred recalls that “the young ones are always the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns,” which parallels Marji’s description of the young soldiers and young members of the Guardians of the Faith as being more fanatical and supportive of the regime. These two images reflect the susceptibility of young people to extreme doctrine pushed by those they look up to and those with the power to influence their education. It can even be seen in the US today with the rise of hate speech and toxic nationalism among some populations of white teenagers in Trump’s America. If anything, both descriptions serve as a warning of the power of influence those in power have over young people still searching for meaning in the world and their own purpose, and just how that influence can be utilized in extreme cases.

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Nobody Saw Their Fall

In Beloved, Morrison often employs repetition to convey a deeper, and sometimes darker, meaning. My attention was drawn early in chapter 19 to Morrison’s repetition of the phrase “nobody saw them fall” in the scene of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved ice skating. This phrase is repeated four times, and its exact meaning is not made clear. This moment appears to be a pleasant departure from life within the confines of 124, laughing and skating under “winter stars, close enough to lick,” offering their “perfect peace.” The notion that nobody saw them falling can be taken as their opportunity to enjoy life without the judgement of the community, with nobody to laugh or ridicule them for falling on the ice, where the trio are free to be carefree and spend time together as a family. In this moment, nobody and nothing mattered to the women besides each other.

Although the literal meaning of the repeated phrase refers to them ice skating and stumbling through the snow, it can be interpreted as referencing their social isolation and fall into madness. It could be conveying to the reader that because of the ostracization Sethe and Denver face from the community, nobody was there to watch them deteriorate to their current mental states, nobody was there to catch them and care for them. Even Baby Suggs was left to fall from her place of prominence with nobody but her family to watch. It is clear from chapters 20 and 21 that Sethe and Denver’s minds are scattered, and both deal with heavy truths that each has trouble coming to terms with. For Denver, it is that her mother tried to kill her and that she is someone to love out of fear, and for Sethe it is the constant obligation to justify attempting to kill her children. Sethe appears to be reminded of this when all three are laughing at Denver’s fall and Sethe “rises to her hands and knees” and begins to laugh and cry until the laughter stopped and the tears continued. Being on her hands and knees could have reminded her of Paul D referring to her as an animal, and briefly realizing that she could have had many moments on the creek like these had she not acted as the animal Paul D labeled her as.

Most striking to me was the fourth and final repetition of the phrase, where she instead writes “but nobody saw them fall.” Morrison’s departure from the present participle in favor of the infinitive form of the verb “ to fall” gives the reader a sense that their fall is complete. Perhaps this could just be Morrison’s way of closing the scene by the creek and transitioning back inside 124, or does this foreshadow something sinister to come? Does it mean that it is too late for Sethe and Denver? This line does come when the trio are walking through the woods, arms around each other, holding on tight. Does this represent the unity and bond between the mother and daughters, or does the final repetition’s use of the infinitive suggest Sethe and Denver have already fallen too far into Beloved’s spell?

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