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Author: Katherine Fell

Protection and the Underground Femaleroad

We continue to learn about the many layers of the Republic of Gilead and Offred’s story as we begin to reach the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. In this chapter, called “Jezebel’s,” we learn about the Commander’s membership of an underground brothel in the city when he takes Offred on a “night out” and exposes her to “the club.” Here, Offred is brought back to the time before Gilead, seeing women wearing revealing outfits and makeup and smoke cigarettes. It’s a significant departure from the oppressive life that she’s been forced to lead during her time as a Handmaid. At the brothel, Offred sees her friend Moira for the first time since Moira escaped the Red Center by stealing Aunt Elizabeth’s outfit. We learn that we was in hiding for several months before being found out near the Canadian border as she was trying to escape. When given the choice between being sent to the Colonies and becoming a prostitute, she tells Offred that the decision was easy. This is the last encounter that Offred has with Moira.

What struck me the most about this section was the part in which Offred recounts Moira’s time on the run from the Gilead authorities. Moira tells Offred about the Underground Femaleroad. The Underground Femaleroad is an obvious reference to the Underground Railroad that was used to help escaped slaves find freedom in the nineteenth century. When discussing the Underground Femaleroad, though, Offred was sure to intentionally leave out the exact methods in which Moira was able to navigate the Underground Femaleroad and potentially escape Gilead because she did not want to compromise the Underground Femaleroad if it was still smuggling women out of Gilead.

This reminded me of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass purposely did not divulge the specifics of his escape from slavery. He knew that his escape was one of the most important parts of his life, and would definitely have been the selling point of his autobiography. However, he instead chose to protect the slaves who were still relying on the Underground Railroad, and he knew that by revealing these secrets he would have compromised the escape of countless other slaves. Offred does the same thing in this section because while it would have been fascinating to hear the nature of Moira’s near escape to freedom, Offred could have jeopardized other women’s escapes by revealing this vital information because her story could have fallen into the wrong hands.

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Subverting the Power

The most striking part of this section of The Handmaid’s Tale in my opinion was Offred’s recollection of Moira’s escape from the Red Center. Moira caused a toilet to overflow in order to distract Aunt Elizabeth, and then Moira jabbed something into Aunt Elizabeth’s ribs in order to get her into the furnace room. Moira tied up Aunt Elizabeth and stole her clothes. She used to pass to walk freely out of the Red Center and no one has seen or heard from Moira since then. She is the only woman that we have seen so far in the book who has actively rebelled against the Republic of Gilead. What she lacks in physical strength is made up for in her ability to outwit the system of oppression.

The nature of Moira’s rebellion was what really made this chapter stick out to me. The Republic of Gilead oppresses the women by forcing them into a caste system and projecting what caste they are in based on the clothes and colors that they wear. They are trapped in these roles and they are forced to project this oppression through their clothing. Moira, on the other hand, uses this system to her advantage and is able to use Aunt Elizabeth’s clothes to secure her freedom from the Red Center. If it were not for the oppressive systems and cultures of Gilead, this tactic would not have worked and Moira would not have been successful in her escape. What was once used as a symbol of domination over the women of Gilead became the vehicle for one woman’s escape. The subversion of this symbol of power is especially important because one of the hallmarks of the Republic of Gilead is being used against the institution itself.

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Living as a Prisoner in Your Society

The first chapters of the Handmaid’s Tale paint a dark picture of what it means to live in the Republic of Gilead. While in Persepolis, the women in Iran were incredibly restricted in how they could behave and present themselves in public, the women of Gilead, especially the Handmaids, are not nearly given the amount of freedom that Iranian women have. The Handmaids in Gilead exist simply as property of the state, and have no autonomy over themselves. It is incredibly jarring as a reader, especially coming from a western perspective, to see women treated this way in a fundamentalist society.

I think the most important element of the opening chapters, though, and the book as a whole, are Offred’s flashbacks. We learn that she not only lives in a society that treats her so cruelly and dehumanizes, her, but she remembers living in a world that closely resembles our own. Offred has not lived her whole life in Gilead and has not only existed as a Handmaid. There was a time in which she did not know what this life was, and we know this given the perspective of the first chapter when she is in the gym with the other women as they discretely share their names with one another in hope to evade the Aunts. this is incredibly important because we ourselves like to think that our society is well founded enough and that we have systems in place to prevent something like Gilead from taking reality. However, I find that the most terrifying part of the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale to be the fact that this kind of society was not always considered normal, however it was entirely possible for these extreme views to come into fruition and be imposed on the people.

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Satrapi’s Sacrifice

In this section of Persepolis, we see Marji return to Iran after living in Europe for four years. However, this return came at a very high cost after what she endured towards the end of her time there. Marji invested everything into Markus; her whole life would revolve around a relationship with a guy that she had only just met and Marji was in in no way prepared for when she eventually finds him in bed with another woman. She had spend much of her savings on him and had no plan outside of spending her life with him. This fairytale is completely shattered when their relationship ends, and Marji quickly finds herself homeless after she runs out of money. After she is forced to leave the buses and trains that she initially spends her nights in, she is relegated to sleeping on the streets in the middle of winter, greatly jeopardizing her health. Luckily, Marji is eventually hospitalized, but then has nowhere else to go. As a result, she collects money from Zozo and returns to Iran to live with her parents.

The chapter where Marji makes this major decision is a callback to the first volume of Persepolis; both chapters are titled “The Veil.” In both chapters, Marji goes from living without having to wear the veil to then transitioning into a culture where it is imposed upon her. However, this time, Marji is voluntarily returning to this culture because she has nowhere else to go. In this case, the veil is a last resort, and Marji is sacrificing her freedom of personal expression. Her personal expression was the reason why she initially left Iran, and now it is what she much sacrifice in order to survive after what happened to her in Europe. It’s interesting to see how much Marji has changed and come into herself since the start of her memoir, so I look forward to further reading how reentering the fundamentalist culture of Iran will personally affect her.

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The Things We Take for Granted

After finishing this section of Persepolis, I was truly surprised to see how different Satrapi’s early teenage years were from my own. I made me realize how much I took for granted all of the freedoms that I was able to enjoy because I am fortunate enough to come from an affluent family in the United States. While I was able to grow up experimenting with new clothes and was pretty much free to dress however I wanted, Satrapi was ridiculed and scrutinized for wearing western clothing, and was even threatened with being sent to “the committee.”

What struck me the most, though, was how much I take for granted the medical care available to us in the United States. Because of Iran’s closed borders, Satrapi’s uncle needed special permission from the government in order to be allowed to leave the country and go to England for his life-saving surgery. Because the hospital director used to be Satrapi’s aunt and uncle’s social subordinate, instead of taking the measures necessary to help her uncle, he leaves the situation up to “God’s will.” This is incredibly hypocritical. He says that Taher will get medical help if God wants him to, but he does not act in accordance with God’s will, which would be to help Taher. While the healthcare system in the United States is not perfect, life and death situations such as this are not dependent on arbitrary decisions like in this case. Living in the United States, we are incredibly fortunate to have access to such good medical care and whether or not we have access to certain care is not simply left up to someone who maybe used to wash our windows.

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The Ruined Gardens of Babylon

Last week, I attended a talk hosted by Dr. Omur Harmansah, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago. The talk was called “Ruined Gardens of Babylon,” and he discussed the dark ecology and heritage politics of the Middle East in his work as an archeologist. The talk was incredibly eye opening. There are multiple factors which have significantly impacted Dr. Harmansah’s work as an archeologist. For one, global warming has caused irreversible damage to our environment and archeological landscape, and therefore significantly impacts the ways in which him and his team are able to interact with the sites that they visit, and the sites themselves have changed drastically as a result of human activity in the twentieth century.

In addition to global warming, violence and terrorism have also unfortunately significantly impacted these incredibly precious and sacred archeological sites. ISIS has destroyed numerous archeological sites for the sake of promoting and protecting their political narrative, sacrificing ancient cultures and artifacts that have survived for thousands of years. Because of these environmental and political factors and their influence on landscape archeology, the ways in which we engage with our political leaders is incredibly important. If we engage and communicate with leaders who’s priorities are environmental protection and are looking to put a stop to organizations such as ISIS, then we will be better able to engage with the ancient civilizations that are at risk of being destroyed by the world around us.

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How Satrapi Choose to Tell Her Story

While I am familiar with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and I read the first volume when I was in high school, I am only just now realizing the brilliance in Satrapi’s decision to tell her story in the form of a graphic novel as I revisit the first 70 pages. While growing up in during the Islamic revolution is an incredible story, it’s one that very few readers can relate to, especially when Satrapi herself write about the alienation and stereotyping that the people of Iran have had to undergo as a result of the political extremism that takes place in the country. The comic book illustrations bring so much more life and personality to the story, and I don’t know if Satrapi’s words alone would be able to accomplish the same thing in conveying her innocence and of humor when discussing such a difficult time. In my opinion, the illustrations are what really give us a look into Satrapi’s feelings and emotions, as we are witnessing the world through her young eyes.

The points in the reading where I think that this was exemplified the best were the panels where God was illustrated. While Satrapi explicitly tells us at the beginning of the memoir that she was born a very religious person, the ways in which God is illustrated and the way he interacts with Satrapi visually offers much more than Satrapi’s words alone. Specifically, the last panel on page 53 and and the panels on pages 70 and 71 really demonstrate Satrapi’s internal struggles with her faith as she comes to terms with how dangerous the revolution is becoming. On page 53, she is completely enveloped in God, showing how strong her convictions were and that she was finding security in her faith. However, upon learning that her uncle had been executed, Satrapi and God are distant from one another, and the chapter ends with her floating in space, completely lost. Here, we really get the feeling of how alone she feels as the war begins. We feel this emotional weight thanks to the illustrations of the graphic novel.

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New Perspectives

What struck me the most about this reading was the new perspectives that in the series of monologues starting at Chapter 20. I was especially intrigued by Denver’s thoughts, given that besides, Beloved, Denver is the character where we have gotten the least from her perspective in the narrative. As readers, we have been apprehensive of Beloved’s presence and have feared for Sethe’s safety, given that we know that Beloved died at Sethe’s hands. We know that 124 has been haunted by Beloved’s presence, and she has returned in a corporal form with the possible intention of harming those who live there, namely Paul D (the outsider who was trying to find his place in their family), and Sethe (the person who killed her). We have seen that Denver is intrigued by Beloved and has tried to connect with her, but in this chapter we learn that Denver is also concerned for Beloved’s safety.

Denver has chosen to stay with and love Sethe out of fear, now that we know that Sethe’s two sons had to flee from 124 after Sethe tried to kill them after she murdered Beloved. This revelation completely changes the way that we read Denver and Sethe’s relationship, now that we know that Denver is afraid in her own house, and is still scared of what her mother might to do Beloved. It will be interesting to see if and how these revelations are brought out into the open and how they will force Sethe, Beloved, and Denver to address their relationships with one another.

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The Conflict Between Past and Present

The discussions that we had in class regarding Paul D and his relationship with wanting to move forward and pursuing the future really came to fruition in the most recent chapters of Beloved. We learned in these chapters that Paul D has a history of sexual abuse and is still wrestling with these demons as he contemplates his autonomy and his masculinity. So far, in the novel, Paul D has adamantly resisted the arrival of Beloved and her role in 124. This is because Beloved is the manifestation of the past coming back to haunt Sethe and the people in her life, while Paul D is trying to look towards the future with the potential of raising a family of his own with Sethe.

Despite Paul D and Beloved being at odds throughout the story so far, Beloved is able to assert her power over Paul D when she seduces him. This brings back the difficult and painful memories that Paul D was suppressing in his “tin tobacco box,” as he repeats the phrase “red heart” as he has sex with her. Paul D is ashamed of his actions and his past, and can’t bring himself to tell Sethe the truth when he tries to confess to her. The fact that Paul D has such a conflict with his past and refuses to embrace the horrors that he endured are detrimental to him.

This idea becomes evidently clear when Paul D asks Sethe if she wants to have a baby together. Instead of being honest, he chooses to try to again simply move on and pursue the future. This is a problem because instead of wanted to have a baby with Sethe out of love with genuine hope for a family, the baby is considered a “solution” for Paul D. Having a baby with Sethe will bring back confidence in his sense of masculinity and identity. However, the opposite is true, as Paul D is just running further and further from the truth as he continues to burry his past.

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The Hidden Meaning in the “Haunted House”

Upon reading the first three chapters of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it becomes evidently clear that the house where Sethe and Denver live is haunted in more ways than one. Early on we learn that Sethe is haunted by the house because her unnamed child is buried there with a headstone that simply reads “Beloved.” Denver is scared to live there because of how isolated it makes her feel. However the cultural and emotional significance that the house has on both Sethe and Denver goes much farther beyond this.

The house holds significant influence for Sethe. Despite being an escape slave, she is not yet truly free. she feels trapped by her home, and I think that this lack of autonomy can be translated into what was also effecting her culturally in the story. She may have escaped the horrors of slavery, but even freed slaves were still horribly mistreated and struggled to become involved and respected members of their communities. While she is no longer enslaved, she is still subject to the racism and discriminatory culture that plagues America. In addition to being trapped and isolated because of her race, I thought that Sethe was also being trapped in the household because of the fact that she is a woman and a mother. Not only are there ramifications about her race in this time period, but Sethe is also trapped and held back because of her gender. I look forward to reading about how Morrison explores these themes as the novel continues.

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