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Author: Michael Paul

Artistic Choices Across Mediums

Due to a lengthy road trip this past weekend, I chose to complete the remainder of The Handmaid’s Tale by audiobook. While it would be easy to take the vocal retelling of Atwood’s novel ar face value, I found out later that the audiobook version from Audible expanded the original in the Historical Notes. When Professor Pieixoto concludes with “are there any questions?” in the written version, the extended audiobook chose to include “questions and answers that I think the people at that symposium, occurring in 2195, might ask,” such as why the chapters were arranged in the order they were put in and why seven of the fifteen chapters were titled “Night.” While I was skeptical of this choice when I initially learned about this change, I have come to realize that this might be a better representation of Atwood’s initial story. Afterall, Offred’s story was recorded, not written, and that easily gets lost when read like a book. Similarly, even the Historical Notes are a voice, and in the same way that Offred chooses to leave out details and even admits her struggle to recall al events properly, the artistic choice to add a Q&A session parallels the importance of taking Offred’s accounts with a grain of salt.

In this version of the Historical Notes, Professor Pieixoto explains that he structured The Handmaid’s Tale chronologically to the best of his ability due to the seemingly random order the original tapes were left in. This has led me to wonder why Offred chose to recount her experiences vocally. Other than the purpose of preserving and safeguarding her story behind music, perhaps Gilead took a larger tole on her than originally thought, leading her to lack the ability or confidence in her own writing. I also found it interesting that the Hulu series of the Handmaid’s Tale chose to present Offred’s story in a different order. It seems that many different versions of the original story can be presented in many different ways. This connects perfectly to our previous discussion on sempiternity because not only does Offred’s story seem early similar to many other events throughout history when shown through the historical context of the symposium but even her own account seems to lack a coherent order from start to finish.

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Transactional Relationships and the Spark of Rebellion

In this section of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred and the Commander’s affair continues to grow. We also get more snippets from Offred’s perspective on her previous life before the war, specifically with Luke. Much of what Offred remembers before the war pertains to her husband, which she acknowledges was with someone else before herself. When Offred was initially with Luke, she mentions that it took over two years for him to leave his significant other. This was during a time that was much less oppressive than post-war and the way that she describes her affair sounds justified, as if what they were doing wasn’t so wrong. Now that Offred has many of her freedoms taken away, she describes her affair with the Commander as “sinful” on page 181. While the circumstances are extremely different overall, the same concepts remain: that both parties want what only the other person can offer.

This leads me to wonder where this “relationship” will end up. Although Offred obviously loves Luke, there were some alarming instances that she describes about his behavior. One of these occurred when Offred was “let go” from her job. Luke acted very paternalistically and Offred mentions that she felt owned in that moment. Although times have changed, the situation with the commander isn’t all that different in that respect. He still basically owns Offred and is using her for his own personal gain. It just happens that Offred also has, at least a little, to gain from this relationship as well. Is this the beginning of a rebellion, or is this something that the Commander does with all of his Handmades? Maybe that in itself is a form of rebellion.

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Power and Limitations

Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale so far, we get Offred’s own accounts of her experiences. Similar to what we saw in Persepolis, this allows the reader to understand more intimately what the narrator has gone through, but it also colors the reader’s perceptions of characters and events. Two types of characters, in particular, stand out as enemies of Offred because of their imposing and authoritative tendencies that restrict Offred’s own authenticity. The Aunts control every action of the handmaids and are presented as evil and controlling, but we receive glimpses of their own backstories that add to the complexity of each character. Aunt Helen, for example, was once the head of a Weight Watcher’s franchise but is now described as fat by Offred. One can infer that the narrator decided to include Aunt Helen’s physical appearance to show that a person’s role does not define their character. Although the Aunts have significantly more autonomy than the handmaids, they are still grievously oppressed.

The female with the most autonomy and power that we are aware of currently is Serena Joy, who had once been an outspoken proponent for the domesticity of women as stay-at-home wives, under the presumption that women have a duty to serve their husbands. Now that Joy is finally doing her “duty,” she does not appear to enjoy it as much as she would have expected, especially during the vulgar “fucking” scene. Offred acknowledges Joy’s sentiments when she says “Which of us is it worse for, her or me?” on page 95, indicating that both Offred and Joy share restraints on freedom and miseries. At least previously, Joy had the freedom to choose the life she wanted, but now that she is deprived of simple human privileges, it is hard to view Joy as an enemy.

the Aunts and Serena Joy’s roles in an oppressed society is not purely fiction. During WWII, many Jews who were put in concentration camps grappled with similar problems of authority. Not all individuals in concentration camps were treated equally. Certain Jews were given opportunities to hold leadership positions. While this would give these “leaders” certain immunities and a more comfortable life, it also required that these people impose their own punishments on others and deny basic human needs from other members within the concentration camps. Often, these people are made out to be enemies, but, like the Aunts and Serena Joy, they weren’t given much choice. While the ethics of these positions of slightly greater power can be argued, ultimately, all are still oppressed and can connect on some basic level.

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Maturity and Personal Growth

This final portion of Persepolis can be characterized by Marji’s acceptance of herself as a unique individual as well as her considerable growth in maturity. Comparing back to the beginning of the book, there are many distinct changes that we see in Marji, which largely went unnoticed along the way. For physical changes, studies have shown that it takes six months to notice any personal differences. As we read through Marji’s life, it takes reflection back to Marji’s beginnings before we notice just how far she has come, both physically in how she is represented by Satrapi’s art style as well as how she has changed in her thoughts and actions. 

Because we have seen Marji’s life through her own eyes, it is hard to acknowledge when Marji acted unfairly. When Marji was in Vienna, she looked at the Western students with contempt because they hadn’t known war, especially when she was asked if she had seen people killed. On page 278, we see these roles switch. Marji, who had previously been shielded from the most horrific aspects of war and who had spent a good portion of her life in Austria finally acknowledges that she had not had the most horrific experiences in the room. In fact, she asks Reza nearly the same question that Momo asks her: “What? You killed people?.” 

This entire story has been about the conflict between individuality and conformity and we see Marji attempt to stand out in her own way from the norm in every way that she can. Finally, Marji has found that individuality does not mean being different in every way possible. Similar to when she was candid with the Mulah during the exam interview, Marji has found out who she is and acknowledges that she shares many experiences with others but also many experiences that remain very personal to her. As the reader, we can’t ever know what Marji truly felt like, no matter how well Satrapi does at portraying it, but we can sympathize and learn in the same way that Marji has grown to do the same.

 

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A Little Effort, a Little Love, and a Little Understanding

When Marji makes the trip to Austria, there is hope that she will be able to start a new life free of judgment. It would have, for the most part, seemed that way had Satrapi chosen to begin with Marji’s short life with Zozo and her family, but instead, Satrapi began “The Soup” with her recollection of her time at the boarding house. Immediately, we are presented with Marji’s own judgment of Lucia, who she had never met. It is easy to see Marji as someone who is above bias based on the way that she presents herself and her experiences, but she automatically decides that Lucia is like her old friend Heidi without ever meeting her.

Similarly, when Marji meets Julie and is introduced to her friends, it again seems like she has finally found a group of people that lack superficial judgment, but we see on page 168 that this group of “outsiders” is quite similar to the people that Marji has tried to avoid. Both groups are depicted sitting in their own circles with their backs to the “others.” There are a couple of things that we are able to pull from this representation of judgment, the first being that no one is above judgment or bias. People are often surprised when they take the Implicit Bias Test to find out simply how much preconceived notions affect their decisions and views on other people. Similarly, as different as we are made to believe people are, we are all similar in many respects. It takes effort, as I am sure Marji must find out as she tries to avoid conformity without the judgments that naturally arise, but Satrapi is showing the reader that we are more similar than different and that a little effort, a little love, and a little understanding can go a long way in helping each individual on their journey through life, as it has for Marji so far.

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Deborah Lipstadt’s Talk on Antisemitism

What is antisemitism? How do we define it? What does it look like? These questions were answered on Thursday, October 3 when author and historian Deborah Lipstadt spoke on her most recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. For Lipstadt, antisemitism is easy to identify. Countless examples throughout history and even today are testaments to its continuity. Yet, despite being surrounded by it almost every day, I realized during this talk that I have failed to notice its nagging existence. 

There is a long background of antisemitism throughout history, but Lipstadt argues that its template is consistent in the way it characterizes Jewish people. In almost every case, Jewish antisemitism “punches up.” People tend to look at Jews and see white, wealth, and power. Because of this, people argue that antisemitism cannot exist because Jewish people cannot be victims. This is one of many forms of antisemitism that Lipstadt defines, but she also acknowledges that antisemitism does not make someone a bad person. The “clueless antisemite,” for example, simply does not know that his/her beliefs or actions are wrong, yet still participates in the antisemitic rhetoric. Lipstadt expresses that this is one of the most dangerous types because it shows how deeply entrenched antisemitism is in American culture.

Although Lipstadt does not touch on the consequences of antisemitism, I have noticed a few outcomes in my own life that are directly affected by this. Internal oppression is one product of antisemitism that I see clearly occurring in a large portion of the Jewish population at the University of Richmond. I do not see antisemitism as a major problem, but the “clueless antisemite” is so engraved in people’s minds that certain comments, actions, and sentiments are enough to prevent people from acting as they normally would out of fear or embarrassment. If it took someone else to show me the dangers of seemingly harmless actions, I wonder what else I and many other students on campus are missing in the way we treat others. Creating a more open and inclusive culture seems more important now than ever.

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You are Beloved, and You are Beloved, and You…

As much as I would love to focus on everything that occurs in the remainder of Beloved, I will particularly focus on pages 248 to 257 because of its dense poetic prose, (maybe because I haven’t finished the reading but don’t worry, Dr. Bezio, I will by tomorrow). Morrison’s syntax changes drastically on page 254 when each sentence is shortened and appears to be a poem of sorts. Poetry is a way to convey things that would be difficult to convey otherwise and what Morrison is possibly conveying is quite interesting. To start, we don’t explicitly know who is speaking, but we can infer that the first part on page 254 is mostly Beloved speaking, the second part on page 255 is mostly Denver, and the third part on pages 255 to 256 is mostly Sethe speaking. I use the word mostly because although the context and word choice allows us to assume these parts fit a specific character, there appears to be a mixture of all three mentioned characters within each portion of the “poem.”

Of the many things I could point out within these pages, the preoccupation with faces is something that particularly stands out. If we follow my presumed speakers between pages 245 and 256, then Beloved “loves” Sethe’s face, Denver “needs” Beloved’s face, and Sethe “is” Beloved’s face. So if Beloved loves Sethe and Sethe is Beloved, then Sethe loves herself. There are a variety of other reasons within this portion of the book that leads us to acknowledge the mixture of all three characters, but what does this tell us?

Well, this book, then, seems to be a reclamation of the self. Sethe has felt alienated and at blame based on her skin color and her actions. Furthermore, Sethe has been represented as lacking emotion since most of our earlier accounts of her have been through other people’s perspectives. What Morrison might be trying to say here is that people must reclaim themselves. No one can be owned by anybody and a true account of history must be through the eyes of someone who lived it (which is missing in many forms of education). We also need many perspectives to get a full story. Sethe by herself is only a part of the story, as is Beloved and Denver. But together, we have a much better understanding of the context in which they lived. Finally, we all must accept ourselves for who we are. We are all multifaceted and dearly loved (or at least should be), which is the meaning of “Beloved.” Despite the horrors of the past and our previous actions, all have the opportunity to forgive.

 

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Parents and the Approach of Freedom

A common theme that seemed to be interwoven throughout chapters fifteen through eighteen is the relationship between mother and daughter. These bonds seem to go far beyond any other relationship and the lack of a main father figure works to describe this sentiment. This is also why Paul D has met so much resistance from Beloved since he acts as a divider between her and Sethe. In this portion of Beloved, we are confronted with two motherly figures who sacrificed immensely for the sake of their children. Baby Suggs didn’t want freedom at the costs that would be associated with it, but she knew that Halle was uncompromising when it came to his mother’s wellbeing, so she reluctantly accepted to be bought freedom. Baby Suggs immediately felt the conflict that arose from this situation. Because Baby Suggs left Sweet Home before the Schoolteacher took over, she never knew that hardships of slavery that her peers did. But in particular, one event really stood out that makes me question Baby Suggs’ freedom. On page 180, directly after he grandchild died and her daughter went to jail, two children reminded Baby Suggs that she had to fix their boots. Even in freedom, Baby Suggs is indentured and still a slave to pay off her house.

We can find the parallels between this instance in Beloved and today, as many African Americans still treated as second class citizens. One example that I came across in Justice and Civil Society is directly related to the public school system in Richmond. Many predominantly black and poorer areas don’t have access to the same resources that much of America has. Because of this, these areas are stuck in self-fulfilling prophecies of poverty. The freedom that is promised to everyone and the “American Dream” are often illusions for many populations, even after decades of social growth.

We see a similar situation infold with Sethe, who would rather kill her children than have them go back to slavery. What I find interesting about this is that Sethe was not willing to have her children killed while they were in the midst of slavery. It was once she saw freedom that she realized just how bad their situation had been. What happens today when people don’t even know what they are deprived of? Regardless, these mothers were willing to risk everything in their lives, and even their children’s lives, for the sake of their children instead of themselves. It is the mother’s love that allows her children to move forward in life and work towards being truly free. 

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Radical Compassion

On September 23, 2019, writer and journalist Andrew Solomons visited the University of Richmond to speak on the topic of “Radical Compassion” at the Weinstein-Rosenthal Forum on Faith, Ethics, and Global Society. In times like today, or any time for that matter, Solomons argues that there is a need for unconditional love and compassion. Although he offered a variety of different stories and anecdotes, each revolved around the idea concept of the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Each society is beautiful, but each also has outsiders. Solomons questions what mainstream society is and acknowledges that being different is good, but being alone and different is difficult. Radical compassion is a way to forge meaning and build identity among individuals. It invites everyone to share joy, and doing so changes the world.

One aspect of Solomons’ talk that stood out was his reference to Toni Morrison (how relevant). Through this comparison, Solomons points out that the idea of freedom is not static. Because freedom is a verb, it must be lived every day and entails commitment. Once one is set free, he or she must claim a free self, but that does not mean this is without pain and oppression. It is hard for someone to live an oppressed life alone. For Sethe in Beloved, her children give her meaning and her future gives her meaning. She is able to endure the hardships of her life because she has a purpose, but more importantly, because she is not alone. She received radical compassion from Amy on her journey away from Sweet Home and she found community at the 124 house. Without these, Sethe might not have endured. 

This idea of radical compassion should be an important factor in our own lives. Naturally, people will create walls and group themselves. But to Solomons point, each group is unique and special in its own way. It is our job to build and relationships and understand each other unconditionally in the same way a parent loves his or her child unconditionally. It takes effort but being closed-minded shields us from the beauty of others. Because we need meaning, we should also pay it back and give others meaning. I found this talk extremely interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking and I would urge everybody to look into Andrew Solomons books and TED Talks. 

 

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The Future is Bright, But the Past is Darker

The Beloved story is starting to pick up with the entrance of Beloved and the integration of Paul D within the 124 household. While this surely adds to an already complex story, I instead would like to focus on the idea of the future. Previously, we discussed how Toni Morrison appears to blend time; it is hard for the reader to identify what is now and what is the past. While this has worked to show Sethe’s fear of the past, we see on page 71, for one of the first times, a shift towards the future on the topic of the eatings when Morrison narrates, “she wouldn’t say another word. Until the next time when all three of them ran through the wind back into the house.” Similarly, Sethe acknowledges her preoccupation with the future when she says “I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow” on page 83.

It is no coincidence that this shift occurs in tandem with the introduction of Beloved and Paul D. While Sethe had been running her whole life, working to forget the past, this is the first time when things are starting to look good for the residents of the 124 house. Beloved seems to take the place of the dead baby (we also have not had any ghost interactions lately) and Paul D is working to integrate the “family” into society by bringing them to the carnival. For the first time since this book began, Sethe and Denver finally have direction and are excited for what the future holds. That is not to say that the past is gone, though. Morrison does say that Sethe’s “brain was not interested in the future,” but we are beginning to see a shift that might be cognisant of a shifting time. Post abolition but still with a long way to go, the future might have been bright for many African Americans, but a preoccupation with all that has been done and a dark past are hard to forget and move on from.

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