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Author: Nora Apt

The Handmaid’s Tale: Ch. XIII – Novel’s End

This final section of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves readers with a lot of unanswered questions. Chapter 40 begins with an unreliable account from Offred regarding her interactions with Nick. As we have discussed in reference to many of the works we’ve read this semester, individuals choose to reconfigure memories in order to cope with them. In reference to her encounters with Nick, Offred notes that “I made that up. It didn’t happen that way” (261). This uncertainty feeds into the ambivalence of the novel’s final scene.

A blog post about this final section would be incomplete without mentioning the scene where Serena Joy confronts Offred. Serena Joy summons Offred to reveal that she found her winter cloak with lipstick on it and the sequin purple costume. Serena Joy is clearly disgusted with Offred; however, I suspect that these feelings stem from the fact that Offred has a relationship with the Commander that deviates from the purpose of her role as a handmaid, bearing a child.

The novel ends with Offred waiting in her room to find out her punishment from Serena Joy. As she brainstorms potential ways to escape her penalty, the Eye’s black van arrives at the house. Nick enters her room to tell her not to worry as the members of the Eye who are here to take her are apart of Mayday. Serena Joy and the Commander do not understand what Offred has done. This confusion reveals that they were not the individuals who called the Eyes. The Eyes declare that they do not need a warrant due to “violation of state secrets.” This ominous ending relates to both Offred’s relationships with both Nick and the Commander. I can’t help but wonder what Offred’s relationship with Nick was truly like, and if that influenced the novel’s final scene. I might have to read the sequel as I am extremely curious as to what happens to Offred.

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Sharp Viewpoint Series: The Race Card

On November 12th, I attended the Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series event featuring Michele Norris. Founder of The Race Card Project and host for National Public Radio, Norris discussed the importance of leaning into uncomfortable conversations about race, identity, and inclusion. Norris’s Race Card Project accepts six-word story submissions about race. Starting with only paper submissions, The Race Card Project grew to accept responses to the prompt electronically. Norris and her team have collected 500,000 cards to date. These six-word stories tap into the individual’s honest thoughts about difficult topics of discussion. Often, when confronted with discomfort, many individuals fold their arms and tend to shy away from the uncomfortable. Given the extent of political polarization within the United States, conversations regarding race, identity, and inclusion are more important than ever. In President Crutcher’s introduction of Norris, he mentioned our nation’s “fraying social fabric.” I think this phrase perfectly captures the reason for discussions such as those facilitated through the Sharp Viewpoint Speaker Series: opportunities to engage with other perspectives.

One of the stories Michele Norris shared particularly stood out to me. Jamal, a white male, received a job offer from a high school in Des Moines, Iowa. Members of the school administration were surprised upon Jamal’s arrival on his first day. Quickly, Jamal realized he was a diversity hire, judgement made based on his name. Norris shared a quote from Jamal, “a name can walk into the room before they do.” This quotation demonstrates the prevalence of implicit bias within our country. I really enjoyed the discussion with Michele Norris, and I think that it was an effective method to spark tough conversation among individuals on our campus.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Ch. X-XI

This section of The Handmaid’s Tale provides greater insight into the how the Gilead assumed power. We learn that after “the catastrophe,” members of the Gilead “shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress” (174). Offred recounts that in the moment, these acts were blamed on “the Islamic fanatics” (174). After these attacks, the Gilead authority suspended the Constitution. New regulations were implemented: newspaper censorship, roadblocks, and closure of “Pornomarts,” “Feels on Wheels vans,” and “Bun-Dle Buggies” (174). These changes reflect the beginning of a shift towards a conservative society. Offred notes that Moira worked for a women’s collective at the time that the Gilead assumed power. Moira worked in the publishing division and “they put out books on birth control and rape” (178). I found this piece of information interesting; prior to the Gilead, Moira worked as an activist for women’s rights, yet we know that Moira defied authority and escaped the Center as a mechanism for survival/maintaining autonomy. I think that her occupation prior to the Gilead and her decision to the escape from the Center relate in the sense that both decisions reflect a desire to stand up for what she believes in.

I am very interested to see how Offred’s relationship with the Commander continues to develop. In this section, we learn that the previous Handmaid gathered the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” through visits she had with the Commander. Moreover, we learn that the previous Handmaid hung herself from the light fixture in her room. This helps to explain why the Commander continues to invite Offred into his office – to make sure her life is “bearable” (187). This confirms that the Commander’s own feelings serve as motivation for his actions.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapters V-VI

As Rachel mentions in her blogpost below, this section of The Handmaid’s Tale contains a great deal of information. The reading begins with a discussion of time. Offred longs for a hobby such as embroidery, weaving, or knitting to occupy herself. She recalls pieces of artwork that she’s seen that feature women waiting for something; pieces of art that convey a sense of boredom. Offred relates to these pieces of art as she too now waits for a man to put her to “use” (69). It was disheartening to see how easily Offred could connect with those paintings and animals such as caged pigs and lab rats. Moreover, Offred thinks back to her time in the gymnasium when the Aunts gave them time to rest and considers that maybe they were on some kind of drug. I was particularly struck by this remark; however, I think I agree with Offred’s commentary that “it was better to be lethargic. You could tell yourself you were saving up your strength” (70). By using this mentality, the Handmaids were able to cope as best as they could with their surroundings.

A blog post about this section would be incomplete without at least mentioning the horrific scene as recounted in Chapter 16. This scene explicitly reveals the true duty of a Handmaid, to serve as merely a body: a body capable of carrying a child. Serena Joy’s quick dismissal of Offred reveals her desire to assert her dominance within the social hierarchy rather than increase the chances of conception.

Chapter 17 describes three distinct acts of rebellion. First, Offred uses the butter (that she previously hid in her shoe) as lotion. Second, Offred sneaks out of her room to steal something. As Offred describes on page 97, she is “doing something, on [her] own.” These acts serve as glimpses of freedom in her very restricted life. Furthermore, these acts speak to the extent of her oppression, in the sense that she must use butter and leaving her bedroom in the middle of the night in order to feel somewhat liberated. Third, Offred and Nick’s encounter in the sitting room. Offred notes that “it’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy” (99). Like Rachel, I am curious to see the outcome of this scene and why The Commander is calling Offred into his office.

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Less is More

This last section of Persepolis covers a lot of ground; however, I want to focus my attention to pages 304 through 309. Soon after starting art school, Marji discovers that half of her classmates share the same traditional beliefs as the government while the other half thinks similarly to her. These likeminded individuals gather at one person’s home and practice drawing in a way that the school prohibits: one individual holds a pose while the others observe and sketch their physique. Marji notes that over time, the number of individuals in this outgroup increases. I find it somewhat surprising that their professor supports the student’s artwork that they complete outside of school. Specifically, the professor tells the students “bravo! An artist should defy the law” and congratulates them. Based on previous interactions throughout the graphic novel, I expected an individual in a position of higher power to prohibit any creative expression, particularly an act that the government would find unacceptable.

In addition to drawing, Marji and her friends gather nightly to throw parties. The patrol of guardians of the revolution routinely bust these events; however, their visit on one particular night has greater intensity than those prior. Satrapi conveys the magnitude of this dark encounter through the absence of words on pages 307, 308, and 309. This artistic decision effectively communicates the story and embodies the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In this case, the three pages worth of wordless cells depict one man’s death as he falls short in a jump from building to building (an attempt to outrun the officers). Satrapi’s decision to illustrate this heartbreaking scene with a minimalistic style demonstrates that fact that “less is more.”

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Hitting Close to Home

While this section of Persepolis contains many important scenes, I was particularly struck by the panels recounting the explosion on Marji’s street. Amidst shopping with her friend, Marji learns that a missile exploded in her neighborhood. Satrapi uses different shapes for the speech bubbles to depict different emotions. The shop clerk, who informs Marji of the incident, has a speech bubble drawn with slightly rigid lines which suggests a shakiness in his voice. Satrapi draws Marji’s reply inside of a speech bubble with well-defined rigids; this artistic decision conveys both Marji’s urgency and feelings of terror. Once Marji arrives back on her street, the style of the drawings within the cells change. The blank backgrounds call attention to the dialogue between Marji and her mother. As they discuss whether or not the Baba-Levy’s were home at the time of the incident, Marji’s eyes communicate fear. Marji and her mother pass the Baba-Levy’s home which is illustrated with shading. This is the first time in the work that we see something drawn with more than one color. While physically the shading represents the damage caused by the missile, I think the artistic choice serves to draw attention to the magnitude of the event.

In this moment, the war hits close to home (both literally and metaphorically) for Marji. Marji recognizes Neda’s bracelet among the ruins of the Baba-Levy’s home. Upon closer examination, Marji realizes that the bracelet is still attached to Neda’s arm. This unimaginable moment, particularly for a young child to experience, is life-altering. Up until this point in the graphic novel, Marji idealized aspects of the war; however, in the last cell on page 142, Marji expresses both feelings of suffering and anger. This moment clearly causes any of those romantic feelings about war to disappear. The choice to express Marji’s feelings with just a black square as the illustration reveals the intensity of these feelings.

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Moving Forward

In his final interaction with Sethe, Paul D embodies the novel’s final message: he acknowledges the weight of the past as well as the need for a future separate from this past. He tells Sethe, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322). Slavery withholds much of the future’s promise from its victims; having been denied the opportunity to shape his own tomorrows, Paul D must also claim his ability to decide what happens next.

Throughout Beloved’s final chapter, Morrison repeats the phrase “It was not a story to pass on” twice and then switches to the present tense to note that “this is not a story to pass on” (323-324). The initial use of the past tense establishes irony as the whole novel recounts a narrative that was “not a story to pass on.” Over the course of the novel, the characters struggle to liberate themselves from memories of their traumatic pasts in order to move forward. This message could serve as a reminder that the only way to advance in life is to forget about the past. In a literal sense, the phrase also demonstrates that the atrocity of slavery is not to be replicated in the future. In order to prevent this duplication, individuals and authors such as Morrison must continue to share the horrific yet important narrative of slavery.

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The Truth Hurts

In the final section of Part I, Morrison discloses the tale of Beloved’s death. Although Sethe escapes from Sweet Home, she lacks true freedom. Schoolteacher, his nephew, a slave catcher, and a sheriff all arrive at 124 with the goal of recapturing Sethe. When the men go around to the back of the house, they find Sethe “holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other” (175).  This powerful scene uncovers the truth about Beloved: Sethe killed her. On page 176, Morrison notes that “neither Stamp Paid nor Baby Suggs could make her put her crawling-already? girl down” which confirms that the “blood-soaked child” is Beloved (178). Sethe’s attachment to the dead child indicates that the killing was an act of love.

Despite Stamp Paid showing Paul D the newspaper clipping, relating to the tragic story of Beloved’s death, Paul D refuses to believe it was Sethe who committed the atrocity. When Paul D discusses the situation with Sethe, Sethe explains that she “took and put [her] babies where they’d be safe” (193). This statement suggests that Sethe thinks that death is a better option for her child than life as a slave. Although Paul D cannot comprehend Sethe’s decision, Sethe finds that she was successful as she kept her children away from Sweet Home. Finally, Paul D asserts that he finds what Sethe did “was wrong” (194). Moreover, Paul D proposes that there could have been some other way from protecting her children because Sethe has “two feet…not four” (194). Paul D’s statement suggests that he finds Sethe’s behavior to be animalistic. In this moment, the love between Sethe and Paul D dies. Paul D’s classification of Sethe’s behavior as animalistic parallels that of a slave owner. The contention between Sethe and Paul D, combined with Beloved’s presence causes Paul D to leave 124 at the end of Part I.

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Ghost or reincarnation?

On Beloved page 61, Morrison describes Sethe, Paul D, and Denver’s return to 124 after their time at the carnival. As they approach the house, a woman with “new skin, lifeless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands” sits near the steps. This imagery parallels that of a newborn. Once Sethe views the woman’s face, her “bladder [fills] to capacity” and immediately needs to use the restroom; however, Sethe can’t even hold it until she gets there as “the water she voided was endless.” This illustration remembers water-breaking. Morrisons use of symbolism suggests rebirth, perhaps this woman is linked to Sethe’s dead child. Specifically, the assertion that “there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now” further alludes to this relationship.

The woman tells Sethe, Paul D, and Denver that her name is Beloved. This revelation serves as additional evidence for some form of a connection to Sethe. As days go by, Beloved’s attachment to Sethe becomes apparent as “Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten, by Beloved’s eyes” (68). This toddler-like, possessive behavior from Beloved suggests dependence like that between a mother and her small child. Moreover, Beloved seems to know about Sethe’s crystal earrings that Sethe no longer owns. Strong evidence suggests that Beloved is a reincarnation of Sethe’s child. If this is the case, and so long as Beloved stays at 124, Sethe will continue to grapple with moving forward from her traumatic past.

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The Power of Acts of Solidarity

Langston Hughes’s “Night Funeral in Harlem” describes the funeral of a poor man. Lacking funds to pay the insurance company, the man’s insurance coverage was terminated. As such, insurance did not fund his funeral. The “poor boy’s” friends and girlfriend pooled together money in order to ensure the man had a proper memorial. This action conveys love through sacrifice; individuals contributed their own money to properly pay homage to their friend. The final line of the poem notes “It was all their tears that made That poor boy’s Funeral grand.” This description reflects the idea that material goods do not outweigh feelings of love. The “poor boy’s” community stands and acts together in solidarity.

This poem made me reflect on recent events in the United States and how communities come together in solidarity in light of them. For example, approximately one month after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, various organizations and activists arranged for El Paso Firme: an event in effort of standing up against white supremacy. The event was held in a local El Paso park; however, the town of Buffalo, New York simultaneously held a rally and march to demonstrate solidarity with El Paso Firme. This gesture serves as a reminder that in the aftermath of an atrocity, communities can band together to find strength.

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