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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’


Horrifying fake cheer of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer) being moved from one “posting” to another

Friends,

I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances how they are finding The Handmaid’s Tale too grim, too gruesome, too relentless. Life today in say Yemen, life for women in deeply misogynistic cultures, might be characterized similarly. Nonetheless, I am not sure this series is not bad for my mental health. As I watch, I start to remember how hierarchical, controlled, unfree our society is, how dangerous, how women are trafficked, I recall pictures of executions recently. Myself I think the problem is Hulu is milking a not very long book for too many episodes. The first novel of Outlander produced 16 episodes but it’s a book 2/3s as long and all 16 ran for the first year, with no break.

Atwood’s novel is meant to be allegorical, symbolic and often unrealistic; it’s prophetic (I regret to say) and the matter of two out of the these last episodes are back-stories, meant to fill us in, a traditional technique in realistic fiction for deepening a novel psychologically. Episode 7 brings us what happened to June-Offred’s husband, Luke, how he came to be a rare successful fugitive and offers hope that there is a world outside Gilead where decent human lives may be lived; Episode 8 is Nick’s backstory; both and Episode 9 show the characters who were so purely evil bullies showing signs of humanity, pity, much more complicated emotions than had been allowed these nightmare figures before. (For 1-3, out-harrowed; 4-6, parallels with our world; likeness to Mary Shelley’s Last Man)

I find it effective. I fear watchers are tiring of it so bring three together to speak to its excellence. The backstories of Luke and Nick, the escape of one, the background of the other, the Nightclub scenes with Moira and the vile commander; the extraordinary scenes of Janine switched from one “posting to another,” her attempt to kill herself and her baby. A good analysis at The Guardian.

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A moment from Luke’s escape journey (O-T Fagbenle Episode 7)

Episode 7: Luke and a world beyond

I felt for Luke and was relieved to see he was presented as a normal male — not a super-hero. We have their thwarted escape, the capture of June and Hanna, then a flashback to what their life was before the loss of a war. We presumably skip Luke’s divorce of his wife and fast forward to where he and June live in an apartment with their young daughter, Hanna


Breakfast (Elisabeth Moss and Jordana Blake)

Then the frantic escape, how Luke is missed, and his slow painful journey. It made me think of “the railroad” escape route slaves followed before the US civil war. Throughout Luke is as unnerved and subject to fear as June. So as the commander is sometimes impotent, our hero does not know how to shoot a gun. Normal males know how easy it is to slaughter someone with an powerful weapon; when they are tortured, they cry for mercy; they don’t make bargains since no one will bargain with them; in fact they are slaughtered. Huge numbers of people in the world, let alone the US don’t know how to shoot a gun either. I don’t at all, neither did my husband, Jim. I was worried each of the people who were helping Luke were in fact disguised enemies. He is gathered to a place where others are waiting and slowly all make their way beyond some barrier. Fast forward to Luke today in the US with the woman tortured to the point she can’t talk whom Luke met on his transitional journey is now Luke’s lover — so again this breaks with the convention of super-faithful lovers. I was surprised to discover that the US gov’t is presented as a liberal bastion outside Gilead only located now in Toronto, Canada.

There is one convention not broken with — the intense pretenses that all is well the two parents (June and Luke) perform in front of the child (Hanna). I know this is how parenting is often presented when in crisis but it’s not been my experience that parents remain all Santa-Claus-y. You may try to reassure and keep the child safe but you are yourself taken up by emotion. In the films I saw recently by an Iranian filmmaker which were so realistic by Ashgar Farhadi, he shows the couples in trouble trying to carve a space apart for children, and the children’s presence in effect making them treat one another better while the child is in the room, but not of this frozen all is well happiness. The child herself has a mind and would be endlessly questioning and frightened.

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Max Mingella (in mirroring scene, Episode 3)

Episode 8: Nick, the chauffeur

It begins with Nick’s story. We find ourselves in a Michigan unemployment office where he’s being berated by a suave suited employment official for not making it in a series of menial jobs. There is now nothing for him since he didn’t succeed at these: the implication is he was difficult. We hear of how his father is desperately unemployed, and all his family. He wants another chance but the oafs behind him (yes they are presented as thugs) intervene: they are tired of waiting, one shoves him (the mode of our society today it seems) and an all out fist fight ensues with Nick thrown out by security. The employment official is out there, and suddenly seductive, takes Nick to a coffee shop and offers this strange job as a chauffeur in a land that offers jobs to all, is ordered, where women can have babies again.

The camera moves to Gilead and we are back t June as Offred trying to survive by a combination of quiet assertiveness, manipulation, attention to her own needs. She now goes to Nick regularly for sexual trysts; she tries to memorize his face as she says she should have done Luke. Knowing Luke’s alive and elsewhere hasn’t helped. We move to the library, Mr Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) study — kept private from Mrs Waterford (Yvonne Strahovsi). He emerges as a vile creep, demanding that Offred play up to his offer to take her somewhere for “fun.” Elizabeth Moss manages to convey through her quiet frozen features how she hates herself for this hypocrisy but is forced into it — or she’ll end up in her small dark room with no liberty (she’s not allowed even to read).


Joseph Fiennes as commander (not in Jezebel but another “glamorous” place he is so at home in)

How can she say no: he shaves her legs, brings a sequined super-sexed-up dress for her (very short, very tight), lets down her hair and they get in the armored car, Nick driving. It seems Mrs Waterford has gone for 2 days to see her mother. The streets are elegant and deserted, high rise, and they get to a place so gated it’s chilling. So many checkpoints to get there, and once there so many papers to be presented. Well, we are in the nightclub scene, placed called (so stereotypical) Jezebel’s, central to the later part of the 1990 adaptation, only here it’s made clear how the women are utterly subject, enslaved sex objects. Offred says she thought this kind of illicit activity forbidden, but the commander says we must accede something to “human nature.” He means pleasing male appetites for excitement. The camera moves from woman to woman. One is very heavy, clearly to her male’s taste. Everywhere Women’s breasts hang out. One man ask Offred to dance, Waterford intervenes immediately, the man is all apology, all abjection, congratulates the Commander on his Mexican embassy negotiations. As with 1990 she encounters Moira (Samira Wiley), the friend she thought had escaped by train:

She had not made it; they have an intense reunion in a corridor; the friend says the only way out of here is a black van feet out. The work is not bad, only nights. We move to a corridor where he takes her into a room. He makes love to her, we see her crying in her face — love is sex. After he sleeps she escapes to the corridor and from the rooms we hear the sounds of beatings, of sadomasochism, of women’s cries, of men’s jeers, some rooms are silent. She gets back to the main room.

At some point we switch to he recent past where Martha in the Waterford house found the previous handmaid hung in her room. Her horror, Nick cutting her down. This appears to be a memory of Nick’s. We also see another handmaid at the nightclub wheeling and dealing with others for ridiculous goods. As the two visions dissolve, we are in the parking lot, with all three walking back to the car. Nick resumes his place as driver. The next day Mrs Waterford back and Waterford all solicitude, Offred in the kitchen and Nick all stone face. He doesn’t want her to come anymore; he won’t say why. She demands “talk to me.” Music to my ears. She knows nothing about him. He says the barest: Nick Crane from Michigan. He relents and says they’ll end up hung from walls. She says better than having no pleasure, nothing. Is he satisfied with this life: polishing car, chauffeuring, getting handmaid’s pregnant. They almost kiss.

Upstairs Mrs Waterford follows Offred to her bedroom — she has a present. Offred has to pretend to be as grateful for this box she never asked for as she has to pretend to want the fun of the nightclub. And then the creepiest thing of all. A music box with a ballerina who when you turn the key dances that dance. Suddenly I remembered buying one each for each of my two daughters once Christmas Laura was 11 and Izzy 5, how there was envy over who had the better box. I felt so sickened; I had not seen this as the vile symbol it is. Hour ends with Offred vowing not to end up one of those ballerinas.

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Janine (Madeline Brewer) moved to new couple where she is soon raped, Aunt Lydia holding onto her firmly.

Episode 9: A strong ethical perspective

I found it as bitter in some ways as Episode 8 – so truthful – but at the same time we are again beginning to see there is a hope of escape and again we are seeing in some of the characters more natural humane feeling – particularly at times Aunt Lydia (Anne Dowd). For an excellent recap the episode is not only blistering but deeply poignant and ironic. The parallel in our world is surrogate motherhood where for very little money (but desperately needed) women rent out their wombs to be artificially inseminated. Some of these trios end up in court.

The episode begins up with the rows of maids in a arch around a house and we find that Janine (Ofwarren) is turning her baby over to a couple, all are congratulating her and we see how distressed she is. You have to burp her she says to the woman she is giving her baby too. She has been breast feeding; the new one will be bottle feeding. How they will cherish this child always.

Aunt Lydia looks sorry for her. She is one of those whose lefteye has been gouged out. Lydia says to Offred’s question is she okay, let her be an example to all of you. She waves from the truck. Ofwarren moves out and she is again congratulated – she is being turned over to another couple to do the same. Commander Daniel and Mrs Monroe She is Ofdaniel now. The horror of Lydia saying she is so proud, go like an open flower.

It’s now winter: the scenery of snow in this one is so beautiful and so appropriate – all frozen, gothic imagery – it contrast to blood red capes.

We move back to the house and see Mrs Putnam pushing the baby carriage with Mrs Waterford by her side: Mrs Putnam is so glad to get rid of Ofwarren: “devoured her bottle, who needs that horrid girl, it was like living with a feral cat.” Someone passes, a woman (a Martha) but they shove her off. In a nearby scene Offred approaches one of the handmaid’s to ask about “Mayday” and the handmaid refuses to acknowledge anything. As she goes round building the handmaid is there and says there is a package at Jezebel from Rachel she must fetch. So Offred is now risking her life to enter a conspiracy to escape, to get news to outside. Pro-active.

We see Offred upstairs when the commander comes home and suddenly he is all suspicion. What she’s doing here. She becomes seductive and says she wants a good time and maneuvers him into thinking of and agreeing to go back to Jezebel. He says to her at one point: “you have other plans” (mocking her). The episode constantly showing how imprisoned everyone is. Nick has to take them and Offred joins in with Waterford in half-mocking Nick for his intensity –- “chill out” they say. Commander leers over Nick in the hall showing he’s the man in control of Offred’s body. He makes all decisions. The commander though wants to take her up to the room and fuck her. Nick suddenly warns the commander about dangers and commander thanks him. “You’re a good man Nick always looking out for me.”

Mrs Waterford downstairs sewing. Restless goes to kitchen. She dare not check whether her husband in his study. Martha comes in and suggests something more than camomile tea. Brandy. Mrs Waterford shares and it comes out Martha lost her son at 19 in the war. Mrs Waterford for a moment feels for her the way Lydia felt for Ofwarren, but quickly returns to pious script talk. Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted say Ms W; Martha: praise be.

We are in Commander Daniel and his wife’s bedroom. The woman kinder on the surface, but we see this horrifying scene of now OfDaneil put between the wife’s legs and the husband pushing his penis into her. Scoot over, says the wife; we’re in this together, aren’t we? Well, no. Terrible imprisoning in lap (okay sweetheart I’m nervous too) Janine whimpering. The thrusting. Cold. She can’t bear it and suddenly gets up and moves into a corner and protests all in a heap. They say she’s mad.


Moira (Samira Wiley)’s dress during her escape attempt (Episode 4)

Meanwhile Offred has to pretend to like the sex in the corridor rooms of Jezebel. In bed he says “you don’t have to be quiet here, you can be free.” He is demanding she enact pleasure. Then he says he knows she wants to meet someone and how kind he is. “I know you know Ruby [his name for Moira], relax I did something nice for you.” Well it’s Ruby or Moira who is in a rage, what are you doing here – she’s a prisoner and slave, a whore; what the fuck are you doing back here, she demands of June. Nick downstairs in kitchen asks questions and the woman there he’s friendly with says if you ask questions you’ll end up on wall. Don’t you like your pasta. Nick does care but hides it; he says you’re right this pasta is incredible. Woman as cook of course. Back to Ruby and Offred. Says Ruby: I will not do it; because Alma said so. Offred: “you’re a coward; I didn’t give up. You said we’d fine Hanna; you promised.” “We’re too fucked” Moira-Ruby replies. Offred: “You keep your fucken shit together, you fight.” Ruby shuts the door in her face. Commander comes in and she is weeping. She left he says, good “she’s a degenerate.” “pull yourself together, we’re going … “ Offred in car – a very familiar trope of unhappiness. Seen through glass.

Mrs Waterford upstairs the husband pretending to have been in office. He refuses implied invitation to sex; you should get some sleep. He’s in charge of all. Then Offred is woken in the night by Mrs Waterford, called upon as Ofwarren (Janine’s previous name still in use) has stolen the baby back, is on a bridge, and about to jump. A long powerful scene: Janine cries out against husand who she says promised she and he would run away; whose penis she used to suck. Then Offred does tell the first couple to go off, and we see how man is resentful; both loathe Janine and will punish her.

This is an extraordinary scene, using the smaller TV art to make emblems. Janine and her baby on the bridge cross the whole screen. Offred manages to convince her not to hurt the baby, give it up. She Offred staying for Hanna. Hoping to save her. So Moira gives her the baby which Mrs Waterford grasps from her. Moira jumps. Alas she is picked up by a hook. Next day Commander Putnam being taken in for questioning, he’s blamed. Mrs Putnam’s tight narrow face saying this is not my fault. Mrs Waterford says it’ll be hard without your husband so Mrs Putnam gets back by saying I remember what happened to your previous handmaid. We knew she hung herself not that she had an affair with the husband. We also continually see how the people are hard and mean and anything but what they pretend: contented and liking one another. All hypocritical. Mrs Waterford coming home distrustful looking for husband. Cannot get herself to go on his office. Then she is seen at the head of the stairs with commander there pretending he’s there all night. Lydia looking down at Janine in hospital bed on life-support. Stupid girl she says, sits down near her.

Next morning Offred at butcher, and he gives her two packages. He’s in on it. She puts it at the wall and finds on it a ticket from Moira saying she has done this for her.

To me all this imprisonment of each in his or her role (including Nick) is an image of our society in general seen from the point of view of real empathy and liberty. It goes well beyond the sex. No no says Janine I don’t want it. The professor in my Animals and American culture class said that what Americans believe in is evil – not that their beliefs are evil but that it’s evil they believe in. Everyone in these tight rooms, the camera making it all square stages. Juxtapositions brilliant.

The Guardian review by Sam Wollaston, having viewed the whole first season is among the best essays on the public Internet and is linked to other reviews.

Ellen

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The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3), and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

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In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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John Martin (1789-1854), The last Man (1849), a later painting illustrating Shelley’s novel, he was a friend

Friends,

This past November I blogged (at length) about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I had just finished reading with a class of people at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University (on 19th century women of letters); last week I finished reading with a group of people on-line here The Last Man and thought I’d say a few words about it. I thought of Frankenstein as ever present because it seems as relevant and alive today (no museum-piece, not a classic which although set in contemporary times in its era reads like a historical novel) as when it was first written in 1818. I can’t say this third novel of Mary’s (she had also written Matilda, a novel in the tradition of her mother’s Maria; or the Wrongs of Women) is as alive: The Last Man is often a weak book: prolix inert style for too many stretches, the characters faery tale unbelievable except when we can recognize in them Mary’s memories of Byron, Shelley, Clair Clarmont and others as well as herself, or when seen as caught up in nightmares and idyllic sequences. Its strength is its memorable dystopian vision which is elaborated over hundreds of pages. Dystopias right now are what everyone is reading or watching — as in The Handmaid’s Tale. I watched the fifth episode tonight (whence this blog).


Max Minghella as Nick and Elizabeth Moss as Offred at the close of Episode 5: she and Mrs Waterford have decided the way to impregnate her is use Nick’s genitals — but cold sex is not working, so Offred visits Nick; not unimportant detail is that around his hips he wears much hardware as if to link his penis with guns, nails, iron, whips …

In genre or type like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Last Man is not science fiction — if we require that newly invented or fantastical technology play a key role. To my mind Shelley’s book is very like the Northanger Abbey novels cited in Austen’s famous satire. Shelley’s opening reminded me of Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine, with its Paul et Virginie (or Daphnis and Chloe) love affair between central characters, Perdita and Lionel when they are adolesents. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction for the Valancourt edition of the novel.) I’d call The Last Man also gothic and very much coming out of the mode of Radcliffe, except no happy ending: it’s a dark vision in which all but one character die. The central characters are seen through the peculiar idiom of high idealistic sentimental romance, the tone intensely melancholy. It’s Shelley’s grief-work as she enacts and re-enacts the events of her life with these romantic poets in Italy. Mary Shelley’s deep trauma in reaction to PBS’s behavior (endless affairs and children with other women, her babies dying) is processed over and over. Lionel the narrator (a faux male like we find in George Sand’s novels) is mostly Mary herself; Adrian, this idealistic powerful leader is Shelley; Lord Raymond (a libertine) is Lord Byron. Idris is Clair Clarmont at times. There’s an Evadne, straight out of a Beaumont-and-Fletcher Jacobean tragedy. The politics is deeply conservative although what’s professed is deep humanity towards everyone. It’s Anglo-centric (everything occurs in places clearly versions of England or Scotland when we are not in a dream or nightmare version of Italy). War seems to be the only way to obtain peace (when all are dead); Mary resorts to emperors, kings, dukes, Protectors. The women all take traditional roles of wife, mother, daughter, or mistress.

I can refer the reader to a few essays offering interpretations of this novel (it has attracted a lot of scholarly attention in recent years), much of it predictable (alas), e.g., this is a realistic plague-story a la Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year) or visionary Camus (La peste), a horror piece in the mode of Charles Brockden Brown, apocalyptic in its spectacles; haunted by the nightmares of history Mary has read and the ghosts of people she cannot get herself to analyse accurately (and without false idealism). One problem with the scholarly essays is where is her book is situated, contextualized by male dystopias. Another is the autobiographical is ignored or denied as not interesting.

A third is left out is anger Mary cannot get herself to admit it. That’s the strain that unites it to The Handmaid’s Tale (or Charlotte Perkins’s Herland – she also wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I was alerted to this by Rebecca Mead’s essay in the New Yorker after interviewing Margaret Atwood. Atwood remarked that in a number of her dystopias she kills nearly everyone off. Or she was asked about this and replied yes. She then said that she usually saves a few people, a remnant to start again. We need hope. Well is this not Shelley? then I thought to myself, is this typical say of women’s dystopias? In Perkins’s Herland the whole community as as community is destroyed.


Herland

I know of another: Suzy McKee Charnas wrote a trilogy of dark dystopias in the 1980s, strongly feminist: Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. I don’t usually read science fiction (or allegorical fantasies) and have only skim-read these. The series begins in a dystopic post-holocaust America where men keep women as slaves. The women rebel lead by one woman, Aldera. By the second volume Aldera has joined a culture of free women who live a nomadic life and reproduce without men. It ends in a violent war where the two sides nearly destroy one another. Sixteen years later she wrote The Furies (1994), in which the women take back the male-ruled Holdfast and turn men into slaves. The first two books won awards; the second was written during the backlash (Susan Faludi covers that) and was daring for staying with strong feminism. Charnas is a fine writer: her Vampire Tapestry I’ve taught twice and even love: she gets rid of all the Christianizng and substitutes geology and sympathizes to some extent with our vampire turned professor; her memoir of her father, My Father’s Ghost is deeply moving; he deserted her and her mother when she was small, but now she takes the broken man and his cat in, very truthful about her ambivalent feelings.

A very great one I’ve written about here is Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall, adapted by Julian Polser.
The Wall: the heroine makes it on her own with a group of animals

I am wondering how far a deep anger in women as a group underlies their dystopias/utopias. For countless centuries we have died in childbirth, until recently were subjected to endless childbirth. Made into servants who could not make any money, own any property, by law could be beaten. Raped we were blamed. It seems at the end of WW2 there was a free-for-all of rape in Germany by all men. I suggest that these dystopias come out of the reality that Marta Hiller’s Women in Berlin dramatizes and explores (still often attributed something to Anonyma).


Nina Hoss as the woman haunted by continual rape

There is a gender faultline in all the genres I’ve ever studied and it makes sense to me there would be gender faultline for women’s dystopias. I distrust the idea that a utopia is a dystopia in disguise (which I’ve come across over Thomas More’s Utopia, a veiled attack on its communism). That’s to confound terms, perhaps mystify. Maybe a male would see any utopia as a dystopia because he is to be controlled and as a group wouldn’t want that. In More’s Utopia if an older man separates himself from his wife and marries or goes to live with a younger one, he is put in jail and then enslaved. Thomas More says this predilection of many older males to do this and the willingness of unattached young females to agree makes this punitive law necessary. For older women whose partners have left them for younger women this this parable would not seen dystopic at all.

On Trollope19thCStudies Tyler Tichelaar had this explanatory analysis of yet another dystopian book, not by a woman but written by a man in drag, as a woman:

I’m not sure I can speak to women’s dystopias in general, but I mentioned that I had recently read Robert O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah – although a novel by a male author, I would place it with women’s dystopias since the narrator is a woman. She is all alone in her valley after a catastrophe and thinks she may be the only person left until a man in a space suit to protect him from radiation enters the valley. She spies on him until he hurts himself and then she cares for him. When he is better, he tries to rape her, she runs and then they are at war until in the end she steals the space suit so she can leave the valley and leave him behind. The idea according to critics is that she refuses to start the whole Adam and Eve story again. I think Shelley may feel something similar and that may be the reason for the drawn out Perdita and Raymond plot. Men do not support the domestic circle but end up working against it, and in the end, the woman is just too tired and sick of dealing with men’s behavior to try to start that cycle all over again. The continuance of the human race is just not worth the pain and frustration it brings its members.

A man in drag (as a woman character at the center, its consciousness) can produce l’ecriture-femme. Arguably the structure of Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison are just that. Z sounds like Charnas’s dystopias. Women have been as unwilling as men to repudiate the reproduction function and that has given the patriarchal structures an advantage. And we see this in Mary Shelley in The Last Man and Frankenstein: where the creature longs for a mother and has been repudiated by his father. But Haushofen, Hiller’s, Charnas finds nothing sexy or attractive about rape (see Diane Reynolds’s blog on the dysfunctional and impotent males in The Handmaid’s Tale:: subversive TV), neither do they think the ends of their being to make babies.

I came the conclusion Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is courageous grief-work; she is exhausted but refuses to fall silent about what she has experienced, sees around her (the wastelands she saw in Italy too), and prophesizes: she is herself a muted Cassandra (bound not to offend father-in-law, not to hurt her chances as a professional woman writer).

I hope this blog gives my readers some new perspectives for thought as you watch The Handmaid’s Tale and if you should attempt Mary Shelley’s first and third novels.


This is another illustration by Martin (found on a site that discusses Shelley’s novel in context with other dystopias)

Ellen

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