Handmaids Tale Part 2: Crash Course Literature #404


This week, John Green continues to teach you about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale. In this installment, we’re looking at Atwood’s desire to tell a story from a female point of view, and what exactly it means to tell a story in that way, and if in fact there is an inherently male or female way to tell a story. We’ll also look at why Atwood presents the story’s final chapter from the perspective of a male scholar.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.
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So some of you might be familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from the
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Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, which is a great show.
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It’s especially enjoyable if your favorite emotional experiences are fear, loathing,
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and waking nightmares.
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But the book is even better.
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Now, that’s not always the case–the movie Die Hard was better than the book it was based
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on; The Fault in Our Stars was a very good film–but it is true of the Handmaid’s Tale.
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So read it!
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OK, so last time, we discussed the historical events that influenced Atwood as well as why
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she characterizes her novel as speculative fiction.
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Today, I wanna focus on the narrative’s perspective–or perspectives.
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Although Atwood has said that she wanted to write from a “female point of view,” and
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she obviously literally did that, I want to discuss today whether there is a distinctive
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or inherent “female” or “male” point of view, outside of just narration, and also
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why Atwood presents her final chapter from the perspective of a male scholar.
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INTRO The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the reproductively-challenged
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Republic of Gilead, where fertile women are forced to have babies with military Commanders.
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To maintain her sanity, Atwood’s protagonist, Offred, engages in personal rituals, but also
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connects with other women – like her college friend, Moira and a fellow Handmaid named
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Ofglen.
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But let’s face it.
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Offred’s life is terrible.
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Her husband and child have been taken away.
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Her mother is missing.
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If she fails to conceive, she will be forced to clean up toxic sludge.
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And worse, her Commander appears to be sterile.
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A handsy obstetrician offers to “help” Offred conceive.
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(She declines.)
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The Commander’s wife bribes Offred to mate with the gardener/chauffeur, Nick. (which
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Offred accepts.)
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Meanwhile, the Commander entreats Offred to play Scrabble, to wear some (seriously) old
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lingerie, and to visit a brothel called Jezebel’s.
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At Jezebel’s, Offred discovers that Moira is working as a prostitute.
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And it’s from Moira that she learns of her mother’s fate.
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Offred begins to lose her grip.
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When Ofglen asks her to become a spy for the “Mayday” resistance movement, Offred drops
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the ball.
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The Commander’s wife confronts Offred with the (recently-worn) lingerie.
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And right before the novel ends, Offred is arrested.
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So, let’s talk about whether this narrative is presented from a “female point of view.”
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It’s a tricky question.
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The relationship between gender and narrative has sparked decades of academic debate about
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how sex (biological designation), gender (social identity), and/or sexuality (orientation of
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desire) shape texts and their analysis.
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And I’m not going to resolve it today I’m just going to try to introduce it to you.
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In the 1960s, the structuralist theorist, Tzvetan Todorov coined the term “narratology”.
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It’s a word accustomed to analyzing the themes, and conventions and symbols of a text.
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Todorov argued that we should also be analyzing the structure and function of narrative.
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Soon, feminist theorists began to explore the implications of gender on narrative form.
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Some fought to define a distinctively “feminist” poetics.
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Others resisted the idea that there’s a fundamental “female” consciousness or
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self.
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In 1975, the French theorist, Hélène Cixous, coined the term écriture féminine (loosely
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translated to mean “women’s writing”)—And yes, I know that my french pronunciation is
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fantastic.
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Cixous maintains that misogynistic culture has “driven” women from exploring their
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desires.
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She encourages women to use their bodies as a source of inspiration.
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But she also recognizes that femininity is a social construct, defined as much by cultural
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convention as by biological characteristics.
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Cixous associates “féminine” writing with “openness.”
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For her, women’s writing isn’t the exclusive provenance of women; it’s a non-exclusionary
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approach to exploring that which is different, or “other.”
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It’s a way of regarding the world accessible to all genders.
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So, let’s explore the degree to which The Handmaid’s Tale exhibits this kind of “openness.”
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We know that Offred often presents her bodily experience by cataloging physical sensations:
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Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood,
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in narrow strips, highly polished [….] [A] chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to
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be dismissed.
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I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.
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(7)
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Now This is a tiny moment of expressing bodily autonomy–putting her own unfolded hand into
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the sunlight–but it is still real.
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Offred–robbed of her name and her freedom–still finds ways to express her existence using
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her body–including, by the way, in her relationship with Nick.
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And she also expresses her existence by telling stories:
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…if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
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You can’t tell a story only to yourself.
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There’s always someone else.
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Even when there is no one.
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(39-40) This is storytelling as a survival technique,
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as a way of establishing one’s humanity when the broader culture is denying it.
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Those needs to testify and connect are human desires, not restricted to a particular gender.
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But pay attention to the way Offred writes about her body and her bodily experiences.
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Sometimes, she describes her body from an external perspective:
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I know they are watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women.
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They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt
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sway around me [….] I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.
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(22) Offred’s ability to view herself from the
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outside here is manifestation among many of her “openness” to imagining the perspectives
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of others.
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At other times, Offred describes her body from a different perspective:
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I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing.
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Treacherous ground, my own territory [….] I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object,
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the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent
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wrapping.
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Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red
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rather than black.
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Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars.
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(73-4) Sinking into her body, Offred explores a territory
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that is inaccessible to others–a “more real,” vast “space” within, huge as
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the sky.
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Her own territory.
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She says its treacherous ground, but still–her own.
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It’s also worth considering that Offred chooses to have sex with the gardener, Nick,
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and states very clearly why: I went back to Nick.
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Time after time, on my own [….] I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely.
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(emphasis added, 268) So, Offred’s descriptions of inhabiting
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a female body, her “openness” to external perspectives, and her exploration of desire
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exhibit the qualities associated with écriture féminine.
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But here’s the wrinkle: Offred recorded her story on thirty unnumbered cassette tapes,
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and it was two male scholars who used “guesswork” to arrange her “blocks of speech” into
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text (302).
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In other words, it was male editors who created the structure to Offred’s narrative that
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we’re reading.
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So, to use an analysis word, that problematizes a bit what sex, gender, and/or sexuality have
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to do with narrative structure in this novel.
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There’s this theorist Peter Brooks who famously describes the classic plot as a trajectory
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of desire that mirrors the sexual experience of a normalized “male” subject.
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Like, in Brooks’ reading, the start of a story requires arousal; the middle entails
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expectation, frustration, and suspense; and the end involves a climactic release from
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desire.
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Now many readers, including I must say, myself, feel this theory leaves a bit to be…desired.
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Some feminist theorists have argued that women’s stories are “patterned”: they emphasize
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detail and repetition; focus more intently on the relationships between events; contain
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circular plot structures; and involve multiple moments of climax.
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But I would argue it’s just too simplistic to say that sex, gender, or sexuality dictate
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what kind of plot you “can” write.
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All narratives are the product of a complex series of choices, some conscious and some
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not.
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Men write circular fiction that doesn’t resolve; women write books with classic plotting;
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and all attempts to put story, or for that matter gender, into dichotomous boxes are
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doomed.
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That said, Offred’s story as we read it has the plot structure that mirrors the classic,
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so-called ‘male’ plot trajectory–but is that inherent to her story or created by
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later scholars?
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Thinking about that,other questions emerge: how might her story be different if presented
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in an alternate order?
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And why did Atwood include the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” chapter
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in the first place?
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Well, Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
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So like the final chapter of Orwell’s 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” “Historical
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Notes” assures us that the dystopian regime will eventually be overthrown.
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And, of course, this is good news.
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But, we have not left a dystopia for a utopia.
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In this chapter, we learn that the conference chair is Professor Maryann Crescent Moon,
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Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavut.
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Apparently, women will regain the right to education and Caucasians may be marginal to
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dominant culture.
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But Crescent Moon works for a fictional university, while the (male) keynote speaker, Professor
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James Darcy Piexoto, is affiliated with a historic bastion of Caucasian-ness: Cambridge
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University in England.
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Also, some readers have posited that Pieixoto’s unusual name is a reference to Pope Pius IX,
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the nineteenth-century Vatican pope known for repressing liberal values.
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So, that might say something about the kind of society that will dominate 22nd century
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America.
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(1) Piexoto’s lecture (and its reception) suggest that the culture studying Gileadean
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Studies is still profoundly misogynistic.
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(2) I mean, Piexoto objectifies Crescent Moon with some lame pseudo-flirting; he refers
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to what other historians have called “the Underground Femaleroad as “The Underground
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Frailroad,” a joke that is met with laughter, and he says of Gilead, “our job is not to
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censure but to understand,” which elicits applause.
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But really, can’t your job be both to understand, and to censure?
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Piexoto even credits Gilead for its “effective totalitarian system.”
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so he may fancy himself above the injustices of Gilead, but it’s not like the structure
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of patriarchy has been dismantled.
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Thanks, Thought Bubble.
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Pieixoto also critiques Offred for not having the “turn of mind” that could benefit
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his own research: She could have told us much about the workings
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of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy.
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(310) That is to say, he wishes she had approached
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Gilead as a prototypical male historian, writing about great men and empire-building, but of
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course, we as readers recognize the tremendous value in the way that Offred has told her
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story, and the true heroism telling it required.
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And then after Piexoto receives his final applause comes the novel’s wonderful final
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line: “Are there any questions?”
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(311) There are many, of course, but the ones that
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reverberate for me are: Could this happen now?
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Could this happen here?
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I think what makes the Handmaid’s Tale so upsetting is that it shows exactly how it
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could happen here and now.
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It reminds us that the battles for equal opportunity and equal protection under the law are never
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over, and they are never won.
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And that we all must heed Offred’s mother’s warning: do not take your freedoms for granted.
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Let us not be complacent.
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Next week, we’ll continue our look at dystopian novels with Voltaire’s Candide.
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Thanks for watching.
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I’ll see you then.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

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