Mutability of identity in The Road and The Handmaids Tale
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“Dystopian literature invites the reader to reflect upon the mutability of identity.” By comparing The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road, discuss how far, and in what ways the two novels support or refute this claim? Within dystopian literature, identity is something that can be seen as an individual’s most core and precious element. Exposed against a scarcity of freedom in self-expression, we can begin to fully appreciate and understand the importance in the role of identity as well as its robustness. The role of identity and its manipulation is often explored within dystopian literature to exemplify weaknesses in human psychology as well as to destroy false images of strength and superiority that we apply to ourselves. In both The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale representations of strength in identity become more pessimistic as the novel progresses.
Like many other dystopian texts such as A Clockwork Orange, identity is presented to us initially as something indestructible. It is the contrast of this against the obvious manipulation of identity further on into the book that highlights the idealisation of our personalities as individual and enduring. Like The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel looks at society’s effect on identity and suggests that identity must be manipulated in some form in order for a society to be peaceful and effective. The Road and Lord of the Flies share similar representation of how we are controlled by our society. They suggest we have evolved to act in a socially desirable manner and that without control we loose all sense of empathy or moral consciousness.
Within The Road and Handmaid’s Tale however there are some positive examples which suggest that although identity is definitely able to be manipulated to a certain extent, expression and communication could both be instinctive aspects able to ultimately withstand full control. An example of this is the relationship between Offered and Nick, and the boys desire to help Ely or the lost child that he thinks he sees. Constant exploration throughout literature of a lack of control over our identity highlights a common insecurity we seem to have about it. It also displays the role of identity as a comfort and support to us, which could explain why in many cases it is heavily obsessed over, guarded, and manipulated. Without it, you become much more easily controlled. Mental conflict is often represented throughout literature as a whole but especially dystopian. An example of this in The Handmaid’s Tale is the sense of distrust installed within the reader due to the unreliability of Offred as a narrator “it didn’t happen that way either.
I’m, not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.” Although at first unusually seeming to represent the protagonist negatively, the effect of this narrative style actually allows us to interpret the character in a more complex and therefore humanised state. In the Rhetoric of Fiction 1961 Wayne C. Booth studies the effect of the narrator “In life we never know anyone by ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs, and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives directly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men, which we cannot avoid in our own lives. Through direct authorial intrusions, the author gives us the “kind of information never obtained about real people”.
But this is “information that we must accept without question if we are to grasp the story that is to follow”.1 The reality of our identity as humans is that we are dishonest and unreliable to some degree in order to appeal as conversationalists. As a novel written in the first person, it does not idealise the human mind as the paths of our thoughts do conflict with one another and our accounts of reality often do become manipulated by our imagination. “The Handmaid is said to have made the recording after she escaped from her captivity – the unreliability of the narrator is thus further reinforced. If the whole story is just a memory, many of the “facts” are again adjusted to fit the narrator’s ex-post perspective. The Handmaid even offers three versions of the story of her and Nick having sex for the first time – here, Atwood again addresses the stereotypical expectations of romantic love and depicts three possible realities which play on Offred’s wishful thinking”
Offred’s unreliability as narrator is furthered due to the that the fact that the tapes have been ordered by somebody else , but also because she is telling the story after it has happed. Hindsight surely must have shaped her opinions in some form. As well as exploring natural conflict within the human mind, as the novel progresses it becomes clearer that Offred does not always reflect the typical aspects of what is deemed as a normal mentality. As Offred’s perceptions of reality seem to merge more and more with her imagination we are made aware that isolated under the regime of Gilead, sanity is at least something Offred has to now fight for. “Sanity is a valuable possession; I save it, so I will have enough when the time comes.”
Insanity has always had in place amongst the control of totalitarian regimes ‘following the fall of the Soviet Union, it was often reported that some opposition activists and journalists were detained in Russian psychiatric institutions to intimidate and isolate them from society. In modern Russia, human rights activists also face the threat of psychiatric diagnosis as a means of political repression.’ Offred’s consciousness of her sanity shows she is still, despite everything, attempting to withstand full control. In The Road there is a similar exploration of conflict within in the mind. An example of this is good dreams experienced by the father, which he interprets as negative signs that he is loosing his grip on reality as death seems to become more inevitable. “He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.”
Despite the fact that due to his environment he is being forced to adopt a certain mentality and behaviour in order to survive, the father has no control over an unconscious state of himself that remains uncorrupt by his situation. Sigmund Freud revolutionized the way in which dreams were interpreted in the late 19th century believing that all actions were motivated by the unconscious mind. Freud stated that urges and desires repressed by modern society were released during sleep and also believed that the conscious mind acted as a guard so that during sleep the subconscious became freed from the tethers of society. An alternative interpretation of dreams within The Road is that similarly to the way in which dreams might release instincts repressed by society, in The Road where society doesn’t exist, dreams could represent social behaviours that are suppressed in this case by human instinct. “Color in the world — except for fire and blood — exists mainly in memory or dream.”
This quote suggests that happiness only exists within the subconscious minds of the survivors on the road. “The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.” Set at opposite ends of an extreme, in a world dominated by order and a world completely lacking in it, both novel’s characters are restricted from communication which may affect their ability to associate themselves with others. In The Handmaid’s Tale, forbidden to speak to each other, most people under the regime of Gilead are only identified by labels which are forced upon them. This is similar to The Road in the sense that survivors are equally as forced not to interact due to an assumption in the interest of survival that no one is safe. In both novels, characters share a mutual identity of untrustworthiness.
This is evident in the scepticism displayed towards Ely, the old man, by the father and by the fact that the old man is unwilling to convey his real name despite the acts of kindness towards him. “I couldn’t trust you with it. To do something with it. I don’t want anybody talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there” “The man’s suspicious interchange with him also shows how essential trust is to human communication. God is basic to human kindness and essential to human dignity.”6 This quote discusses that in contrast to the way in which society suppresses communication in The Road, without it humans are almost helpless in their interaction. In The Road it is almost as if the characters have lost all idea of kindness and morality because these things only exist within the realms of society.
The dependence of religion in these relationships further suggests control as religion is often an important factor on which society is built and maintained. Now that the father and Ely are sceptical of God, there seems to them no explanation for kindness and therefore they are untrustworthy of it. After 911, religion in American society changed significantly especially for young people. The belief and comfort in God and his power to protect has suffered as a nation slowly realised that they as humans might not be significant at all. The same power that has lead humans to a sense of security is one that can murder and even destroy a nation altogether. “We had this sense of specialness and invulnerability that 911 shattered.”
Communication is almost entirely regulated by religion in The Handmaid’s Tale “blessed be the fruit”, tension between Offered and Rita despite the similarity in their situation illustrates the effect and break down of interaction between humans in a dystopian society. “Her face might be kindly if she would smile. But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproved of, and what it stands for. She thinks it may be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck.” Unemployment in The Islamic Republic of Iran grew significantly throughout the 1980s due to the nations faltering economy in the face of the on-going border war with Iraq and a drop in worldwide oil prices. Many Iranians immigrated to the United States just prior to, or as the result of a revolution in 1979 . Prior to a successful feminist movement in the mid 1960’s and late 70’s, 1980s America proved to be a depressing period for the feminist movement.
The courts began to drift more towards the right wing in term of women rights issues and an aging generation of mainly white, upper class activist failed often to address issues effecting women of different ethnic background, low income women and women who didn’t live in the US.8 For some feminist though the 1980s were important in the sense that they could at least acknowledge the treatment of women in societies other than America. Atwood is clearly influenced by the idea of women covering themselves through religious principles, the hijab or the burka in Islam, the habit of the nun in Christianity, or even the veil of the bride. As well as this before writing The Handmaid’s Tale she had spent time in Norfolk living in a rectory that had once been a nunnery in the 14th century. The rectory was said to be haunted by nuns, and it is clear where some of her ideas about seclusion and identity living on under it may have come from.
The wings of the handmaids are said to be precaution against temptation, but the handmaids are rarely exposed to men. They act more to supress identity and recognition between the handmaids making them more controllable. “They were demeaned of any powers and luxuries. That was exactly what the white wings were designed for. Seeing was a privilege that handmaids were not to have.” Alternatively the wings of the handmaids are a further extension of their powerless position symbolising the ignorance of the situation they were in. If knowledge is power, then by restricting the handmaid’s view both physically and metaphorically of the world in which they lived, they could never grow to overcome it. While it appears at first, the masks worn in The Road protect against polluted and unsafe air, they are clearly not worn at all times and there doesn’t seem to be enormous concern about this.
They are again just further precautions against guarded identity, and show the extent at which identity has become controlled by the situation. As both novel go on the characters within them conform more to people they seem to have become and question their identity in the past highlighting difference between then and now. The boy begins to ask his father more frequently whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. This shows there seems to have become less to differentiate them. When he encounters the cannibals at the house the little boy seems more shaken by the prospect that he and his father might be capable of the same thing than traumatized by what he has seen. “We wouldn’t eat anybody would we?” “No of course not.” The boy especially fights not to conform to the way the dystonia is affecting humanity.
The idea of “Carrying the fire” is used by the father and the boy to further separate them from other survivors on the road which pose threat to them, it gives purpose to their journey and in a similar way to religion which they no longer have comforts the boy as something to believe in. “Conversation between father and son exemplifies both the son’s fear that they are no better than the abominations of society they run from and also that fire has become their symbol of faith that sees them through a difficult time. By clinging to the imagery of the fire, the son believes that he would not succumb to the horrible act of cannibalism that seems so acceptable to others.”9 In The Handmaids Tale Offred seems to become more detached and sceptical of her old self, when they come across the Japanese tourists she is almost taken aback by her on rapid change of attitude towards freedom of expression and identity. “ We are fascinated but also repelled.
They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this. Then I think I used to dress like that”. Both The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale represent indications that our identity is adapted to the environment that we live in consciously and subconsciously. However in both novels there are also clear examples suggesting otherwise. Although there is no doubt Offred’s identity was changed by her situation, her constant yearning for companionship, flashbacks – relationship with Nick and involvement with Mayday would not have been possible if she had completely conformed to her identity as a handmaid.
If Offred was in fact saved it would be these things that allowed her to be. Similarly in The Road, the boy put himself at risk and was always berated for his kindness and interaction towards other people. Despite this in the end it is his willingness to interact with the family that leads him to safety. However, we do not know what really happened to Offred and whether the ending really was positive. As well as this, the boy still faced danger even when with the family – possibly more. The deliberate ambiguities in the endings of the novels suggest that identity and the extent of its mutability will always remain debatable.