Summary of The Handmaid’s Tale (Pages 137-140)

The chapter starts out with the information that Offred has been summoned to the Commander’s office. Offred is scared, as anyone might be to have a first-hand encounter with the Commander in a private setting. No one, as far as Offred knows, has been given this order before. She enters, sits down, and plays scrabble with the lonely man. She lets him win once, and she wins the other time, demonstrating her knowledge all with while. As she is leaving, the Commander asks her for a kiss. She tries to think how she could get more from it, however she kisses him half-heartedly. He feels that she could be more passionate, and tells her so. The passage concludes with a “Goodnight”, and the knowledge that Offred will most certainly be invited back to play Scrabble again in the near future (140).

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The Normal Handmaid

In Chapter 23 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood illustrates the strangeness of normalcy and shows how the overregulation hurts everyone in society.

Margaret Atwood starts on page 137 by showing the pure fear that is coursing through Offred’s body. She is terrified first and foremost because it is under incredibly rare circumstances that anyone is able to see the Commander personally, without supervision from Serena Joy. As she enters the room, she notices the very reason it is kept such a secret from the remainder of the population – it was normal. To Offred, it resembles “an oasis of the forbidden” (Atwood 137). She panics as he uses “the old greeting” upon his saying “Hello” (137). She is almost moved to tears by this one simple word – a word very commonly used throughout history – simply because this greeting is now considered almost unacceptable in average society. Atwood shows the association these people draw between the things that are normal and those that are forbidden in an attempt to show the scarcity of all that was once considered normal, and how these people have such a visceral reaction to something as simple as someone saying “hello”, solely because the government says it is incorrect.
            The negative effect that the over zealous government has on the common citizens is shown throughout the story, but this is one of the first times the reader gets a glimpse at how it negatively effects one of the higher ranking officers – the Commander. He is portrayed as a man who has much training in dealing with common members of society, but one that does not seem happy in the least. He relies on someone who is typically regarded as an inferior in order to provide the most basic of pleasures that a board game such as Scrabble might bring. He is visibly distraught over the fact that he is not even permitted to play with his wife, and even feels the need to turn to Offred for affection.
            It is clear that normalcy is scare throughout their society, and that it is something that is highly regarded as unacceptable and even forbidden. Strange rules like this provide force even the people controlling their system to surrender many of the things that foster happiness. For the Commander here it was playing Scrabble with his family. Strange rules like this is what perpetuates the state of misery felt by everyone involved.

The Beatitudes of the Handmaids

            This introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale serves multiple purposes in really highlighting some of the major issues, themes, and motifs that saturate the story, and are brought up again and again in the opening chapters. In this segment, even before the story begins, Margaret Atwood addresses the connection of church and state, the poor and miserable way in which they live, and most prominently the stifling of women in their society.

            The overarching theme is that everything is tied back to the Beatitudes, which ThefreeDictionary.com defines as “Any of the declarations of blessedness made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.” It is without question that the fact that everything is based around these religious teachings is pointing to the idea that most, if not all things are tied  to religion, as it seems to play into every matter of their lives.

            The poor and miserable way in which they live is shown throughout the first twelve chapters. The oppressive and stifling government under which they live is seen as they completely dictate what their citizens can and cannot do and they persecute and even kill some of the ones that go against the belief’s of the society, as demonstrated by the hanging doctors. The Beatitudes represent those that are overlooked in society: The meek, the poor in spirit, and so on. All living in this society could fall under one of these categories, and thus the Beatitudes serve as a beacon of hope for them.

            The final way in which the story is prefaced is simply in the inability for the Aunts to read the Beatitudes. Later it is told that women are not allowed to read, as this clearly was a simpler and easier time when they were illiterate. They are completely limited to what they can wear, what types of jobs they can do, and what their place is in society as a whole. This opening highlights that very thing.

            This introduction, very generally put, prefaces the issues in the story, all the while expressing the feeling of hope and the idea that all is right in the world with the way these people are currently oppressed. 

Thesis Re-worked

Harrison Bergernon: In “Harrison Bergernon”, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. argues that the overwhelming deindividuation in a system where the individual is subservient to the group destroys the humanity of everyone involved. 

“The Machine Stops”: In “The Machine Stops”, E.M. Forster argues that it is in a person’s blind acceptance and submission to society’s will that one’s humanity is ultimately lost.

“The Lottery”: In “The Lottery” Shirley Jackson points out the dangers of blindly conforming to the will of the group.

The Death of a Society, and the Tragedy of Harrison Bergernon

 

Throughout history, visionaries have illustrated a utopian, dream-like world in which all men, women, and children are perceived as equals. Martin Luther King Jr., Elizabeth Caddy Stanton and other activists have all championed the cause of equal rights, and devoted their lives to making sure that everyone – regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation – has the same opportunities. While these progressive mentalities have changed our world for the better, is there a point where equality can become dangerous? In “Harrison Bergernon”, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. argues that the overwhelming deindividuation in a system where the individual is subservient to the group destroys the humanity of everyone involved. Vonnegut proves this by mocking the ridiculous nature under which this system is run and moreover by highlighting these peoples’ inability to think and act freely.
       Vonnegut satirizes the way these people live in an attempt to show the ever so ridiculous way in which their system is run. He starts the story by saying that “the year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal”, giving off the original impression that this was very positive (Vonnegut Jr. 1). It is only when he qualifies this by mocking how much regulation and enforcement it took to obtain this sense of equality that the reader is able to pick out the irony. The entire idea of equality stems from freedom. The fact that it took so much governmental influence and so many laws to achieve this sense of freedom is incredibly ironic. Vonnegut wants to draw attention to this flawed thought-process in an attempt to convey the reality of the corrupt and ridiculous nature of the system. He explores how the corrupt government serves solely to keep everyone “equal”, but in doing so only ends up limiting the capabilities of the gifted and extraordinary to level the playing field for everyone else.
       The state’s control over the abilities of their people is seen throughout the story. First and foremost there is George who is completely unable to finish a thought because every time he would try to think critically about something a buzzer would sound in his head and “his thoughts fled in panic” (1).  This is also seen when they are watching the ballerinas dance. George mentions that “it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men” (3). The measures they will take to ensure that no one person is better than another is ludicrous, especially when examining the negative impacts it has on these people. Without the ability to perform, compete, or actively engage in things these people enjoy, the system is demoralizing and dehumanizing them.
       Diana Moon Glampers and the rest of those in charge feel they are doing the right thing by stifling their peoples’ creativity, talents, and intelligence, however all they are doing is turning them into empty shells. They have completely dehumanized every person to the point where they no longer have the capability to think, perform, or feel how they otherwise would. By taking such drastic measures to reach complete “equality”, this system has in fact taken everything these people stood for away from them. Without the freedom to think there will no longer be great visionaries and activists such as Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Caddy Stanton – two of the people that goaded the movement for equality in the first place. Without the freedom to think or act as they wish, they completely lose touch with humanity.

The Ever-Going Machine

         In “The Machine Stops”, E.M. Forster argues that when humanity allows itself to be completely overtaken by a larger than life concept, people have a tendency to lose sight of who they are as well as what makes them happy. She proves this through the oppressive lifestyle these ground-dwellers are brainwashed into accepting, as well as the way they venerate their insentient, man-made machine.

            The “larger than life” concept in this case happens to be the widespread acceptance and reverence these people have for the man-made appliance known as “the Machine”. With overwhelming faith and support from the underground population, the piece of technology quickly grows to the level of a deity or idol for these people. They are even afraid to anger it, not only because The Committee of the Machine might inflict punishment if they did, but also they feel “The Machine” possesses supernatural powers and do not want to upset it.

The lives of the pod people are very orderly. The way in which every day comes and goes is as structured and monotonous as a factory worker’s job on an assembly line. This is brought to light when Forster gives us an overview of what a typical day in the life of Vishta is like: “She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light; she ate and exchanged ideas with her friends, listened to music and attended lectures; she made the room dark and slept” (Forster 5). She does the same things, day after day, because she has no concept of what else is out there. Her living in a small, hexagonal bubble limits her to experience what might be on the outside. She is unable to appreciate offer her until she experiences what life on earth with real human contact with someone she loves is truly like.

The major theme of the story is “ideas”, however Vishta has been brainwashed into thinking that having an idea outside the teachings of the underground world is an inconceivable notion and should be discouraged at all costs. This is seen when she asks to “cover the window” on the air-ship because “the mountains give [her] no ideas”, and instead would go on to fraternize about the machine with other passengers (9). The fact that she, as well as the rest of the passengers on board show far more interest in sharing ideas about how they have advanced “thanks to the Machine!” is very telling, and shows the reader their limited ability to think for themselves (8). This thinking that everything else lacks importance in relation to “the Machine” limits these people from ever being able to regain the understanding of who they are and what makes them happy – if they ever had the ability to develop an understanding of who they are, that is. The struggle to develop a sense of self is made even more difficult by the constant threat of “Homelessness” – the system’s way of squashing any attempt of individuality and new ideas that were considered “too radical”.  
         It is very easy for society to become indoctrinated in something that may seem “larger than life”. This is seen on many levels today, be it getting involved in a religious or political group, or even helping out at a local rec center. Things get scary, though, when something completely takes over the lives of one, and especially a group of people. It is seen here as these pod people from the future develop a strange fascination and obsession with this computer that they created. Forster wants the reader to see that while it can be good to allow oneself to get involved in group activities from time to time, it is important to not allow them to overtake them – because all that results is the loss of who they once were. 

The Luck of the Ritual

         It is very easy to be drawn in by tradition. The celebration of different customs, ideals, and rituals in a familial setting not only fosters love and friendship, but also provides a sense of safety for all those involved. But what happens when a group practicing their tradition loses sight of its integrity? What happens when the original intent of a ritual is lost, but those celebrating continue on only because they are too afraid to lose the sense of kinship they have formed? In “The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson paints this very picture as she delves into a world centered around the ancient ritual of chance and sacrifice. In her portrayal of this seemingly backward society, Jackson points out the dangers of blindly putting one’s faith into anything, all the while highlighting the issue of the “mob mentality” the village exhibits. She uses the black box and the actions and reactions of the townspeople to prove this very point.

            Jackson uses imagery when introducing the black box so the reader can get the full effect of its worn down and dilapidated nature. She asserts that “the black box got shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side… and in some places faded or stained” (Jackson 2). The box is completely falling apart; It is splintering, worn, and even though they still use it, it is outdated and in need of retirement. This box is clearly an extended metaphor for “the lottery” as a whole. Jackson even tells us that “the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago”, much the same way the original meaning and intent of the ritual killing had been lost years before (1).  Jackson wants the reader to see the parallels between this run down black box and the now misguided systematic killing that takes place every June.   

        It appears that almost the entire town is blind to the fact that they are killing their friends and family just because “there’s always been a lottery” (4).  They are puzzlingly complacent with selling off their friends for something as simple as a good crop yield.  Many undoubtedly question the practice, as we see both Mr. and Mrs. Adams try to persuade Old Man Warner and the rest of the town to reconsider on the basis that “some places have already quit lotteries” (4).  The rest of the town, too, showed signs that they did not really feel comfortable with the ritual, and some even argue to allow Bill Hutchinson redraw as it was “not fair” that he was chosen. In the end, though, the mob mentality found a way to win out, as we see little Davy Hutchinson gathering stones to bludgeon his beloved mother to death by the end of the story.

         The reality of “The Lottery” is quite tragic. While it is incredibly rare to hear of such stories of human sacrifice today, it is very easy to succumb to the allure of blindly participating in things of which one might not be sure. It is even more common for one to submit to the will of the group. The combination of these two things were ultimately the reason Tessie Hutchinson ended up dying in an onslaught of flying stones – hurled by her family and friends nonetheless. She effectively summed up the entire ritual before the last rock hit her, exclaiming “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right”(7). Her assessment was spot on, however it stopped no one, as the townspeople were not only putting blind faith into something they didn’t understand, but they were so caught up in the mob mentality of it all there was no chance that fairness, or what was right would ever prevail – then or in the future.