“Cathedral” Write Up by Ella Bernstein

In the short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, a man’s wife has invited over her friend to stay with them. Her friend is a blind man who she has kept in touch with after working with him several years ago in Seattle. At that time, she had been married to a different man in the army, but they eventually divorced because she hated the lifestyle of always moving around. Now she is married to the narrator, who is very uncomfortable with the prospect of being around a blind man. When he comes over, the narrator does not participate in the conversation much, since his wife and the blind man have so much history together. But when it gets late and his wife goes to sleep, he and the blind man are left together. They are idly watching a show about cathedrals, and since the blind man cannot see the cathedrals, the narrator attempts to explain them to him. But when he doesn’t do a good job, the blind man suggests drawing a picture of a cathedral so he can have a sense of what it looks like. The narrator agrees, and in making an elaborate illustration with the blind man, comes to terms with what it means to be blind, and that it’s not all such a pathetic state like he had assumed.

To analyze “Cathedral,” I chose two elements to focus on. The first: exposition. I identified the beginning of the plot as Robert, “the blind man,” coming to stay with the narrator and his wife. Most of the first two pages and some of the third are dedicated entirely to describing how we got to this point. Here, for example, is the beginning of the second paragraph of “Cathedral,” explaining how the wife met the blind man:

That summer in Seattle she had needed a job. She didn’t have any money. The man she was going to marry at the end of the summer was in officers’ training school. He didn’t have any money, either. But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc. She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot.

So while we readers are handed these large chunks of backstory on the narrator’s wife and her blind friend, we actually get very little information on the narrator himself – at least in the beginning, where exposition traditionally goes. Instead, small bits of his backstory are scattered throughout the piece. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that the narrator doesn’t particularly like blind people, which is generously implied throughout the entire narrative. However, basic information on the narrator is given sparsely. Some examples are when the narrator’s wife tells him on page two, “You don’t have any friends.” A more obvious example is placed in page five, where we are informed that the narrator is unsatisfied and bored with his unfulfilling life:

How long had I been in my present position? (Three years.) Did I like my work? (I didn’t.) Was I going to stay with it? (What were the options?)

This unusual placement of exposition must have a purpose behind it; but what? Could it be that the author wanted us to form our opinions of the narrator without a bias? Or was information on his life simply irrelevant? We’ll discuss this later, as this author’s choice is a useful and interesting point to consider.

The second element of “Cathedral” that I chose to focus on was the narrator’s perspective on blindness. If you’ve read the story, then you probably are aware that this is essentially the main conflict in the plot, and this internal conflict is the driving force of the story, as it is the biggest thing that has changed by the time we reach the end. However, this is a pretty vague element to analyze; as you’ll notice in my highlights, I’ve included some things that may have surprised you, or possibly even not included some things you would have expected. But first, we’ll start with some more obvious examples:

…I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better …her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave… Pathetic.

This excerpt clearly exhibits how the narrator insists that something so material as blindness would render something so profound as love impossible, or at the very least incomplete. This idea of the narrator’s is so serious that he even thinks a woman’s last thought before death was her disappointment that her lover never got to see her face with his eyes, something that is meant to offend us who hopefully don’t take such a severe view on “disability.” It also implies a somewhat patronizing attitude to those affected by blindness that the narrator harbors by using words like “pitiful” and “pathetic.” This view is elaborated and built upon throughout the story.

Another thing I included under this category, something that shows up a lot throughout the story, is the different ways the narrator addresses the blind man. The vast majority of the times he does this, he addresses the blind man just as such, “the blind man.” This pronoun of sorts is written 68 times, while the blind man’s actual name, “Robert,” is thought by the narrator only 6 times. This signifies that the most, or perhaps the only, important characteristic of Robert in the mind of the narrator is the fact that he is blind. This can be interpreted as closed-minded and biased, while some may say that in reality it’s just the most important characteristic of Robert to the purpose of the plot.

All in all, I found this story really interesting to read because, I’ll admit it, I found a lot of my own fears and discomforts reflected in the narrator. I myself have a certain uneasiness around people with “disabilities,” which is something that I’m not proud of, but the fact that this story addressed this issue made it personally relatable and have a lot of significance to me, and possibly some of you. Also, and this applies more to everybody, what I thought made the story moving was that it was so intimate and personal, yet profoundly addressed a universal theme that we should not discriminate against people for lacking (or possessing) certain surface qualities that in truth do not change the core feelings and experiences that make us all human.

To wrap this up, a few things that I think could be useful to my writing were the fact that we were able to get a pretty thorough and personal understanding of the narrator not through traditional exposition, but through his thoughts and dialogue. (Like Ms. Rolater would say, show, don’t tell!) I think that the author was very aware of what was actually necessary to his plot when deciding what to say about the narrator, instead of going with more conventional information. I think this is a valuable lesson to me and hopefully to you guys as well. Secondly, the narrator didn’t talk much in the story, but rather observed his wife and guest and thought a lot. I think this gave a nice, interesting element to the story in which we were able to gather a lot of really valuable information about the progression of the scene around us, understand the moods present, and actually gather some character traits on the narrator from his quietness. Lastly, Carver exhibits a clever technique of subtly building on the narrator’s character while simultaneously describing other people without much significance to him. This is so well-executed that, the first time I read the story, I was forming opinions without consciously realizing that the author was feeding me two different types of exposition at once. This technique could prove very useful in my writing if I ever write a story in which the narrator has not much direct importance, at least in that moment, but if I also would still like the readers to understand their personality.

And, finally, the fun part! Here are some questions for discussion:

-Are there similarities between the narrator addressing his wife’s ex-husband as “her officer” instead of his name and addressing his guest as “the blind man” instead of Robert? If so, what are they?

-What are the narrator’s views on blindness at the beginning of the story, and how have they changed by the end?

-Does being blind affect or change a person’s experience of love? If yes, how so?

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“Speech Sounds” Write Up by Olivia Elmers

Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” starts with the main character, Rye, on a bus as a fight about to break out between two men.  The driver throws the bus around to try to put them off balance, but this only causes more fights, and eventually he brings the bus to stop.  Rye and several others get off to wait the situation out. A man in a police uniform pulls up near her and gets her to help more people off the bus after he stops the fighting with gas.  The driver and passengers think the new arrival is acting superior by helping them, and because Rye cooperated with him they start disliking her too.  Rye is forced to leave with him instead of getting back on the bus.  The man, whose name is something like Obsidian, offers to take her to Pasadena.  It turns out he can read and write, so Rye lets him know that she can speak and understand words.  They have sex.  Rye tells him she doesn’t need to go to Pasadena anymore and directs him towards Los Angeles.  Before they can reach her house there, a woman runs in front of the car, being chased by a man.  Obsidian tries to help her, but the man kills her and then kills Obsidian, so Rye kills him.  The woman had two children who can both understand language.  Rye empathizes with them and adopts them.

By the time of the story, several years have passed since the disease wiped out language and civilization has fallen as low as it’s going to in the circumstances.  Rather than showing the immediate reaction to the disease, it shows the daily life of a relatively unaffected person trying to get by in this world.  Taking this approach gives the story an entirely different tone—namely, a sort of resigned acceptance rather than panic and shock.  It also allows for some hope.  Human society as a whole might be losing hundreds of years of progress, but individual people are still managing to find places for themselves in the world.  Plus, of course, there’s the ending.  It takes years, but Rye does get to see the disease run its course.  Despite how cheerfully Butler offs her characters, one of the core messages of the story still seems to be that time heals all wounds and things do eventually get better.

I tracked mentions of Rye’s relatives and everyone’s anger management issues.  Rye’s relatives represent her attachment to the past.  Since her family died, she’s refused to establish new relationships.  The driving force for the first half of the story is Rye’s decision to join her brother and nephews, even though she hasn’t contacted them in years, they’re all right-handed and therefore more susceptible to the emotional imbalances caused by the diseases, they’re all male and therefore more likely to be aggressive if every male other than is Obsidian is anything to go by, and they might or might not even still be in Pasadena.  Obsidian is the one who lets her put them behind her and move forward.  When he dies, she still has a new responsibility in taking care of the two kids and rebuilding society starting with them.  As for the anger management, that seems to be in place mostly to highlight what the lack of ability to communicate anything complex has done to interpersonal interactions.  People aren’t angry so much as at each other as they are frustrated by their own losses.

“Chapter Two” Write Up by Tiani Nelson

Antonya Nelson’s fiction piece “Chapter Two” begins with the introduction of Bergeron Love, in which she stands naked on her neighbor’s porch, asking to come in. After being let in, the narrator introduces Bergeron to her roommate and they spark up a conversation based on Bergeron’s outlandish stunts around the neighborhood and the fact that her attempts in getting arrested while walking around naked were in fact, not working. Through the narrator’s flashbacks and her recollection of the stories she tells about her neighbor at AA, we learn about Bergeron Love’s history and the impact she’s made in her neighborhood, regardless if it was positive or negative. After an uncomfortable conversation about the embarrassment of Bergeron’s son, in which her boyfriend comes over to join in on, she is swept away to her own house and the narrator is left to reflect. The narrator, Hil, then jumps to a conversation she has with a friend from AA, revealing that less than a week after that naked encounter, Bergeron dies of a heart attack. In the resolution, we are prompted with the idea that Hil will continue to share the stories of Bergeron at AA, perhaps because that is all that made her life interesting in the end.

Many techniques were utilized by Antonya Nelson, but one that I chose to highlight and really reflect on is the ever-changing shift in the attention of the characters. Throughout the piece, it becomes obvious that Bergeron Love is very fond of having the attention of others on her, whether it is reflected in positive and negative connotations–such as her influential changes to better the neighborhood, or even stunts such as walking around in public attempting to be arrested. In the story, we also filled in on Bergeron’s prior experiences and in the particular ways which she uses this attention in attempt to change her community. For instance, when she called CPS on another neighbor with good intentions, but ended up only to receive the backlash which led to the negative attention towards her and her son. Despite portraying the not so glamorous ways of Bergeron Love, the reader still manages to find a subtle hint of sympathy with her for her family issues and her efforts to be heard. The reader is intrigued by her stunts, and her everlasting desire for our attention perpetuates our interest to continue reading.

Another technique skillfully utilized by the writer was her ability to make us turn on a character in which we might have rooted for in the beginning. This technique can be depicted through Hil’s character. We understand her logic in the beginning and come to terms with the fact that Bergeron is just a neighborhood nuisance who loves to start drama, but slowly we are revealed facts from Hil’s life that make us question her credibility. Hil states on the last page, “…had not had a drink for eleven months now,” showing us that in fact, Hil does not need to attend AA meetings or even tell the story of her neighbor. The reader is left to infer that perhaps Hil craves attention too, but her need is more subtle. Because of Hil’s home life, she feels the need to go out and tell this story in order to receive “approval” from her peers in the sense that she too has an interesting life. Hil even goes on to state that she doesn’t even start the story from the same part every time, almost using Bergeron’s life as her own pastime. In the end, the reader assumes that this attention-seeking behavior will continue, Bergeron’s death now the “Chapter Two”.

Working to implement these techniques in your piece can really improve your characters and that depiction that the reader can take from your writing. Character analysis and how one changes can be a very strong plot line if you are able to evoke emotions and opinions from your readers that lead them to make inferences and continue reading. Being able to sway a reader’s judgement on a character is a very strong tool, and when done right, adds to the overall meaning of the writing and significance of the text to a particular reader.

“Harrison Bergeron” Write Up by Kenneth Moreno

What happens?

George and Hazel Bergeron sit and watch the television, neither particularly knowing what it is they just watched. George is an intelligent man and strong man, who, in order to be leveled with the others, is required to wear an ear pierce that consistently makes noise to break his train of thought. As they watch the television, Hazel, an average person, talks about how she wishes she were the Handicapper General while George studies the handicaps on the ballerinas. It isn’t long before a noise breaks George’s train of thought, though this one is particularly more painful. Hazel offers to help by lowering the weight on his handicaps, though he refuses in fear of punishment. They continue to watch the television, only to find out that their abnormally large and strong son, Harrison, has escaped prison. Harrison bursts into the television station making the announcement and begins to free everyone of their handicaps. They all begin to dance, jumping higher and higher, until the Handicapper General comes in and shoots them. The broadcast cuts, and Hazel is crying, though neither she and George can remember why.

What makes the story interesting?

The story of Harrison Bergeron attracts interest by showing a reality that many desire in a way that is less than desirable, yet the way Kurt Vonnegut shows it does is not necessarily saying that we can’t have that kind of society. The concept of total equality is one that we’ve seen before, such as in Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury, but I have not seen one to this drastic of a scale. Vonnegut’s exaggeration seems to criticize the opponents of a totally equal society rather than the society itself. Through the over exaggeration of the distances we will go to ensure everyone is equal, Vonnegut creates a world that is more ridiculous than it is ominous. These over exaggerated details create a plot that is interesting to read.

What can we gain from this story?

Chekhov’s Gun – Near the beginning of the story, Vonnegut introduces a detail that will recur over the course of the story: noise. The noise that constantly goes off in George’s head serves a purpose throughout the story, and not just plot-wise. Yes, the noise makes George forget what he was thinking about and lose track of what’s happening, but it also helps add to the tone. As the tensions begin to rise more and more, the noises that the HG plays also get more and more intense. It begins small, with just a buzz, though it eventually grows to a twenty-one gun salute. The salute is a long and drags on for some time, repeating the loud gunshots over and over. The louder the noise, the easier the concentration is broken, so viewers cannot fully process what is happening in the news station. Setting up details to follow through with can be extremely important to a story when they do more than just describe the scene.

Rhetorical Red Herring – In this story, the most obvious argument is about how a totally equal society is detrimental to us in the sense of the quality. However, when further analyzed, the story begins to show a more flippant tone. The over exaggeration of how that society levels people seems to show Vonnegut making fun of the fear others have of an equal society. That seems to be the true intention of the story, and the obvious argument seems to be just a ruse. This can be helpful to writers’ in their craft by getting practice in shaping their argument and main idea.

Questions for the class

  • Do you agree with what Kurt Vonnegut was trying to say in this story?
  • In what other ways could mockery be used to prove a point?
  • Should writers hide the true intentions/meaning in a story behind false meanings?

How the Handmaid’s Threads Are Braided

Techniques tracked:
-braided plot threads
-using objects in world-building
-using flashbacks in world-building

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic of dystopian fiction in the vein of and very much inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. The novel is told in fifteen parts, seven of which are called “Night” and are comprised of a single chapter. (It is also being adapted into a 10-episode series for Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will be out next year.) 

We begin with a group of women living in a gymnasium, monitored by other women referred to as “Aunts” who are armed with cattle prods. Next thing we know, the narrator is dressing in her Handmaid’s garb (a red habit with white wings around the head obscuring the face) in the Commander’s house, where she’s been, in her third posting, for five weeks. The Commander’s Wife, formerly a television personality known as Serena Joy, seems threatened by her (“I am a reproach to her; and a necessity”). The household has a staff comprised of Guardians, Angels, and Marthas, in addition to the narrator, the Handmaid. The narrator wonders about Nick, the Commander’s driver, whom she suspects of being an Eye due to a lack of servility. As she walks into the city for groceries with her Handmaid shopping partner Ofglen, we learn that they live in what is now known as the republic of Gilead, and that the narrator used to walk there with her husband Luke before the regime change. They run into a pregnant and glowing Handmaid who makes them jealous; it turns out to be someone the narrator knew from the Red Centre, Janine (now known as Ofwarren). Then they are accosted by some Japanese tourists who ask if they are happy; the narrator, feeling she can say nothing else, replies in the affirmative. They also walk by the church to affirm their belief in it, and by the Wall, from which casually hang a few corpses, likely former doctors who performed abortions.

That night, the narrator’s memories range from her old friend Moira, to a book-burning of pornographic materials her mother took her to when she was a child, to a vague period she “lost time” and during which it seems her daughter was taken from her.

On their next walk, Ofglen comments that “It’s a beautiful May day,” causing the narrator to remember when Luke taught her about the term “mayday.” Later, she sees the Commander loitering outside her bedroom, where he’s not supposed to be. We learn that the narrator began her relationship with Luke when he was still married to someone else, and that they would rendezvous in hotels, which she compares with her current room at the Commander’s. She’s discovered writing on the baseboard in the latter that says: “Nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum”; when she tries to find out more about the woman who preceded her in her post, the cook, Rita, won’t tell. She goes to the doctor, who offers to “help her” get pregnant as he’s helped others; though his offer is tempting (the narrator’s life will be in danger if she’s unable to conceive a child), the narrator concludes it’s too dangerous. She is given her routine bath by Cora, which induces memories of bathing her daughter, who would be eight now. The narrator remembers when her old friend Moira appeared at the Red Centre; after a while they were able to communicate covertly in the washroom. The narrator then dreams of running for her life with her daughter, hearing gunshots behind them.

Everyone in the household is convened in the sitting room, but the Commander is late, so they get to watch some of the news, of vague “wars,” and only “victories.” There’s also a tidbit that the Eyes have busted a ring responsible for smuggling many “national resources” (code for Handmaids) over the border into Canada. She remembers driving in the car trying to escape the country, having lied to their daughter so she wouldn’t give them away. The Commander reads to them from the Bible, and the narrator remembers when Moira tried to fake illness to escape from the Centre and they injured her feet as punishment.

The narrator endures the Ceremony: the Commander has sex with her while Serena Joy sits at her head. Feeling the need for self-affirmation afterward, she sneaks out to steal something from the house and runs into Nick, who tells her the Commander wants to see her the next day. That night, the narrator thinks about her need to believe Luke is alive somewhere and that he’ll come for her.

The next day, a Birthmobile comes for the Handmaids to join in Ofwarren’s labor. The narrator considers the one in four chance the baby will be born a “shredder”–deformed, and therefore unfit to live, due to fallout from accidents at nuclear plants. She thinks of all the bad videos about the past they had to watch at the Centre to convince them the current way is better (she saw her mother in one of these as a demonstrator for abortion rights). The Handmaids perform their trained chant during Janine’s labor, and the baby appears to be healthy.

The narrator remembers when Moira escaped from the Centre, a tale she heard secondhand from Janine, who heard it from Aunt Lydia: Moira made the toilet overflow then threatened Aunt Elizabeth with a pointed lever from inside the toilet, chaining her behind a furnace and trading clothes with her, then walking out the front door as an Aunt. 

After dinner that night, the narrator goes to the Commander’s room at his illicit summons, where she’s more than amused that he wants to play a contraband game of Scrabble. Then he wants her to kiss him, “As if you meant it.” They start an arrangement where she visits him to play a couple of nights a week, signalled through Nick, and he gives her small gifts like contraband magazines from his collection. During the next Ceremony, the narrator finds her emotions complicated.

On one of their shopping walks, Ofglen and the narrator pass by a Soul Scrolls franchise, with machines that print out prayers people can order to look good politically. Ofglen asks the narrator if she thinks God listens to the machines, a heretical question, and the narrator admits she doesn’t, a heretical response.

The narrator considers how Moira would likely disapprove of her arrangement with the Commander, since she’d disapproved of her affair with Luke, and recalls their debates over gender roles (Moira is gay). She remembers the job at a library she had while waiting for Luke to extricate himself from his marriage. She thinks about how the abolition of paper money paved the way for the government takeover, and the slow transition that followed it:

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.     

The Constitution is suspended, and following a period of “suspended animation,” the library employees are let go and a law is passed that all women’s property is to be passed over to their husband or male next-of-kin. The narrator wonders how Luke really felt about this policy, since they never actually discussed it–thanks to her new forced dependency, she couldn’t risk alienating him.

Trying to leverage whatever power their arrangement has afforded her, the narrator asks the Commander what the Latin phrase she found written on her baseboard means. He says it’s a schoolboy’s joke (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”), and shows her that it’s doodled in the margins of his old textbook. The narrator infers that the previous Handmaid must have had a similar arrangement with the Commander, who tells her the former Handmaid hanged herself.

The narrator recalls how Luke had to kill their cat before they tried to flee; noting how Luke referred to the cat as “it” before he did so gives her some insight into the regime now. Ofglen tells her the password for the secret network of them is “Mayday,” though it’s not good for them to know about too many of the others. Serena Joy offers to set her up with another man to get pregnant and the narrator agrees, knowing she has no better options. The Commander, whom Ofglen has told her is up at the very top of the regime, has started trying to justify some of the rationale behind the regime’s policies to her.

At the Prayvaganza, Ofglen tells the narrator Janine’s baby turned out to be a shredder after all. The narrator remembers a time at the Centre when Janine seemed to think she was still working as a waitress and Moira forced her out of it.

The narrator remembers when they tried to cross a checkpoint with fake passports and Luke fled when a guard seemed to be phoning them in. She considers the nature of love. The Commander surprises her by taking her “out”; Nick drives them to a hotel where she used to rendezvous with Luke, where all manner people are congregating, and the narrator sees Moira amid the women dressed in scrounged sexy clothing that’s since been banned. She meets her in the washroom and gets her story: after leaving the Centre, she made contact with the underground and was transported several legs until she was picked up by authorities right before crossing the border. After some implied torture, they gave her the choice of going to the Colonies to shovel toxic waste, or to essentially become a prostitute. The narrator never sees her again. Back at the house later that night, Serena Joy sends for her to rendezvous with Nick.

The narrator begins an affair with Nick and gets reckless. Ofglen stops pressuring her to try to find stuff out about the Commander. They go to a Salvaging, where a Wife and two Handmaids are to be hanged for unnamed transgressions (naming the crimes has caused too many copycat crimes). Then, for the Particicution, a Guardian is dragged out and accused of rape and the Handmaids set on him, Ofglen first, to the narrator’s horror until Ofglen explains the man is not really a rapist, but a “political”–part of their network who’d been caught and whom she was sparing further pain. The next time Ofglen approaches for their shopping trip, it’s a different woman; when the narrator can’t resist testing the “May Day” password, the woman gives her an implied warning and tells her Ofglen hanged herself when “[s]he saw the van coming for her.” Serena Joy confronts the narrator with the cloak the Commander gave her to wear during their night out.

The narrator is waiting in her room, considering her limited options, when a van pulls up. Nick comes in ahead of the Eyes and tells her to go with them, that they’re Mayday. The narrator isn’t sure she can trust him, but chooses to, and gets in the van with them.

Then we get “Historical Notes,” a guy at a conference about the Gileadean period giving a talk about validating the authenticity of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” found on some cassette tapes discovered in a foot locker. He provides some historical context on who the “Fred” that “Offred” the narrator must have been a Handmaid for could have been; there are two possibilities, both men responsible for the regime’s major Handmaid-related policies. The narrator was unable to be traced and her fate is unknown–she could have been smuggled over the border, or she could have been recaptured. THE END.

The structure Atwood is working with here resembles a French braid, in which two smaller threads are interwoven around one main thread. The main thread here being the acute tension of what’s going on in the present at the Commander’s house, while the smaller threads are 1) her past before the Gilead regime, which largely revolves around Luke (and to a lesser extent her daughter) and 2) her past at the Red Centre, training to be a Handmaid after the regime started; this thread largely revolves around Moira, though Moira also appears in her pre-Gilead thread. The main acute thread is told chronologically, but the other two are told piecemeal, out of order, via snippets of memories triggered by stimuli in the acute thread.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it conveys the sweeping changes brought in by a new regime through the narrow focus of one of the subjects of that regime. No bird’s-eye-view explanations as to how we got here; we are instead, simply, here. It’s also impressive how understated our tale is–our narrator is not a hero of the resistance. She’s a reasonably intelligent individual who can process the horror of the regime without being gifted enough to resist it. Also no sappy reunions with her old family. All the references to Luke and her hope that he’s alive might seem like it’s setting up something of direct plot relevance, but Luke’s influence is ultimately indirect, his real plot relevance stemming from the psychological vulnerability recollections of him induce.

The clock on the present timeline is the narrator’s stint as Handmaid at the Commander’s house, but interestingly, this isn’t where Atwood chooses to start. She doesn’t begin with the acute thread, but with something from the middle-distant Red Centre past, starting the novel thus with a point in limbo between the narrator’s past and present. The Red Centre is a figurative and literal holding cell. The limbo state turns out to be a fairly ideal starting point to convey the particularities of this strange new world through a compare-and-contrast strategy, as a setting for which the Red Centre gymnasium works well. A gymnasium will be instantly familiar to most readers, and we know something is off when we read in the first line that it’s not a gymnasium anymore, and then further that the nets on the basketball hoops are gone. The opening establishes a yearning for the way things used to be, while at the same time teasing us with the question of what exactly is going on now, as well as what happened to get us wherever we are now. The oddness of the world is further underscored, and our curiosity further piqued, when we go to the Commander’s house in the next chapter and encounter Guardians and Eyes. (Capitalization is an important tool in world-building.) Still, we don’t know the official nature of the narrator’s role in the household. It’s when she flashes back to her encounter with the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, upon first coming to the house that a more clear (although still somewhat fuzzy) picture of what she’s doing there starts to emerge. The narrator seems to have little official power, and yet Serena Joy seems highly threatened by her. Immediately following the recounting of that exchange, we get this passage:

I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.

This description, drawing several likenesses between the physical environment and a living human body–first the ground is given hair, then, the soil is fertile, a common adjective applied to soil but that in the context of the comparisons before and after it (worms as lips) becomes more human. The comparison provides the reader with further subtle evidence as to the nature of the Handmaid’s official duty, and how related to the human body and fertility it is.

The only exposition that we will get about the state of this world or how it came to be has to come from concrete triggers encountered in scene. Atwood is a master of alternating between action and information, baiting us with just enough information to both start to satisfy our curiosity while also teasing it further. For instance, when Offred and Ofglen go on their first shopping trip that we see:

There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two. I see they have oranges today. Ever since Central America was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not. The war interferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up. I look at the oranges, longing for one. But I haven’t brought any tokens for oranges. I’ll go back and tell Rita about them, I think. She’ll be pleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made oranges happen.

Objects convey much, and are also a critical touchstone to start to familiarize this unfamiliar world to the reader. Instead of introducing all-new unfamiliar objects to go with the all-new unfamiliar world, familiar objects are either used in unfamiliar capacities, or characters’ unfamiliar reactions to them, as in the above case of oranges now being such a big deal, further enlighten us as to what life in this world is like, and more importantly, feels like. The Handmaids’ red dress with white wings comes to symbolize the oppressive nature of the regime, as does the shift in attitude towards clothing and what’s acceptable to show or not. The way the little things we take for granted come to carry such weight conveys the extremity of the regime’s oppression: when Offred compares the game of Scrabble the Commander offers her to drugs, or saves pats of butter to use as hand lotion.

If the exposition about the larger world can only come through concrete in-scene triggers, the same goes for the transitions into the other two sub-threads, the past and the more distant past. A common and clever tactic Atwood uses to transition into the Red Centre past is for the narrator to think about what Aunt Lydia would say about whatever the narrator is doing or encountering in the present; this also works especially seamlessly because the Aunt Lydia commentary can but does not always segue into a more involved memory from the Centre. (Boldface mine.)

Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.

Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view, she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them.

They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. She had a mole on her chin that went up and down while she talked. She said, Think of yourselves as seeds, and right then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices of those women who used to teach ballet classes to children, and who would say, Arms up in the air now; let’s pretend we’re trees.

The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.

Some day, when times improve, says Aunt Lydia, no one will have to be an Econowife.

It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives.

It’s a risk you’re taking, said Aunt Lydia, but you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance, into dangerous territory.

Aunt Lydia becomes the voice of the regime itself.

It’s on the shopping trip with Ofglen when the pregnant Handmaid Janine comes in, eliciting a jealous reaction from the other Handmaids, that we really start to understand what’s going on fully.

The narrator’s distant past is important both for compare-contrast purposes, but also so we can see why the narrator has landed where she has in this new social order: according to the new regime, her marriage wasn’t valid, because it wasn’t Luke’s first marriage. Which is why she has to be an adulteress, which leads to the nice use of that hotel in the then and now for further compare/contrast purposes. The narrator’s going with the Commander to that same hotel she used to with Luke is the novel’s pre-climax, if when the Eyes come for her in the house is the official climax.

It’s interesting to compare the world Atwood has created here to the one she creates later in Oryx and Crake–in the latter she actually creates two worlds. In Handmaid, the world that existed before the new strange world is intimated to have been our regular world, except for a few accelerants that are logical extensions of what could happen in our world, particularly the one major element that enabled the new world to come into being:

You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems so primitive, totemistic even, like cowrie shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the Compubank.

I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.

(The one thing that’s off in the pre-new-world world is something that could conceivably very easily come to pass in our world, though over twenty years later we’ve still managed to resist full conversion…hopefully we will continue to heed the Handmaid’s warning.)

In Oryx and Crake, the pre-new-world world is a lot more different from the world we know. In both books, Atwood establishes the nature of that pre-new-world world with an interestingly similar device: a bonfire scene. Early in both books we get a flashback to a childhood memory of a bonfire.

Handmaid:

There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.

Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost. Fire can do that. Even my mother’s face, usually pale, thinnish, looked ruddy and cheerful, like a Christmas card; and there was another woman, large, with a soot smear down her cheek and an orange knitted cap, I remember her.

You want to throw one on, honey? she said. How old was I?

Good riddance to bad rubbish, she said, chuckling. It okay? she said to my mother.

If she wants to, my mother said; she had a way of talking about me to others as if I couldn’t hear.

The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.

Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

The world as presented in this scene resembles history as we’re familiar with, a feminist book-burning of pornographic materials in the seventies. This foreshadows the mass burnings of reading materials that the new regime will execute once in power, as well as the symbolic burning of women’s bodies under the oppression of that new regime. These foreshadowings are byproducts of this passage, whose predominant purpose seems to be establishing that the world that led to the new world strongly resembles our own.

Compare that to the implications about that immediate pre-new-world world in the bonfire flashback in Oryx and Crake:

Jimmy’s earliest complete memory was of a huge bonfire. He must have been five, maybe six. He was wearing red rubber boots with a smiling duck’s face on each toe; he remembers that, because after seeing the bonfire he had to walk through a pan of disinfectant in those boots. They’d said the disinfectant was poisonous and he shouldn’t splash, and then he was worried that the poison would get into the eyes of the ducks and hurt them. He’d been told the ducks were only like pictures, they weren’t real and had no feelings, but he didn’t quite believe it.

So let’s say five and a half, thinks Snowman. That’s about right.

The month could have been October, or else November; the leaves still turned colour then, and they were orange and red. It was muddy underfoot – he must have been standing in a field – and it was drizzling. The bonfire was an enormous pile of cows and sheep and pigs. Their legs stuck out stiff and straight; gasoline had been poured onto them; the flames shot up and out, yellow and white and red and orange, and a smell of charred flesh filled the air. It was like the barbecue in the backyard when his father cooked things but a lot stronger, and mixed in with it was a gas-station smell, and the odour of burning hair.

 

“This is where it ends up,” said Jimmy’s father, not to Jimmy but to a man standing with them. “Once things get going.” Jimmy’s father sounded angry; so did the man when he answered.

“They say it was brought in on purpose.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jimmy’s father.

“Can I have one of the cow horns?” said Jimmy. He didn’t see why they should be wasted. He wanted to ask for two but that might be pushing it.

“No,” said his father. “Not this time, old buddy.” He patted Jimmy’s leg.

“Drive up the prices,” said the man. “Make a killing on their own stuff, that way.”

“It’s a killing all right,” said Jimmy’s father in a disgusted tone. “But it could’ve been just a nutbar. Some cult thing, you never know.”

“Why not?” said Jimmy. Nobody else wanted the horns. But this time his father ignored him.

“The question is, how did they do it?” he said. “I thought our people had us sealed up tight as a drum.”

“I thought they did too. We fork out enough. What were the guys doing? They’re not paid to sleep.”

“It could’ve been bribery,” said Jimmy’s father. “They’ll check out the bank transfers, though you’d have to be pretty dumb to stick that kind of money into a bank. Anyway, heads will roll.”

“Fine-tooth comb, and I wouldn’t want to be them,” said the man. “Who comes in from outside?”

“Guys who repair things. Delivery vans.”

“They should bring all that in-house.”

“I hear that’s the plan,” said his father. “This bug is something new though. We’ve got the bioprint.”

“Two can play at that game,” said the man.

“Any number can play,” said Jimmy’s father.

This passage is our immediate introduction to the pre-new-world world, and we can see several differences from the one we’re familiar with: the “bringing everything in-house” and “comes in from outside” remarks let us know that the residential structures in this world are different. The biological vandalism that has necessitated this fire itself seems a response to something questionable going on in the community. In Handmaid we aren’t in Kansas anymore; in Oryx and Crake we were never in Kansas at all.

(It’s also interesting to note that in Oryx and Crake Atwood doesn’t shy away from including detailed dialog exchanges in what are ostensibly supposed to be memory flashbacks.)

When Atwood makes the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale academic commentary from the distant future on the period during which the novel takes place, she is directly stealing from Orwell’s 1984 (as did Justin Cronin with his academic-conference conclusion to The Passage trilogy at the end of The City of Mirrors). Atwood notes in her SF and the Human Imagination that many people read 1984 as overly bleak, but that the academic commentary at the end proves that the oppressive regime was eventually toppled, thus offering us a version of a happy ending, for society at least, if not for the characters we’ve come to care about. What’s interesting is that Atwood’s conference speaker character surmises that the narrator told her tale retroactively, perhaps when she was in hiding somewhere after her escape, as she wouldn’t have had access to tapes under the regime, and not pen or paper either (the time the Commander lets her write something down noted for the novelty of her getting to hold a pen). And yet there are many lines in the text that seem to indicate the Handmaid is narrating the events not from a point after everything recounted in the book has already happened, but rather as she is experiencing it:

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here –

Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever.

It seems like the version that discovered on the tapes can’t really be verbatim what was recounted in the text we read in the book itself…

-SCR

Because You Missed Reading Old Dead White Men: An Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” by Melissa Alter

So, what is “The Nightingale and the Rose” even about?

(Note: if your answer is “It’s about a nightingale and a rose”, congratulations! You successfully managed to read all five words of the title. Now go back and read the rest of the story, because spoilers are ahead.)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” tells the story of a boy in love with the daughter of the Professor. He desires a red rose to present to his love, hoping that it will make her want to dance with him; however, his garden is freshly out of stock in red roses. Miserable, the boy laments this tragedy and starts weeping.

However, unbeknownst to him, a nightingale is listening to his tale of woe and takes it upon herself to get him the red rose, believing that love is the ultimate source of meaning, more important than even life. Determined to find the red rose even at the cost of her own life, the nightingale discovers a tree that will produce red roses but requires her heart-blood in return.

The nightingale returns to her own garden for a final time, conveying her desire for the boy to be a true lover, for she believes that love is the wisest and most powerful thing in the world. She sings her Oak Tree a farewell song; the boy, listening in, admits that she has a nice voice but ultimately determines that art is useless and not as practical as math or science.

That night, the nightingale goes back to the rose tree and, pressing her chest against a thorn, starts singing. The Tree constantly reminds her to press harder against the thorn, as the song must be completed before daybreak. Finally, the thorn pierces her heart, and the red rose is crafted at the cost of the nightingale’s life.

Come morning, the boy discovers the red rose. He brings it to his lover’s house, only for her to reject him in favor of the Chamberlain’s nephew, who gave her jewels. Disgusted, the boy throws the rose onto the street, where it is run over by a cart. Deciding on the inherent uselessness of love, the boy decides to go back to his studies, focusing on science instead of love.

Wait, why am I so emotionally invested in these characters? And how can I play with other people’s emotions like this?

Option 1: Become Oscar Wilde.

Option 2: Use elements of his craft in your own work. For example, look at Wilde’s use of dramatic irony. The nightingale initially says that love is more important than life! (Foreshadowing: to warn or indicate a particular event.) After the nightingale’s sacrifice, the red rose the boy’s been longing for just so happens to pop up outside his window? Yeah, real coincidence right there! And then you just throw the rose under the wheel of a cart? I’m sorry, did the nightingale’s sacrifice mean nothing to you?

Um, are you okay?

No, I most certainly am not! Oh, and another reason we’re emotionally invested: Wilde brings up modern-day issues and debates: is love more important than life? What are you willing to die for? Which is more important — science or love?

Alright, alright, moving on: When I Google “symbolism of a nightingale”, the first result that pops up says that “the nightingale sings of love, but it is also a symbol of the connection between love and death[1]”. And I know that a rose symbolizes love as well. Do these things have any connection to Wilde’s message?

…I thought you said that you read the story.

It’s not plagiarism if you cite your sources: What we can “steal” from Oscar Wilde.

The things from above are totally applicable. Dramatic irony. Posing timeless questions. But we can also look at some of his other craft elements. First, let’s check out his use of image by tracking the rose’s purpose throughout the story.

Initially, it’s the “goal” of the main character. He desires it because it’s a tool used to achieve his greater purpose – dancing with the Professor’s daughter. Thus, it becomes the goal of the nightingale to get the rose for the boy, which she achieves but, in doing so, she ultimately loses her life. Now it’s the cause of a character’s death as well. Then the boy takes the rose to the Professor’s daughter, but she rejects him; dismayed, the boy throws the rose into the street, where it is crushed by a wagon’s wheel. The use of the rose as a controlling image a) took a relatively common symbol for love and used it in these unique ways, and b) emotionally distressed the reader by essentially rendering the nightingale’s sacrifice useless. By making a character’s sacrifice irrelevant, and amplifying it by another character (the boy) not even realizing her sacrifice evokes emotion in the reader.

Now, let’s check out the point of view in this story. As readers, we get to see the entire spectrum of thoughts – the boy’s, the nightingale’s, and the trees. We understand all of these elements (which is good, because otherwise we’d be wondering why the heck a bird committed suicide and how a single flower bloomed in winter). But then we stop for a moment to examine the language barriers within the story itself. On page six-ish[2], the nightingale sings a song to her Oak Tree, and the boy is listening in. He admits that she has a good tune, but doesn’t understand the words she’s saying. Of course, this serves to further emphasize the science vs art argument, but it also builds tension, because we know that she is planning to sacrifice herself for him as he critiques her singing. We should also note the fact that the nightingale can understand the boy (as he complains about his love life), but he can’t understand her. Which leads to the third point: nature’s role in the story.

So, how does nature drive the story? We could analyze it on a symbolic level and determine the meanings of the rose and the nightingale (See section “Alright, alright, moving on” above). But it also plays a role in terms of plot. It’s chilly outside, and Winter Is Coming (you’re welcome, Game of Thrones fans). Because of this, the rose is physically unable to bloom. This part is necessary in the story – if it were springtime, he’d just go outside and pick one off his tree, and we’d be left with a story about a boy being rejected and turned into a beast and the petals of the rose are tied to his life force until a French girl named Belle comes along – oh, wait. Wrong story. Sorry. Anyways, though, winter is vital to the central conflict in the story. But, lo and behold, it also provides a resolution! The boy does get his rose, thanks to the nightingale and the tree, which are both naturally parts of nature – and that makes me wonder if nature is being exploited to preserve man. I mean, the nightingale literally questions, “what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”. So I’m reading some environmentalism themes in here, too. (By the way, if I were to read too deeply into this, I could argue that the cart’s rolling over the rose at the end also suggested man’s conquest of nature as shown through an industrializing world. But I’m not going to do that to you guys. Although the girl’s notion of jewels as superior to roses seem to lead towards materialism… as well as the whole belief in “science over natural beauty”… hmmm….)

Your turn! Questions for you:

  1. We discussed Wilde’s message about nature and environmentalism. Looking through the lens of social classes and gender roles, what does Wilde attempt to convey about humanity in this story?
  2. Was the red rose tree wrong to tell the nightingale how to grow the rose (i.e. sacrificing herself)?
  3. What is Wilde’s argument about the relative importance of science versus art? How is your perception impacted by the fact that the boy, the scientist, loses his love, while the bird, the artist, loses her life?

[1] http://www.octarium.org/programs/nature-notes.html

[2] This is the technical term.

“A Pair of Silk Stockings” Write Up by Marin Hart

The story “A Pair of Silk Stockings” begins with Mrs. Sommers coming to possess fifteen dollars. She carefully considers how to spend the money and decides to buy her children new clothes. The author reveals to us shortly after that she used to have money to spare, but has never looked back or regretted her decision to marry. Mrs. Sommers goes to the store tired and hungry and discovers some soft stockings. She decides to buy a pair but does not stop there. She travels upstairs to buy new shoes and have gloves fitted, ignoring or forgetting completely her children’s clothes. She then decides to buy magazines, eat at an up-scale restaurant, and watch a show at the theatre. Her last desire is presented to readers in the cable car where she wishes to continue on riding forever.

I think Ms. Chopin executes many techniques well, but two that are most interesting are the pattern or escalation in Mrs. Sommer’s spending and- what I will call- the “Rooting for her” technique. The pattern in this story, like that in “The School” starts small with Mrs. Sommers temptation to buy the stockings. She gives in and spends the $1.98. This surprises the reader but is not ridiculous. Though she just said she was going to buy clothes for her children, she indulges herself. The reader supposes that she will move on to spend the rest of her money the way she originally intended. But, without a moments hesitation, Mrs. Sommers heads upstairs to be fitted with new shoes and gloves. These purchases slowly escalate from the stockings in price. She continues to buy more expensive or bigger objects or experiences, from the gloves to luxury magazines to the restaurant to the show. What I think is special about the use of this pattern, is that it does not break by wildly changing directions the way it does in “The School” and other stories. Instead, the author tells us in the very last line that Mrs. Sommer’s next impulse is to never come back to her responsibilities and leaves us wondering whether the pattern continues or ends in her going home to her family. This keeps the brains of readers churning long after they read the last line.

Secondly, Ms. Chopin does a great job of making us sympathize with her character. Subtly, she mentions that Mrs. Sommers has never before given in to wishing for nice things for herself since marrying Mr. Sommers or bought anything but bargains. Doing this, we do not believe that she pampers herself often if ever. She is not spoiled nor embarrassed of her social position. On the day of the shopping trip, poor Mrs. Sommers is exhausted from taking care of her children and cleaning and has failed even to have time to eat, herself. Readers immediately pity her and can recognize the hardship in being a mother, and especially, a woman in that time. This passage in particular reveals the author’s purpose in writing this story. In order to show us the hardship in having these responsibilities, we have to first understand the character’s life and respect her. Then, even after she begins buying extravagant items, we continue to like her. With lines like “her stockings and boots had worked marvels in her bearing-had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude” we understand her yearning to just fit in sometimes. Even after eating richly at the fancy restaurant, she tips the waiter, showing the audience that even in indulgence she is not greedy. This tiny detail works wonders for our perception of the character. Towards the end of the story, when Mrs. Sommers goes to see the play, she takes in all of her surroundings and does not take any of it for granted, unlike some other women in the theatre described as “gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire.” If Kate had not wanted us to see the struggle that is trying to prove your value as a woman in society, even through money if intelligence got you no where as a woman in the 1890s, these details would have been radically different. It would not have been difficult to make a woman purchasing extravagant, unnecessary items seem selfish.

Implementing this method into your own writing is a valuable skill to have. By choosing these concrete details carefully, you can leave an imprint of what you want the reader to pick up on. If you can make the reader understand your character, you can take them anywhere. And, if you can keep them interested, by letting them speculate about what happens in the end, like Kate Chopin does by letting the reader decide if the pattern continues at the end of this story, you can leave them remembering and pondering your message overall after they finish reading.