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Representation of Body and Identities in Miller’s Novels

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    The representation of the body and identities in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale and with reference to Never Let Me Go.

    The Handmaid’s tale, The Miller’s Tale and Never Let Me Go all seem to hold the human form in substantial import, exploring physicality with great significance. The fictional novels all link together and the bodies and identities of the characters are used as political statements in society. Throughout history women have fought to gain the independence they deserve as a member of society and in all three pieces of literature you are able to see that it will always be an on going battle and people feel that women are just there to be used and objectified. Atwood’s dystopian classic was influenced by texts such as George Orwell’s 1984. Atwood creates an imagined world and society ruled by a fundamentalist government and a Christian theocracy in the place of a democratic government; which have enforced actions such as totalitarian violence and the suppression of information to the people of Gilead which would be strongly opposed in today’s society. However, the terrifying and oppressed setting fits well into the genre’s conventions. Atwood’s feminist vision of dystopia is strong and reflects well the contextual issues surrounding society at the time she wrote the novel such as the rise of the second wave women’s movement. They fought for and achieved acts like the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination act. The Miller’s Tale is a parody of The Knight’s Tale, about courtly love; the tale shows the reader about the tension between the social classes. The Knight’s Tale is extremely long, boring and dry whereas The Miller’s Tale is and inappropriate story which openly jokes about a marriage break down. The Miller’s Tale is reflective of the medieval genre conventions of fabliaux. ‘A fabliau is a brief comic tale in verse, usually scurrilous and often scatological and obscene in places’. An example of this is the use of language such as ‘queynt’, an old English word for the female genitals which to a modern day reader they would it find shocking and offensive and shows the disregard towards the female and her privacy. The fabliau usually ends with a ridiculous and complex climax including a trick/joke of some sort which is of a rude nature.

    Never let me go is a novel which takes place in a late 20th century England where humans are cloned and bred for the purpose of harvesting their organs. The main themes that run throughout the novel are the representation of the body and how precious it is to society as well as the battle the characters have with their identities. The novel is set in a boarding school style institute and is almost a dystopian novel as it presents an uneasy life for the children, but the fact they don’t know any different challenges the usual genre conventions and the heart of the novel shows a story of true love. The loss of identity is a prominent theme across the three texts; this is mainly due to the state of the society and the changes that they have been through. The second wave of women’s liberation was on going at the time Atwood wrote her novel. They mainly focused on gender inequality and changes in the law. These women fought for the right to vote and have equality throughout society. Women’s treatment in society can be summed up in the following phrase: “Women are expected to be angels in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom”. When the movement began to take hold and develop in academia issues such as abortion, rape and domestic violence which was then regarded as important. Atwood’s novel projects images of a futuristic society in which problems such as infertility by pollution and declining birth rates, these are just some of the consequences of our actions as a society that Atwood explores. The theme of women’s rights can be seen throughout.

    For example the Handmaids are forced into a sexual service of the state strongly reinforcing the message of sex is for reduction not pleasure leading Offred to often refer to herself and fellow Handmaids as ‘’Two-legged womb’’. Sex is seen as being degrading and wrong to women; however it is seen as fine for the men and commanders to desire sexual encounters more than once a month. This is why the Jezebels were created, like the commander says “everyone is human after all”. The society its self has been taken of all ownership and power. All bodies, especially those of the Handmaids are worshiped by society. By doing this the fundamentalist government somehow sees it as a justification of their actions, almost as if they are giving back to the society they have most definitely destroyed. In todays postmodern society their situation could be seen as relatable by the reader, however even in supposed acts of ‘kindness’ they leave their mark. The main protagonist Offred makes a conscience effort to not look at her body whilst undressing herself. This shows how she feels like even a glimpse of her own body is defying orders.

    However it is at this moment when she notices the tattoo of the ‘eye’ on her ankle. This provides the constant reminder that she is being watched and that the government have all control over her. Her body is not and never will be again her own. The reader is given the impression throughout the novel that Offred almost lives outside of her own body. It is as if she is a stranger looking in on another person’s life. Her body and reproductive organs are appreciated and wanted more by other people such as the commander and his wife than herself. The emptiness that she feels inside can be seen as the same as the sterile Gilead society. The idea that her personal identify has gone and that all personal use for her body is disregarded is similar to the situation in Never Let Me Go. The children have been stripped of their true identities in the novel and are desperate to find out who they are. You can tell in the novel the thought of finding out who their ‘possible’ is strange and an unknown territory for the characters “There was definitely more awkwardness around any talk of the possibles than there was around, say, sex”. People become fascinated and obsessed which the ‘possibles’ theory. This just shows the importance of what an identity is and that it shouldn’t be taken from anyone.

    Throughout the novel you can see the characters they are. Each ‘clone’ is based on another human. To them the idea that they could find their ‘possible’ is the only thing that they really have to look forward to in their lives and you can see the excitement here ‘…one raised a hand and gave us an uncertain wave. This broke our spell and we took to our heels in a giggly panic’ and ‘we stopped again further down the street, talking excitedly all at once.’’ To the characters even the slightest of chance that there is a ‘possible’ out there gives them a sense of hope and reassurance of who they are, however the reader knows that this is just false hope and that there is no way of leaving the life that they live. The objectification of women is clearly stated throughout both The Miller’s Tale and The Handmaid’s Tale. Chaucer portrayal of women creates the distinct impression that women are of little importance and uses very animalistic language to describe and objectify and sexualise Alison through the tale. Alison is only really described externally in terms of her clothing. The language used to introduce the character of mainly defines the rural setting of the tale including animal similes to describe Alison’s physic, such as “…as any wezele hir body gent and smal.” meaning her body being as slender and delicate as a weasel’s. However the word ‘weasel’ in English can also have negative connotations of someone who can be devious or treacherous. The line “piggesnye/ for any lord to leggen in his Bede” this compares Alison’s rural animal nature to sexuality. Suggesting that she is unable to control her emotions and lust they way animals also cannot. Similar to actions displayed by Absolon. Alison’s role in the tale is passive, however in a fabliau tale the female protagonist is usually empowered over the other characters and the women of today may find Alison appealing due to the strength she shows. Objectification in The Handmaid’s Tale shows clearly the control has over the women. In a western society the clothes we buy and wear express our individuality and helps revel who you are. The women of the Gilead society are sorted and classified into 6 ‘legitimate’ and 2 ‘illegitimate’ categories by the colour coded clothes they wear.

    The wives wear blue dresses to represent the biblical representation of the Virgin Mary and should they become widows they are expected to wear the traditional mourning colour of black. Daughters wear white until married; Aunts are dressed in brown, Martha’s in green smocks and the eco wives which are the lowest ranking of the ‘legitimate’ women, their dress is multicoloured red, blue, and green to reflect their multiple roles they play in Gilead. The Handmaids have the most distinctive outfit which not only draws attention to them but also acts as a warning to the public. The red clothing completely conceals the shape of their body so nothing can be seen. Taking away this privilege of personal clothes is effectively removing all memories and normality from their previous life. Offred refers to herself as being in a collective resource at points and says it is ‘our bodies’ meaning nothing is ever referred to as a personal possession not even including her own body?. In Atwood’s novel there is a culture where women are trained in both self-surveillance and in exercising the surveillance gaze over other women. Collective ownership is strongly translated in ‘the Birthing Scene’. She refers to all the women acting in sync. ‘We are one smile’ this collective possession takes away any personal control what so ever, they are now living as one. In the ‘birthing scene’ the disregard that is shown to the character ‘Ofwarren’ after she has given birth is unacceptable. Atwood makes her point about the starved, beaten and abused female bodies need to some caring attention in a culture that plays tricks and controls their lives.

    The Miller’s tale relies heavily on the stereotypes of characters to illustrate them within the tale for example, the red hair of the Miller representing aggressiveness and the association of playing the bagpipes means you are in touch with the devil. When the Miller is introducing all of the characters he used detailed and physically imagery to describe Alison and it comes across almost as if the Miller is aroused by this. This is well fitting of a typical Miller and their actions in medieval times. The character of Absolon also has a lengthy introduction with a description that comes across very effeminate; with gold curly hair with a neat centre parting as well as a light blue tunic which is covered in lace. The Miller describes him in such a feminine way due to him conforming to the looks of a woman. There is little in the way of description when it comes to the identities of John and Nicholas but as the tale progresses it seems that we find out more about John, Nicholas and Absolon than they know themselves. Nicholas is introduced as ‘hende Nicholas’ and is only briefly discussed in comparison to Alison and Absolon due to their more feminine features.

    Nicholas’s young and attractive appearance is to his advantage in the tale and the description of his room gives a deeper insight into his character. When John is told about the imaginary flood it shows the cunning side that Nicholas has too. Attitudes towards women throughout the poem are shocking however during the time in which the fictional tale was written it was socially accepted to think and treat women the way that Chaucer presents them. For example, “Unhand my body, show some courtesy!” Nicholas here defying all personal feelings completely invade Alison privetee. In chapter 16 from The Handmaid’s Tale the ‘Ceremony’ is introduced. This is the monthly ritual where the Commander, the Commander’s Wife try to impregnate the Handmaid. Offred describes the experience as, “Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing.” Here you can see that the women from both texts have had something that is supposed to be personal and special abused for the pleasure of other people. Another example is now Nicholas feels like he is able to buy her, as if she was a possession for him to purchase. “..And, for she was of town, he profred meede;” Women were seen as of secondary importance in medieval society which is mainly down to the Biblical story of how Eve weakness lead to Adam’s downfall. Throughout the piece Alison has no voice when it comes to her voice and isn’t really aloud a say in anything. Women in at time the piece was set had no place in society other than a working wife and their only job was to please their husband and do what was expected of them. The names of the Handmaids in Atwood’s novel also have this idea of possession attached to them. Their names signify the commander that they serve, for example ‘Offred’, ‘Ofglen’ and ‘Ofwarren’. This shows the patriarchal control that the Commanders have within the Gileadean society. In the novel we are never told the old identities of the Handmaids. At the end of the opening chapter, 5 names are listed, ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.’ we are never informed about her really name, this is something that is of great significance to her and she makes it very clear throughout that she will never see or refer to herself being Offred and she is nameless until Chapter 24 when she is introduced as Offred. She calls her real name her ‘shining name’ which she revels to Nick in the novel but never to the audienc e. This is one of the only private things she has left from her previous life. There are 15 sections in the novels which are entitled ‘Night’. Offred tends to inform the reader about her past here.

    Things such as her relationship with her mother who was a women’s rights activist and also her husband Luke. These moments are Offred’s own where she isn’t expected to be anything other than herself as she says here ‘the night is mine… the night is my time out.’ It is often in these sections that we are informed of the back story which as lead Offred to where she is now and why she has the views she expresses. Death and the mistreatment of the body is quiet a common theme that is scene in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go. ‘The dead bodies are those of people such as ‘Angel-Makers’- these are people who are pro-abortion as well as doctors and scientists who are seen as bad and selfish in the Gileadean Society seen in The Handmaid’s Tale. The society is so desperate to reproduce the next generation that any form of abortion or contraception is most definitely unacceptable and is resolved with the deaths of the causes. They are left hanging on the wall for the people of the Gilead society to see. They are used as a form of treat to the community as a reminder of what power the government has over society. Offred describes one of the bodies hanging on the wall “This smile of blood is what fixes the attention, finally. These are not snowmen after all.” White cloth bags are placed over the heads of all victims, immediately taking away any identity they once had. She says that any features that may become distinct through the cloth are just grey shadows and are lifeless as their heads just hang down like ‘melting snowmen’. In a way the children in the novel Never Let Me Go have always been prepared for their death and the euphemism ‘completion’ that Ishiguro uses for death makes it that much more sinister. The word ‘completion’ gives the sense that all their duties have been made and have sufficed in what they were made to do. Each child becomes a ‘donor’ once their bodies are fully developed.

    The irony that the word ‘donor’ is used is cruel as these children have no choice in the matter. Ishiguro informs you of the information they were told about their identities by the teachers at Hailsham. Information about these talks and also the way an injury is treated come from Kathy when she is reminiscing on their childhood. As a child Tommy innocently falls over and cuts his elbow, which is treated as a life or death situation. It becomes clear how sacred the body is in terms of perfection and health. However the body is so sacred that the children are deprived for proper childhood in the fear of injury or death. These three texts have all exploited the bodies of the characters in some way. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it is mainly the women who are left in vulnerable situations and are just expected to accept it. Characters like Offred and Alison both show strong personalities and seem to have control of themselves and that it is just the oppression of society that is holding them back and stopping them from for filling their lives. Issues such as organ and harvesting, rape, domestic violence and forced surrogacy still happen in developing countries across the world and women are still fighting for the rights to be equal too hundreds of years later.

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