The Mirror, White Wings, and What’s in a name?
Feminism and Deconstruction pair nicely. The two theories focus on finding and highlighting differences. And while they may draw seperate conclusions to any given text, when united they can ask larger questions – which is the case in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. An explication of this week’s selected passage, confirms the preceding thought.
The two-paragraph selection focuses on Offred walking down the stairs, about to go outside for a walk. In the passage Offred relays certain information about the house. The thoughts, sequence of events, and larger structure of the text can, and do, draw Feminist and Deconstructive assertions.
Consider the first paragraph:
There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood. (Atwood 8).
There are multiple signifiers in the above selection. The most intriguing, perhaps, is the mirror. The mirror that hangs on the wall, “remains.” Because it “remains” it implies that the existence of the mirror preceded an event. That change, from pre-event to post-event, is the first signifier – it harkens back to a selection from Martin Heidegger’s “Identity and Difference” when Heidegger writes, “[I]n the case of the being of existence and the existence of being we are concerned every time with a difference.” (271).
There are many differences from pre and post-event. Focusing specifically on Offred, she is one of a few select women whose sole purpose is procreation. She is there to fuck and have babies. Rinse, then repeat. The white wings that frame her face, almost referencing the tunnel-vision like aspect of her situation, are representative of an active male group disenfranchising a passive female society (349), as Helene Cixous point out in “The Newly Born Woman” It also relates to the “marginalization and privatization” (840)– the fact that she is among a group of women being used to birth future generations – referenced in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” and an ideal of “contemplative purity” (817), that’s noted in the imagery of the white wings described in “The Madwoman in the Attic”, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Going back to the mirror, it’s worthy to note how Offred perceives herself within the mirror and how the mirror reflects her image. If the mirror is a signifier of change then Offred would have to be a signified concept. She is existing in a world rooted in a dystopian society and she is both a result of indoctrination and a lingering resistance to the change she was forced to undergo, much like Heidegger’s earlier assertion on difference – all of that is wrapped up in her opinion of being “like a distorted shadow, a parody of something” (8) in the eye of the mirror.
Furthermore there are interesting structural indicators in relation to the mirror and the larger condition of society, Offred, and the female gender. There are three sentences in the first paragraph. Their word counts amount to eight, 70, and five. Consider the sequence of the narrative –Offred sees the mirror, she goes down stairs, she recognizes herself as a paradox – and the following selection from George Batallie’s “Heterology.” Batallie writes: “Heterogeneous reality is that of a force or a shock. It presents itself as a charge, as a value, passing from one object to another in a more or less abstract fashion, almost as if the change were taking place not in the world of objects but only in the judgements of the subject.” (276). Is the perceived paradox by Offred within her conceptions of the world and the place of the female within it, or is it an assertion by the mirror of an anomaly within society? It’s both and it is neither. The paradox only exists because Offred is passing by the mirror. And Offred is only passing by the mirror because she is obligated to sustain a passive action from the rules of the male authority. The existence of the paradox is purely circumstantial and the circumstances which created the paradox exist only because of the constructed culture, which inserted Offred in her place which created the circumstantial paradox. It’s a loop.
Now, consider the second paragraph:
At the bottom of the stairs, there’s a hat-and-umbrella stand, the bentwood kind, long rounded rungs of wood curving gently up into hooks shaped like the opening fronds of a fern. There are several umbrellas in it: black, for the Commander, blue, for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me, which is red. I leave the red umbrella where it is, because I know from the window that the day is sunny. I wonder whether or not the Commander’s Wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet. (8–9)
Going back to Spivak’s piece, there are clear social distinctions here. Offred has the red umbrella. The Commander has the blue one. The yellow one is the Commander’s wife’s umbrella. To take one that wasn’t hers would have been to launch a metaphorical class assault – to claim she was something she wasn’t.
There’s also a really interesting comparison between Offred and the Commander’s Wife within the last couple of lines. The Commander’s Wife is in her designated room. She is very much the clear definition of how a woman is supposed to act within the newly constructed society. Offred, when she is thinking of the Commander’s Wife, is in a shared space, a room that doesn’t have any social definitions attached to it. She notes “She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.” Offred’s recollection of the Commander’s Wife’s actions shows a woman who, as we learn later, wanted this life but lives rather restless within it – a difference that is worthy to note in larger consideration of the text.
Lastly, the difference between their names are significant to both theories. Both titles are formal and representative of male possession, essentially making the two objects. But why isn’t the Commander’s Wife called Offred and why isn’t Offred called the Commander’s Handmaid? Is it because the Commander’s Wife has a formal ring to it and a religiously based society is more willing to give constructed respect to a stable household figure? Or is it because Atwood was trying to create a character in Offred whose name dictated ownership? Offred is Of-Fred. If it is the Atwood application, what feminist implications does that have? Does that mean Offred is a gender construction by the author? And, if so, does that impact any of the claims that can be made for a feminist society by anyone who sympathizes with the beliefs of Offred? This, yet again, is another example of a line of signified thought.
(Quick Note: I added a bibliography because I listened to Paul Fry’s lectures as I was writing this and attempting to figure out what I was going to write. They were immensely helpful.)
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor, 1998. Print.
Batallie, George. “Heterology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 273-277. Print.
Cixous, Helene. “The Newly Born Woman.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 348-354. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra. Gubar, Susan. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 812-825. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “Identity and Difference.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 271-272. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakracorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 838–854. Print.
YaleCourses. “10. Deconstruction I.” Youtube. You-Tube. 9/1/2009. Online Video Clip. 5/28/2015.
YaleCourses. “11. Deconstruction II.” Youtube. You-Tube. 9/1/2009. Online Video Clip. 5/28/2015.