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The Handmaid's Tale: Chapter 41 analysis photo, Offred, June, Nick

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 41 analysis

I WISH THIS story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
Maybe it is about those things, in a sense; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulant.
I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless
to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 41.

This chapter is a turning point for Offred is no longer a victim but an active agent ready to give an extraordinary account of her affair with Nick and the salvaging afterward.

She will try to fulfill her quest or relationships and reciprocity through the experience with Nick and then honesty to her imaginary reader, promising him/her to tell the truth.

Dismemberment and fragmentation

Fragmentation annoys her and weighs heavily on her: she is a trapped mind wandering endlessly in a maze. The plotline constantly jumps about, each paragraph is unrelated to the previous and next one.

Fragmentation positions Offred as a victim of Gilead: the fragmented quality of her writing becomes a graphic representation of Gilead’s influence on the narrator’s psychological balance.

She is also a victim in the process of story-telling for she appears unable to control what she tells. This idea is reinforced by another quote: “it isn’t a story I’m telling”, underlining that her mission is not to make things up and to beautify reality but to render things as they truly are.

Her mission is to get a message across, it has a didactic purpose: “after all I want you to hear it”.

“I’m sorry that it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire and pulled apart by force”

  • there is a parallel between the body and the text
  • the fragmented text represents her own fragmented body

The text becomes less fragmented as she manages to write about her affair with Nick (“write her body”).

Besides, both tale and body are dismembered for both were violated and maimed. The body is often raped by the commander in the same way as Offred’s tale is said to have been raped or maimed by the two professors who have supposedly reorganized it.

Gradually, the narrator evolves from a denunciation of fragmentation to a search for unity and the confirmation that she exists.

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The Handmaid's Tale: Chapter 25 analysis, red and white tulips in a garden

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 25 analysis

That was in May. Spring has now been undergone. The tulips have had their moment and are done, shedding their petals one by one, like teeth. One day I came upon Serena Joy, kneeling on a cushion in the garden, her cane beside her on the grass. She was snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears. I watched her sideways as I went past, with my basket of oranges and lamb chops. She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body. To cut off the seed pods is supposed to make the bulb store energy.
Saint Serena, on her knees, doing penance.
I often amused myself this way, with small mean-minded bitter jokes about her; but not for long. It doesn’t do to linger, watching Serena Joy, from behind.
What I coveted was the shears.

Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.

The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.

Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 25.

The Garden of (Serena) Joy

Abundance and life

Spring is the time of birth of nature. Abundance is conveyed by the number of adjectives. The narrator drowns in this garden – “makes my head swim” – and light seems to come from everywhere.

The passing of time is never recorded precisely: ellipses of several days/weeks. Chronology is not always respected, through the use of analepses and prolepses.

The passing of time is marked by seasons, the natural time and flora.

The garden as a fruiting body

The environment becomes consistent: the garden is like a body. The importance of softness is emphasized by the alliteration in [s].

The thread of the present is marked by the changing flora and the narrator’s gradual metamorphosis is modeled on that of Nature’s.

Serena as the disturbing element

Serena is seen as the disturbing element in this Garden of Eden.

Birth of the narrator as a human being, conscious of herself

Presence of feminity, necessary to the birth process

Feminity is needed for the birth and the whole garden is seen as a fruiting body.

Lyricism opposes the sense of osmosis felt by the “pathetic fallacy”: when natural elements are attributed with human attitudes. The garden shows the image of a natural world, which is everything Gilead has lost.

Pathetic fallacy is a literary technique that corresponds to a personification with natural elements.

Thanks to Offred’s heightened literary imagination, she can respond to the beauty of the garden and see the poetics behind the natural: the trees are seen as “birds in full plumage”.

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The Handmaid's Tale saison 1 photo

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 5 analysis

A group of people is coming towards us. They’re tourists, from Japan it looks like, a trade delegation perhaps, on a tour of the historic landmarks or out for local colour. They’re diminutive and neatly turned out; each has his or her camera, his or her smile. They look around, bright-eyed, cocking their heads to one side like robins, their very cheerfulness aggressive, and I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

Westernized, they used to call it.

The Japanese tourists come towards us, twittering, and we turn our heads away too late: our faces have been seen.

There’s an interpreter, in the standard blue suit and red-patterned tie, with the winged-eye tie pin. He’s the one who steps forward, out of the group, in front of us, blocking our way. The tourists bunch behind him; one of them raises a camera.

“Excuse me,” he says to both of us, politely enough. “They’re asking if they can take your picture.”

I look down at the sidewalk, shake my head for No. What they must see is the white wings only, a scrap of face, my chin and part of my mouth. Not the eyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the face. Most of the interpreters are Eyes, or so it’s said.

I also know better than to say Yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.

Beside me, Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hands up into her sleeves, to hide them.

The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in staccato. I know what he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.

I’m looking down, at the sidewalk, mesmerized by the women’s feet. One of them is wearing open-toed sandals, the toenails painted pink. I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in the shoe by the whole weight of the body. The woman with painted toes shifts from one foot to the other. I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.

“Excuse me,” says the interpreter again, to catch our attention. I nod, to show I’ve heard him.

“He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy? I can feel their bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our answers, the women especially, but the men too: we are secret, forbidden, we excite them.

Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak.

“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 5.

Introduction

“Gilead is within you” – Offred has absorbed Gilead’s values, yet the assimilation is not complete. She is off-balanced and torn between two sets of values. It is freedom she chooses although she is very reasonable.

The narrator invites the reader to follow her gradual evolution from external focalizer to internal focalizer: she describes but knows the system and therefore is able to criticize it.

The dramatic confrontation of two opposite worlds

Distinct versus indistinct

The focalization is external: she has swallowed the whole of Gilead’s values and viewpoints. As a consequence:

  • tourists are regarded as aliens
  • she has become a stranger to the Japanese tourists
  • there is an opposition between Gilead and the western world

The Japanese tourists are distinct:

  • they have a voice of their own, as well as an interpreter
  • they are allowed to live their own existence

Conversely, Handmaids are indistinct, all similar: “she called us girls”. They are not allowed to have a face and are reduced to symbols and images, there are no human beings any longer. They are also denied a voice: “I nod”, “murmur”.

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The Handmaid's Tale : Chapter 2 analysis photo, Offred in her room

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 2 analysis

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a little cushion. When the window is partly open – it only opens partly – the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue?

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

A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolour picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.

So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. This is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.

But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.

The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.

I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The whitewings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm.

The door of the room – not my room, I refuse to say my – is not locked. In fact it doesn’t shut properly. I go out into the polished hallway, which has a runner down the centre, dusty pink. Like a path through the forest, like a carpet for royalty, it shows me the way.

The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it, one hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century, rubbed to a warm gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a large rich family. There’s a grandfather clock in the hallway, which doles out time, and then the door to the motherly front sitting room, with its flesh tones and hints. A sitting room in which I never sit, but stand or kneel only. At the end of the hallway, above the front door, is a fanlight of coloured glass: flowers, red and blue.

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.

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.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 2.

Chapter 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale shows a fragmented vision of the room and details the layout of the house. Offred seems to have a very clear awareness although nothing is explicit. However fragmented she is, she is clearsighted about Gilead in very strategic places in the text, in a very subtle way so she would not be accused if she ever happened to be discovered.

This passage is the beginning of the second chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Offred, the main character, is alone in a bedroom. First, we will see how she describes her environment. Then, we will focus on how Offred reflects on Gilead and the Handmaids’ behaviour. Finally, we will analyze Offred’s coping with the system.

Strategic story-telling: a narrator that knows but who “intends to last”

The room

Impression of nudity due to the use of noun phrases at the beginning of:

  • paragraph 1: “a chair, a table, a lamp”
  • paragraph 2: “a window, two white curtains”
  • paragraph 3: “a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour”
  • paragraph 5: “a bed”
  • paragraph 6: “so”.

Paragraphs 1 and 2 could be seen in black and white. Colour only appears in paragraph 3 with “blue irises”.

This scene can be imagined filmed. The camera would follow the different elements of the description that tend to transform the room into a prison cell.

The house (inside)

Description of the way she takes to go from her room to the hallway: “hallway” (upstairs) and “pink carpet”, “staircase”, “the clock”, “the mirror”, “hat-and-umbrella stand”. All of these elements show she lives in a wealthy house.

As Offred describes her environment, she makes some reflections on Gilead. There is a shift from perception to thought.

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Analysis of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood photo

The Handmaid’s Tale: incipit analysis

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.

No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.

We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed:

Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 1.

Setting and Time: a universe of temporal and spatial signs

Contextualisation: space

Semantic fields are understood universally. The gymnasium is a call to universal memory, to the experience of every reader, it’s a cultural sign.

It is reassuring but there are many syntactic breaks: “once”, “formerly”, “though” that show an insistence on the way recognizable signs are manipulated so that they gradually become revised, unrecognizable, and subverted signs.

Sport places (which used to be places of fun, pleasure and bodily activity) are now turned into dormitories (1: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”) or prison yards (31: “the football field which was enclosed now (…) barbed wire.”)

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Family in Death for a Salesman photo

Family in Death of a Salesman

In an article entitled The Family in Modern Drama, Arthur Miller insisted that all “great plays” finally grapple with one central issue: “how may a man make of the outside world a home?”.

Making the outside world a home would imply being “well-liked”: managing to turn anonymous, business relations into close family ties – that is to say being able, like Dave Singleman, “to go… into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (p.63).

In Death of a Salesman, the dream of social success cannot be disentangled from the idyllic vision of society as a large, tightly-knit family.

Yet, there is every reason to believe that Dave Singleman, as his patronymic shows, is a bachelor, when the foundation of the much-vaunted American ideal remains the nuclear family: the nuclear family as an agent of socialization and as a stabilizing influence.

Precisely in Death of a Salesman spectators are given privileged access into the private sphere of a family and occasionally turned into voyeurs. It seems that far from offering a secure, reassuring nest the family also reverberates the tensions of society at large in the 1950s.

1. The Green World patriarchal clan

Willy, through his conversation with Ben (38-41) harks back to his infancy. The image of the father is mythologized by both sons – the elder Ben and the younger Willy – even if Father Loman deserted his wife and children to lead an adventurous life.

The mother is hardly ever referred to. She must nevertheless have had a hard life to provide sustenance and comfort for her two sons. When Ben followed in his father’s footsteps by running off for adventure, Mother Loman still had Willy to look after.

Willy, who recalls sitting on “Mamma’s lap” (38), suffered from his father’s absence. The lack of paternal care resulted in his feeling “kind of temporary about (himself)” (40).

Mother Loman’s caring presence is trivialized: “fine specimen of a Lady, Mother” (35) and the “old girl” when reunion with the vanished father is Ben and Willy’s single purpose. Ben started off for Alaska hoping to find his father (37) and Willy elects a father figure through his total devotion to Dave Singleman, another salesman.

Willy has remained so obsessed with the myth of his Father that he entreats Ben to tell Biff and Happy about their grandfather, so they can learn “the kind of stock they spring from” (38). So, in a way, it is as if all the Loman men sprang directly from their father’s side and as if their mother had had no part to play in their birth.

An Edenic myth is implied which seems to preclude, or at least downplay woman’s role in the procreation process.

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Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama photo

Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama

Lots of critics have debated the tragic dimension of Death of a Salesman. Two levels have often been considered: the notion of genre, by referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, and the possibility of a new approach to tragedy, that would be concerned with the response of mankind to rapid technological advance.

The generic discussion (from genre) has often borne on an opposition between social drama dealing with the little man as victim of an oppressive, social and economic system, and tragedy in which the transcendental aspect is emphasized.

Miller himself has reflected on this issue in a seminal essay Tragedy and the Common Man (The New York Times, February 27, 1949). It is clear that Death of a Salesman raises the possibility of a modern tragic because unlike the absurdist theatre (Ionesco and Beckett), it postulates that ‘life has meaning’.

The question of the tragic in contradistinction to social drama will be treated along three axes.

Firstly, it can be argued that Death of a Salesman is more than social document that it creates a modern myth through a central symbol: salesmanship (Eugene O’Neill : The Iceman Cometh).

Secondly, we may wonder whether or not Loman is invested with a tragic dimension.

Thirdly, is Death of a Salesman a ruthless indictment of the American Society, along Marxist or, at least radical (in the American acceptation) lines, or does it go much beyond its social and historical context to bring about tragic catharsis in the audience?

Social testimony versus tragic myth?

The contemporary absence of tragedy

According to Miller, the absence of tragedy in contemporary American drama (1949) can be explained by the fact that man’s motivations are increasingly accounted for in purely psychiatric and sociological terms.

Literature tends to suggest that man’s miseries are born and bred within man’s mind: this is the psychological argument or, that society must be held responsible for man’s distress because of the deterministic laws that govern it – this is the point made by sociologists.

In each case, the possibility of the tragic is denied because tragedy stems from an individual choice to assess, then to call into question and ultimately to rebel against the order of things.

“The thrust for freedom is equality in tragedy which exalts” (Tragedy and the Common Man, p.5)

If Willy Loman is simply considered as the poor, helpless victim of capitalist big business, then he is deprived of any tragic dimension. If he is merely a cog in the gigantic capitalist wheel that eventually crushes him to death, he is denied a tragic dimension. If he’s driven to madness, he has no tragic potential either.

A democratic tragedy

In our modern society, the agon (the contest, the struggle that is central to tragedy) can no longer be induced by a confrontation between the tragic hero and the Gods imposing their will on human mortals, as happened in Greek tragedy (Oedipus). The Gods have been replaced by the enslaving forces of modern society.

Death of a Salesman is more subtle, sophisticated than the standard propaganda play of the 1930s, denouncing the evils of capitalism (The Adding Machines, Elmer Rice or the plays by Clifford Odets Awake and Sing).

The scene in which Loman is given the axe (p.59-66) is imbued with a certain ambiguity, a certain complexity, that make for tragic tension. It does not show a ruthless executive consciously firing the trusted employee, out of calculated mercenary motives.

The irony resides in the discrepancy between Howard Wagner and our preconceived representation of the capitalist businessman. Howard is the “nice guy”, cornered into a situation that he is at a loss to handle nicely, which only makes the ugliness of it all even worse. There is no manichean opposition, it is more a case of a little man being fired by another little man (only a little higher up in the social scale).

In Howard’s presence, Willy is not simply confronted to the employer, but also to the doting father, who enthuses over his beloved children. Just speaking about his daughter, Howard exclaims “she’s crazy for me” (p.60) and of his son he says “five years old, Willy!” to point to his precocity and intelligence.

Both men (Willy and Howard) are not fundamentally different, at bottom, they just happen to find themselves into different social camps, at this point in time.

Thus ambiguity gives tragic potential to the scene because “in tragedies and in them alone, lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man” (Tragedy and the Common Man).

This is precisely the exact opposite to the Theatre of the Absurd, from which meaningfulness has been dismissed, and also very different from what happens in propaganda plays which set simplistic oppositions between the goodies and the villains.

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Death of a Salesman: the play's structure, a memory play photo

Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be divided into chronologically organised sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night); Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness.

In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.

The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.

‘A mobile concurrency of past and present’

(The expression is by Miller, from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p.26)

Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman both past and present are given theatrical representation.

There is no clear cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teenagers and adults successively.

There are no flashbacks in Death of a Salesman. Better than the erroneous term flashback, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata.

In a way, Willy is schizophrenic; overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say the salesman as he used to be. Similarly, the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.

The dramatic unities, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston; New York but also the Prairie – through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity. In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.

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The Great Gatsby: characters and characterization photo

The Great Gatsby: characters and characterization

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In the Great Gatsby, characters are not introduced in a traditional way. They are not described in any detail and cannot be studied separately. Thanks to his “ideographic” method of character-portrayal, Fitzgerald suggests one idea through an attitude, a gesture but does not provide a final explanation. It is up to the reader to reconstruct the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole.

The author’s technique is close to the Joycean “signature” when the character is broken down into its separate parts, and one or two of the parts are made to stand for the whole. Thus, Gatsby’s presence for example is signalled by his indescribable smile (54, III) or by his colourful suits, his hollow-eyed stare or Wolfshiem’s by his hairy nostrils. This is a stylized method of presentation, a virtual iconography of character whereby the soul of a being is shown forth through one exterior element.

This study will fall into parts: in the first one, we will see how characters are gradually characterized by the readers from a few signs and in the second one, we will demonstrate that characters must be understood through their relationships with objects.

A stylized technique of characterization

Ambiguous signs

Instead of the over-detailed description of 19th century novelists, we find in the case of each character a few signs that may be contradictory. It is often a material or a physical detail that points to a moral dimension of the character, as with Hawthorne and Melville.

Daisy’s voice is alluded to several times in the novel. It is because of this voice that Gatsby falls madly in love with Daisy: “I think that the voice held him most – that voice was a deathless song” (end of chapter V, p. 103). Yet, Nick realizes on the first he visits the Carraways that Daisy’s voice lacks sincerity, and that it gives away Daisy’s duplicity: “the instant her voice broke off… I felt the basic insincerity of what she has said” (p.24).

From these two contradictory signs, the magic power of the voice and and the insincerity of that same voice an interpretation is suggested. The meaning is finally made explicit by none other than Gatsby during the night of the accident. The latter, thinking back to his past, recalls his first date with the woman whom he was to love so much ever after. It so happened that Daisy had caught a cold so that her voice was huskier (VIII, 155). At that point in time Gatsby realized that the charm and youth of that voice was very much a matter of wealth. Daisy’s melodious voice was not so much due to genuine passion as to the glamour of money (VIII, 126).

From an opposition between two signs the reader is left to infer meaning. For instance, Wilson the garage-owner is first seen as a passive, ghastly silhouette “a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome” (II, 31), but this lack of presence is contradicted by the end (chapter VII, VIII) when he turns out to be a destructive force bent on taking vengeance on his wife’s killer. Our first impression of the man is therefore not borne out by the story’s denouement.

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The Great Gatsby : the Romantic Quest photo

The Great Gatsby: the Romantic Quest

The term quest immediately calls up the fairy tale motif or the German Märchen (Tieck; Grimm). The quest has been studied by Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.

In a tale, the hero attempts to escape from his humble origins to claim a higher ascendency or a royal lineage.

James Gatz from North Dakota had never really accepted his parents who were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people : “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all”. James Gatz denies his social as well as biological parentage to aspire to a more glittering and glamorous future.

He, therefore, creates an exalted image of himself: he yearns to become a demi-god (“he was a son of God”). So James Gatz’s quest consists in proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty and powerful. Now, this may only be achieved through personal enrichment.

The quest pattern is also closely bound up with the romantic desire to transcend the limitations of the Self. The aim of such a quest is therefore to assert the primacy of the imagination over reason in a materialistic and philistine world.

Fitzgerald often recalled his great admiration for the poet Keats and he went as far as to claim that he intended to “write prose on the same lines as Keats’ poetry” (Sheilah Graham, College of One, Harmondsworth, 1969).

So even if the novel’s action is steeped in the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking America of the Jazz Age, it is nonetheless imbued with Romantic idealism. In a way, The Great Gatsby may be interpreted as a downright rejection of everything that is earthbound, mundane, and devoid of spiritual lift.

“Real time” versus timeless ideality

Time is the real enemy in the Romantic World. Keats, whose influence should never be underestimated, is constantly striving to attain a transitory moment of vision which will defeat time, even if he never loses sight of the chronological succession of events altogether.

Gatsby’s self-creation and transcendentalism

James Gatz refuses the constraints and limitations of his social milieu. He spurns the historical determinism that results from being born in a rather destitute family. By turning down his tie with his biological father, Jay Gatz lays claim to an existence outside history, that is outside time. His first romantic aspiration is to prove he is not in any way bound by the fetters/shackles of time.

In fact, James Gatz will be who he chooses to be, he will be his self-creation, a byronic Romantic rebel who hates anything that excludes the imagination. The emphasis on the power of the imagination probably owes something to the transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henri Thoreau). The latter rejected Calvinism and the materialism of society.

Emerson and Thoreau asserted their beliefs in the possibility of spiritual communion with nature. They also insisted on each individual’s capacity to fulfil his own potential by relying on the force of his intuition.

Transcendentalism praised self-reliance, that is to say a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions in order to create one’s true self.

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The Great Gatsby: an American novel photo

The Great Gatsby: an American novel

A refracted vision of America

The Great Gatsby is like a mirror of the America of the 1920’s. America in the Great Gatsby is a fundamental notion and the novel cannot be studied without the historical context of the time.

The novel reflects the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties and the opposition between East and West.

The Great Gatsby emphasizes the strange association between materialism and spiritualism, which is crucial to the Puritan ethic. Gatsby is seeking wealth because he is pursuing an idealistic vision.

A corrupted vision

The Crack Up (1937) is a collection of short stories by F.S. Fitzgerald where he tried to catch the mood prevailing in the 1920’s.

The mood was characterised by hedonism, the search for pleasure: “America was going on the greatest gaudiest spree in history”. Spending money in order to be part of the show means society is more based on appearance than substance.

The time of the action is the summer of 1922. America, after World War 1, has become the most prosperous and thriving nation in the world. It is the period of the Golden Boom (America has sold weapons and has become rich) and widespread corruption is at its apogee.

Bribery was a frequent practise. It has been shown by historians that after the Civil War, corruption was nothing compared to the Roaring Twenties. Even if 1850’s carpetbaggers took advantage of the situation of that time, it was far less important than in the 1920’s.

Corruption also marks the weakening of spiritual and moral values. After the butchery of World War I, disillusion had set in and therefore isolationism was striking rich.

In the 1920’s, political circles were also corrupted. Warren Harding, president from 1921 to 1923, was marked by a series of scandals. In the summer of 1923, the president died in mysterious circumstances.

The 18th Amendment of the Constitution, voted in January 1920, laid down that producing and selling alcohol would be forbidden. The Prohibition, also known as “the noble experiment”, triggered an increase in delinquency.

Al Capone belonged to that context. In people’s collective mind, the image of the bootlegger was worshipped and admired because the bootlegger was the man who dared to resist, to rise against the law.

The historical background

The Great Gatsby is based on a series of events published in the newspapers. F.S. Fitzgerald did not invent all the facts : he shows to shape and create a character who was emblematic of his time.

In The Great Gatsby, apart from Gatsby, we find characters based on real figures such as Meyer Wolfshiem, who is actually Arnold Rothstein, a master of the New York underworld.

In Chapter 4, at the metropole, the guy shot down was based on reality, it actually happened before the novel was written: he was gunned down because he had ratted on Becker, the corrupt NYPD chief.

The results of the 1919 baseball championships were fixed. In the text, Meyer Wolfshiem is responsible for tampering with the results while in reality, it is all Arnold Rothstein.

In chapter 4, we learn that Wolfshiem lives above the laws : “they can’t get him old sport. He’s a smart man”. Arnold Rothstein was nicknamed “the brain”, “the bankroll”, “the Morgan of the Underworld”. A Morgan is a magnate, a nabob, a tycoon in the capitalist 19th century.

Gatsby’s models in real life

One of Fitzgerald models for Gatsby came from a trial that took place in New York: the Fuller-McGee case. Edward M. Fuller, one of the two men, had been a neighbour of Fitzgerald’s in Long Island.

The Fuller-McGee case concerned illegal speculation. They both had been partners in a brokerage firm. Yet, it was soon discovered that they had cheated people. Later on, it was proved that Fuller and McGee were acting for Rothstein, the head of the New York underworld.

We can suspect Fitzgerald is to Fuller what Nick Carraway is to Gatsby.

Gatsby has earned a lot of money very quickly, more or less illicitly. He also polished his manners: “it took me three years”.

Gatsby is said to have had a hand in “the drug business” and in “the oil business” : there is no precision and his business remains quite vague.

The clue to the truth is that Gatsby must have earned a lot of money through shady dealings and illegal transactions. This is spelt out at the end of the book, after Gatsby’s death, when Nick answers the phone call: “Young… in trouble. They picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter”.

We can therefore conclude that Gatsby has been involved in the trafficking of bonds.

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Introduction to The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald : from the Lost Prairies to the Realist Jungle photo

Introduction to The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald: from the Lost Prairies to the Realist Jungle

Both the novel and the American society correspond to the beginning of a modern era. America is a direct consequence of the age of reason (18th century).

Indeed, the first settlers intended to escape the tyrannical power of absolute monarchs.

The novel is also the result of a revolution :

  • social revolution: when the middle-class asserted its cultural autonomy
  • idealogical change that put the single individual at the centre of the world

Yet, there are profound contradictions:

  • America did not offer favourable conditions for the birth of the novel. The notion of class, and love and marriage are central to the novel.
  • the 18th century and 19th century novels are about chasing a husband.
  • the European novel favours a plot with a domestic story and marriage E.g.: Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary.
  • the American novel avoids treating passionate relationships, focuses on male characters, and turns away from Society to Nature. E.g. Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans.

American novels dream of the innocence with the first settlers bu Puritanism and the notion of guilt proved to be fundamental in American literature. This feeling of guilt included the rape of nature and the exploitation of the Natives.

The Lost Prairie

The early 19th century can be described as an American Epic. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales gave America legend and myth.

The two main themes are:

  • the settlement: how pioneers got used to a new life in the American wilderness;
  • the frontier, which can be described as an ideal boundary between two cultures: the “civilized and cultivated” society, and “wild and lawless” tribes. The frontier is also a limit pushed further westward.

Settlers and trappers and the Great Prairies

The central character found in Cooper’s Tales is a trapper surviving by catching small animals: Natti Bumppo. He’s a white man who has lived with the Natives and respects them. He’s suspicious of progress. He’s a typical American hero – a poor lonesome trapper.

The notion of solitude is significant. According to Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, democracy is about a world of lonesome men owing their allegiance to no none, men who are neither servants nor bondsmen. Self-reliance is key although man is constantly watched by God’s invisible eye (puritan view and the sense of guilt).

The Frontier is a virgin land, the New Eden, the biblical Promised Land. The utopian territory is soiled and tarnished, corrupted: by invading those new virgin lands, the conquerors brought along their greed for money, their lust for power, and their selfish appetite.

As a consequence, their adventures are bound to damage what they most cherish, respect, and admire.

The land is turned into a battlefield opposing white men against themselves and against Native populations. The dream of purity and innocence turns into a sanguinary and bloody battlefield.

East and West, North and South

The East represents industrialisation, urbanisation, corruption, and sin while the West represents the last rampart against encroaching civilisation, the last space of innocence and purity.

The North is Yankee, modern and industrial while the South is Dixieland, with the colonial south, agricultural and colonial area with the cotton fields There is a clash between conservative (South) and modern/liberal (North).

We can see these oppositions in very famous pairs of characters: Cooper’s Natty and Chingachgook, Melville’s Ishmael and Qeequeg, and Twain’s Huck and Jim.

The Prairie’s posterity

Novels have often recounted a flight or escape towards a mystic and idealised West. In Grapes of Wrath, a bunch of dislocated farmers is making the same journey as their ancestors, their eldorado being California.

In the 1920s-1930s, America had become a modern country and the far west was still very much synonymous with freedom and anarchy. American novelists are like their books, escaping their familiar environment (Huck escapes with a runaway slave for instance).

In the 1920s, American writers left America for Europe, they were the writers of the “Lost Generation”: Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein all came to France to write about America.

In the 1950s, the writers of the “Beat Generation”, such as Jack Kerouac, went to California: San Francisco was then identified as the ideal of freedom.

Yet, the journey is not always physical. It can be symbolic, a retreat from society by getting isolated: Emerson went to Concord, Thoreau went to Walden, at the fringe of society.

The realist jungle

Urban America was depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

America is going to deal with the metropolis in a simplistic and manichean vision that opposes the Prairie, synonymous with innocence, with the City, a place of evil and corruption.

This innocence was destroyed by immigrants as men broke what has been their dream. The vision of the city reminds us of biblical references: buildings and skyscrapers are reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, their dreams of going beyond and transgressing human limitations.

Romance is the universe of the prairie whereas the novel, with its elements of realism, deals with the shabbiness and ugliness of the city.

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