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Utopia

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Introduction

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born in 1931, who studied literature in Toronto. In the 1960s, she was a graduate specialist in Harvard and then came back to Canada to teach literature. She was a well-known poet with The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Life before man (1979), The Robber Bride (1993).

Margaret Atwood is a very prolific artist, involved in the feminist movement and human rights issues on the international scene. She takes an interest in the narrative form and draws on different literary genres : Gothic romance, fairy tale, spy thriller, science fiction and history. She challenges the limits of traditional genres.

She takes an interest in social and political issues :

  • relations between men and women
  • fundamentalism and excess of puritanism
  • ecological interest
  • strong defense of basic human rights
  • a warning against oppression

She takes side to protest : The Handmaid’s Tale is a protest, a denunciation of the American way of life and imperialism :

In the States, the machinery of government is out of control, it’s too big […], it runs right over your great democratic ideals.

— Margaret Atwood

America is a starting point to denounce politics. The Handmaid’s Tale encourages a wider view and is set in no specific space and time.

Summary

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in  a near future in the USA. A group of the right-wing fundamentalists has assassinated the American President, over-thrown the elected Congress and denied both jobs and education to women.

All this was facilitated by technological progress:

All they needed to do is to push few buttons. We are cut off.

The Handmaid’s Tale, p107.

They established a new republic called Gilead, on patriarchal lines, derived from the Old Testament in the Bible, 17th century American puritanism and the American New Right from the 1980’s. Women became slaves and homosexuals “gender traitors” (p53). Homosexuals, old women and non-white people are sent to the colonies because they are unwanted.

Infertile women (the result of pollution and nuclear plants accidents leading to a rise in birth defects) are sent to the colonies as well.

Fertile women are indoctrinated by the “Rachel and Leah Centre”, also known as the “Red Centre” and parcelled out to “Commanders”. They are called Handmaids and have to bear the children of the elite.

Women are pressed in 1 of 8 categories :

  • Commanders’ wives
  • Widows
  • Aunts
  • Handmaids
  • Marthas
  • Econowives
  • Jezebels
  • Unwomen (sent to the colonies)

Men do not escape characterization either:

  • Commanders
  • Sons of Jacobs
  • The Eyes (of the Lord)
  • The Angels
  • The Guardians of the Faith

Offred is the narrator of her own story. She is the speaking voice of the novel. As a handmaid, Offred’s body is at the service of a Commander, “for reproductive purposes” (p316). She’s a “national resource”.

Yet, she resists the all-powerful patriarchal laws based on the Bible to tell her story of the silenced female servants.

From the opening line, we are presented a survival narrative and a female resistance :

  • survival of love : affair with Nick
  • flashbacks, sudden jumps backwards in time
  • focus on pre-Gilead (pornography, artificial insemination) and the moral decay associated to such a period.

Her discourse of survival revolves around various contemporary issues : religion (fanaticism and excess), feminism (patriarchal control of women’s bodies), ecology (troubles), a critique of the return to traditional values, and the paradoxes of contemporary feminism.

The historical notes make the epilogue. They give another view on Gilead’s regime and make you think. The narrator is Professor Piexoto, and his speech is delivered at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in the year 2195, a long time after Offred’s narrative. We are encouraged to believe Offred’s story.

The two goals of the historical notes are :

  • fill in some of the background information regarding Gilead and tell how Offred’s story is discovered.
  • it never stops to charge us readers, especially on questions of interpretation : it’s a totally different story with prejudiced views of Offred’s story.

As a conclusion, we shouldn’t forget that the whole novel is full of irony. The truth is out there and not in Piexoto’s speech. Truth is never to be found.

We have the power to choose, to take some distance from what we read. All has been set to make the readers think: “are there any questions?” is addressed to the readers. “Context is all” (p202) : it smacks off the puritan ethos/values.

The New Right is represented by Reagan and Bush. It was very powerful and harked back to puritan inheritance. Gilead is an extreme yet satirized version of the ideology. To what extent does Gilead endorse the shackles (values) of Puritanism ?

  • absolute authority over the population by a male elite acting in the name of God.
  • biblical references  to underwrite its choices and attitudes. (“The penalty for rape is death”) :

It’s a way of imposing a new ideology:

  • intolerance towards the others
  • very rigid hierarchy, with categories of people
  • imposed common rules : self-denial, obedience, strict upbringing and education of women.

Women are supposed to be productive : it’s a narrow-minded and puritan attitude. Offred is nameless : she’s “Of Fred” and “offered”.

Offred is the woman on whom puritan values are applied :

  • side of the captors: she analyses the system.
  • side of the prisoners : she tells her own story.

Offred is not simply a witness, she reveals details on an unknown community. She’s challenging the system. She’s faithful to her values and expresses her distress in theocracy (the combination of politics and religion).

Offred is part of Atwood’s life because she expresses her own distress and disgust for the American system.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a dedication “For Mary Webster…” – Mary Webster was a witch, hanged in the 1680’s and also Atwood’s relative – “and Perry Miller”, who was a great scholar in Harvard.

The dedication is a combination of puritanism of the 17th and 20th centuries, which shows that history repeats itself. Gilead is not the first society poisoned with fanaticism (not the first and won’t be the last) – Roumania with Ceaucescu springs to mind but there are heaps of examples.

We have to be careful and avoid a nightmare like Gilead for our own future. Theocracies should not prevail as the price exacted is slavery and all loss of freedoms.

Utopia and Dystopia

Utopia was first defined in Plato’s Republic (-350 BC). Imaginary and fictions and ideals were praised by Thomas More in Utopia (1516). The better society coincides with the discovery of America.

When you imagine a better society, you condemn the ills of your own society. Thomas More dreams of another society, where you demand social and technological improvements.

Utopia is nowhere to be found. I’m not being critical, utopia is nowhere. It’s a creation of my own. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a utopia for Offred but a dystopia, with an imperfect society but maybe she’s describing a utopia with dystopian elements: a negative vision of tyranny, an ecological disaster. She tells about the negative side of the system and the limits of utopias (which are two in the novel: Gilead and the feminist utopia: how sectarian thinking leads to chaos).

Margaret Atwood rejects the “unique thought”. The exploitation and servitude of women make up the dystopia, as well as the denunciation of totalitarianism (p115) and the denunciation of the dangers of propaganda through the manipulation and abuses of language in Gilead: “Aunts” and “Angels” bear a reassuring emotional connotation when they are in fact instruments of oppression. Offred will find indirect ways of denouncing the system put in place in Gilead.

Voici la seconde saison d’Utopia, diffusée sur Channel 4.

utopia-s2

La série nous ramène dans les années 1970, quand Philip Carvel commence à travailler sur Janus avec Milner. Alors qu’il teste le virus sur son fils réticent, Pietre, il conduit une expérience macabre sur un lapin avec l’espoir de susciter une réaction de la part de son enfant.

Il pense avoir échoué jusqu’à ce que sa femme achète un lapin à Pietre qui le tue juste après. Sa femme le jette dehors et quelques mois plus tard, elle meurt en donnant naissance à Jessica, que Carvel élève seul.

Cinq ans plus tard, sans rien dire à Milner, Carvel ajuste la formule du virus…

Après presque un an et demi, Utopia s’apprête à faire son retour sur Channel 4 pour sa seconde saison.

Thriller énigmatique, Utopia se centre sur un groupe de personnes que rien ne connecte au départ, mais qui vont se rencontrer grâce à leur intérêt pour un étrange graphic novel. Leur existence va alors être bouleversée quand ils vont se retrouver pris au cœur d’une conspiration et être poursuivis par une mystérieuse organisation.

Vous pouvez trouver la première saison ici :

ou le résumé de la première saison, pour se rafraîchir la mémoire (attention, contient des spoilers de la saison 1, bien évidemment) :

Retour sur nos écrans ce mois-ci.

Je vous invite à regarder la nouvelle série de la chaine Channel 4 – Utopia – scénarisée par Dennis Kelly.

utopia-s1

Passionnés par l’étrange roman graphique The Utopia Experiment, un groupe de personnes se retrouve pris au cœur d’une conspiration menée par des personnes sans scrupules qui tuent avec une facilité déconcertante et avec beaucoup d’imagination.

Ils ne savent pas ce qu’on leur veut, mais celui qui trouvera la suite jamais publiée de l’histoire aura toutes les réponses.

Utopia est indéniablement atypique dans son style, que ce soit narrativement parlant ou visuellement, avec une approche cinématographique très poussée et accentuée par une stylisation qui favorise les couleurs vives et les contrastes.

I. Writing the territory: the literature of discovery and exploration

Started as a vision in Europe: it is a product of literary imagination. America existed only as a literary object that was represented in the writings of Europeans who first visited America. They brought back their own visions, written in Spanish or French and not in English.

16th century: the English knew about America through outside texts, not from English texts.
1670’s: English mariners started exploring the North American coast.

The creation of American literature goes hand in hand with the first permanent colonies at Jamestown, Plymouth, Boston, Charleston or Philadelphia. In the language, American in temperament and in tone, the literature of the colonists was different from the exotic narratives of the explorers (i.e. "land of miracles", "eldorado"). The literature of the colonists shows a contradictory mixture of terror and exaltation before the magnitude of the land.

However, more often than not, the literature of the first settlers shows that it was difficult to maintain a positive attitude toward America. George Percy’s Discourse on the Plantation (1607) shows that the writers saw America as a land of "meadows and goodly tall trees" and people as "miserable distressed". So there are full of ambivalence and contradictions. America is the land of the new beginning and opportunities but also a beautiful land of difficulties (sacrifices, isolation, and hard work). Ambivalence is an important factor of American literature. This first contradictory experience will mark American literature with its most nasty and characteristic voice, created out of actions rather than imagery or contemplation.

The narratives of Captain Smith are big examples of the American new character: the narration of the internal life of the individuals goes hand in hand with the external description of the land. There’s a constant dialogue between the mind of the individual and Nature. It’s always Nature that has a strong effect on the mind of the individuals. Human minds only change with confrontations with Nature.

European literature was more based on contemplation whereas American literature was a concrete experience with Nature: that makes a huge philosophical difference. Captain Smith wrote:

  • A true relation (1608)
  • A map of Virginia (1612)
  • The general Historie of Virginia, New England and
    the Summer Isles

The work of Capt. Smith is representative of a specific literary character in the sense that they show a deeply American theme: the theme of the relations between geographical exploration and individual exploration: by discovering the land, the individual also discovers himself. Self-exploration and geographical exploration came together. With the change of the colonies and their social needs, there was also a change in writings. The writer’s role now consisted in more than observing and depicting the land.

At the end of the 17th century, American literature still showed the discovery of literature: same themes, same lyricism, poetic quality and sense of actions but despite this influence, a more abstract type of literature was now emerging. For instance, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1650) concentrates on the complexity and difficulties of colonial administration as well as a social organization of the community.

In the final analysis, the ambivalence of exploration and discovery in American literature reveals another kind of ambivalence. It is the ambivalent relationship but also the ambivalent contrast between the positive and the negative, good and evil, utopia and tragedy. This type of ambivalence remains the most characteristic territory explored by the first writers of America. Emerging from the magnitude and the complexity of the land itself, this ambivalent vision would determine the American literary and popular imagination. Even today, it still represents a very important aspect of the American literary sensibility.

II. An authentically American literature ? Textual appropriations, generic influences and innovations

To many observers, the idea of an authentically American literature seems to be a paradox. Many would think American literature emerged and developed in the shadow of the English literary tradition. However, this paradox is only apparent: the authentically American literature is like every literary innovation, it always needs some influences for inspiration.

At the same time, those influences are little by little changed through authentic innovations (first they borrowed, then they changed). In this sense, literary texts of the New World are both an extension of English literature and a new creative body of literature. The relationships of continuity between English and American literature comes from a common cultural and national heritage: religious, ethnic, historical and linguistic relationships.

There are some similarities between English and American education: in both countries, the major subjects like Latin, Philosophy and History are very important (as well as Greek and Roman literature). Concerning the common heritage, both people and colonists shred the memory of the English Reformation and thought of themselves as elect nations. With the Reformation, we see the myth of England as an elect nation divided by the Puritan Saints. They were a special nation from the start: "God owns the country".

The colonists and the English people identified with the myth of the elect nation by means of religion: the most important and legitimate text was the Vernacular Bible (Geneva version) in 1560 written by Calvin. Other texts:

  • John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563)
  • Edmund Spencer, Faerie Queen (1590)

More important: what happened from the heritage is a common vision of the individual reflected in two major aspects of the protestant literary and existential experience:

  • The strict application of every event in the Bible to the individual (develop their own ideas in relation with the Bible, standard for the right personal behavior and code for the Puritans).
  • The perception of historical events as the predestined fulfillment of biblical events as they apply to the elect nation.

These two common aspects of colonial and English experience made many English writers to consider America as a special and elect land. Many thought that an English/American Reformation was going to happen in America. The English religious poet George Herbert expressed this historical and religious continuity between England and America:

"Religion stands on tiptoe in our
Land,
Readie to pass the American
Strand" ….The Temple, 1633

No surprise that the sense of a shared heritage came from a common imaginary perception of the New World: religion shaped perceptions. One of imaginary vision of America is the myth of Arcadia that shows a contrast between peaceful, simple life in nature and corruption in city life. [Nature is always seen as positive].

The myth of arcadia is found in many pastoral poems and romances and in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). America is not a secular utopia and is unseparable from the biblical visions of the continent as a new Eden or a new Israel (parallel between the Puritan’s crossing of the ocean and the exodus of Moses’ s people). The myth of America as a new Eden is finally restored to its innocence. It was also reinforced by the English literary tradition of utopia:

  • Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)

The conception of America also finds its way into Puritanism for the notion of the holy community was also a kind of utopia. The prose forms that appeared during the English Reformation had a tremendous influence on American literature. The most important of those prose forms is the sermon, influenced by the religious community, which became a biblical sensibility. In poetry as well as in prose, the writers of New England appropriated biblical references, imagery and themes. They used biblical imagery and themes in order to represent historical events as a realization of the Protestant world vision. The others forms of literary production existed in colonial America: poetry and prose about the analysis and the exploration of the individual (mind, body and soul): introduction of the meditation, journal, diary, (auto) biography and lyric poetry. Purpose: self-improvement and self-help. The world vision of Protestantism is presented as a central element in judging individual human experience. The most important criteria of self-judgement derived from the Bible: literature of introspection and self-exploration:

  • The narrative of the Exodus: very beginning of America and hope to reach a better land.
  • Paul’s metaphors on Christian pilgrimages and warfare: must go to a better place.
  • The conception of the Christian life as "a progress of the soul" (Hebrews, 8). Progress = work.
  • The psalms as an account of David’s sins and repentance.

Conclusion

From the beginning, American literature simultaneously assimilated and transformed English culture and literature. During the colonial period, the writers of the New World were obsessed by the same themes as English writers. They used the same literary forms and biblical metaphors that predominated in English literature during the Reformation. However, American literature must not be reduced to a simple transplant of English literature for in the process of this American transplantation, American literature emerged metamorphosed in innovating and fascinating ways.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism