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Explore the way in which Margaret Atwood presents Moira ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Refer closely to any literary and linguistic approaches where necessary. Within ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Atwood presents us with many characters that are emotionally weak; Janine, Offred and even the Commander residing in the higher echelons of society all possess a deprivation of spirit brought about by the oppressive and restrictive nature of the Gileadean regime.
In contrast to this we are presented with Moira and through her Atwood is able to create tension, conflict and a rebelliousness that is otherwise only seen in the recollections of Offred’s mother.
Moira acts as a representative for independence and liberty in the novel, she defies her oppressors and is seen by Offred as a role model that she finds impossible to aspire to. Moira constantly battles the status quo; she parades her lesbianism and manages on two occasions to defeat the system at the disgrace of the much-hated Aunts.
She is confidant in both manner and speech. ‘”Don’t move said Moira or I’ll stick it all the way in”‘ The boldness of this imperative paired with the violent connotations attached to the verb ‘stick’ gives Moira the sinister tone she needs to intimidate Aunt Elizabeth. Moira is portrayed as an activist, she does not merely contemplate the possibilities of freedom as Offred does and Offred recognizes this with dissatisfaction as she muses the prospect of what she can do with the fan that she has been given.
‘”If I were Moira I would know how tot take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira. “‘ This quote clearly outlines the practical nature of Moira juxtapositioned with the more theoretical approach that we would associate with Offred who loathes herself for it. The syntactic parallelism ‘If I were Moira… but if I were Moira… ” points to the irony that Moira, in the same situation as Offred could use the fan to aid her escape. When we first learn of Moira’s disappearance in chapter 22 we are not fully informed as to the details of her flight; the thought of Moira’s freedom made the other Handmaid’s feel ‘dizzy’. Atwood purposely withholds this information to let the reader share in this feeling of suspense; the mystery surrounding Moira at this point enhances her charisma.
Offred recalls the Handmaids feeling a sense of victory over the aunts; Moira had shown that they could be defeated and so easily too, through Moira’s actions the Aunts’ power was diminished. Having belittled the enemy she is seen to have great power, Offred refers to her as ‘a loose woman’ a clichi?? connoting sexual freedom but cleverly a second implication of the characters unbridled power now that she is free. When Moira escapes, the future seems to hold promise for the Handmaids.
The thought of what Moira could do now that she is free gives them a sense of presence, a pressure reaching its climatic point. “Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy” This simile poses threat and the sense of freedom that Moira’s escape gives the other women. Much of Moira’s character is revealed to us through direct speech; ‘”This is a loony bin,” Moira said. “I’m so glad to see you,” I said “Where can we talk? ” said Moira. ‘ The used of direct address here brings the reader closer to the story and builds tension and suspense through the feeling that they are present at the time of conversation.
The colloquialism ‘loony-bin’ reveals that Moira is a non-conformist; Atwood creatively uses her as a reminiscence of the time before. Moira’s interrogative response ‘”Where can we talk? “‘ conveys that Moira does not linger over sentimentalities as Offred would; it shows that she is active rather than passive. The clipped syntax reflects the rushed exchange of spoken discourse giving a nervous quality to both characters and reminding the reader of the volatile situation that the Handmaids are in. Moira is incredibly blas throughout the novel; her nonchalance shows even in her response to working at Jezebel’s which will lead to an impending death in the Colonies.
‘”You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the bone-yard. “‘ The vulgarity of the expletive ‘snatch’ corresponding with the verb ‘wears’ describes the female body in a manufactured way, dispensable for male pleasure and just as easily disposed of. It is this taboo language that Atwood uses to familiarize us with Moira. Her reference to the Colonies as ‘the bone-yard’ is further evidence of Moira’s ability to perceive things in a brutally realistic way.
The fact that she is graphically aware of the inevitable doom she faces and does not react over- sentimentally show Moira’s unwavering courage. When Offred reflect on her student life in ‘the time before’ we see that Moira’s attitude to sex was then just as relaxed and liberal as it is under the Gileadean rule ‘”I’m giving an under-whore party… Tart’s stuff, lace crotches, snap garters. Bras that push your tits up”‘ Here the three-part list indicates the casual attitude that Moira has towards sex, she is comfortable with her sexuality and her taboo language reflects this.
The portmanteau ‘under-whore’ adds humour to Moira’s character and so contrasts with the present where humour is essentially forbidden. Moira is irreverent and shows contempt to every aspect of injustice; ‘”Camaraderie shit… How much do you want to bet she’s got Janine down on her knees… I bet she got her working away on that dried up, hairy old withered… “‘ This quote is evidence of Moira’s iconoclastic beliefs; there is a linguistic shock between the positive noun ‘Camaraderie’ and the negative expletive noun ‘shit’. This shows the complete disrespect that Moira has for those who blindly follow the theocratic regime. Offred sees her irreverence as a source of power.
‘There is something in the whispering of obscenities about those in power… it deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. ‘ Here Atwood uses visual language comparing those in power to something that can be deflated. This gives connotations of a balloon filled with air and its course is therefore precarious and fickle as to where it could blow. This is allegorical to the regime; Atwood makes the point that wherever there is oppression there is unavoidable rebellion.
Moira sees through all aspects of the regime with explicit cynicism, in Jezebel’s she analyses the actions of all the men in power with insulting accuracy. ‘”It’s like screwing on the altar, your gang are supposed to be such chaste vessels… they like to see you all painted up. Just another crummy power trip”‘ The pre-modifier ‘crummy’ reduces the Commanders who perceive themselves as omnipotent to mere perverts. The use of the expletive ‘screwing’ is further evidence of Moira’s iconoclastic views. The use of the collective noun ‘all painted up’ reduces the Commander’s desires to petit and perverse, there is a linguistic shock to aid Moira’s criticism in the antithesis of ‘screwing’ and ‘chaste vessels’.
Through Moira Atwood reminds us that Jezebel’s is a prescribed reality for those in power. The architects of this new society who claim their actions were to protect women from the world by eradicating pornography and prostitution are now seen as absolute hypocrites. Jezebel’s exposes the hypocrisy of the men who prate about sexual morality and then spend their evenings sleeping with prostitutes in a club, purpose built. The most poignant aspect of the novel is realised through the change in Moira.
In their last encounter Offred learns that the spirit of both Moira and her mother, both figures of transgression and resistance in the Handmaid’s life, have been broken. Throughout the novel, Atwood has set up a heroine in the eyes of both the Handmaid and the reader who believe that if there is to be a fortunate end to this grim tale then it will be accomplished through Moira. In their last meeting at Jezebel’s we disappointingly realise that this is not so; ‘She is frightening me now because what I hear in her voice is indifference and a lack of volition’.
It is the abstract nouns ‘indifference’ and ‘volition’ that indicate the chance in Moira, the woman who, in times of need, Offred looked to as a source of hope has now become just like her, instead of embodying defiance Moira now embodies Gilead’s ability to crush even the strongest of spirits. ‘I don’t want to be like her as far as something I lack. Give in, go along, save her skin… I want swash-buckling heroism from her, single handed combat. Something I lack. ‘ This three-part syndetic list describes Offred who has romanticised and projected on to Moira the qualities she wished she possessed and is here, along with the reader, sorely mistaken. ‘I don’t know how she ended…
Because I never saw her again’ What has happened to Moira is an anticlimax; we do not expect to be left unknowing, the novel now seems closer to real life than fiction and this brings the starkness of Offred’s reality to the reader’s attention. Moira’s spiritual demise and erasure is an elaboration of the full force of oppression Margaret Atwood presents us with, once a courageous, outspoken woman has become a despondent pessimist with no hope of escaping Gilead. It is this change in Moira that makes us realise the true awfulness of the situation so many women in the novel are in.
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