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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ Essay

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Compare and contrast the ways Margaret Atwood and William Blake present the power of authority over the most vulnerable in society in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

Both Margaret Atwood and William Blake explore the issue of authority and the power it has over the vulnerable in society in their texts. Atwood presents the theme of authority with various motifs: the Nazi-like principles of the hypocritical, totalitarian government of Gilead; irony and neologisms. Blake illustrates how adults have a profound authority over children by using a child’s voice, in both innocence and experience sections of his poetry. He exposes what he believed were the ‘evils’ of society at the time including child labour and the industrial revolution with techniques such as irony, contrast and social critique.

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The Gileadean government can be viewed as similar to the totalitarian Nazi regime, which allows Atwood’s dystopian novel to be viewed in the same way as a hypothetical axis victory in WWII[1] (a created alternative history in which the Third Reich won the Second World War), her inspiration possibly coming from her visit to West Berlin which “had a sinister feeling, surrounded by the Wall and with East German planes flying low overhead”[2]. Hitler made it clear in his book of what an ‘ideal’ society would be like, including the ‘pure’ blonde hair, blue-eyed Aryan race and the traditional 3K’s policy expected of women (Children, kitchen, church). A comparison between this and The Handmaid’s Tale can be made as modern women in Western America during the ‘time before’ had more opportunities and control over their own bodies. The freedom of women is often presented through Moira, who is a lesbian: “she’d decided to prefer women”, and a feminist.

The lexical choice of “decided” suggests Moira had complete control over her lifestyle choices; implying she had ‘chosen’ her sexuality in order to oppose patriarchal control and to not be subject to the vulnerability and oppression that men impose upon her. She also criticises Offred for having her “head in the sand” because she is not particularly interested in feminist concepts; whereas Moira shares the characteristics of a radical feminist. Pre-Nazi Germany involved the ‘Golden Twenties’ which saw the newly formed Weimar culture; conservative and radical right wing activists criticised the ‘sexualisation’ of the westernised flapper and the image of what goes against a ‘traditional woman’[3], the Nazi party reversed these advancements.

The flashbacks that Offred experiences show the contrasts between the society ‘before’ compared to now; the Gileadean government also claim that the previous society was harmful to women because the sexual freedom ‘led’ men on. She comments on the tourist women’s skirts in chapter six “it’s been so long since I’ve seen skirts that short on women…That was freedom. Westernized, they used to call it”. The Aunts tell the handmaids that wearing clothing like that had made them more prone to rape, which is what they tell Janine in response to her being gang raped at fourteen. “She was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion […] It may not even be true”. However, it can be argued that the Gileadean society is no better as women have little option other than to participate in the ‘Ceremonies’ and are objectified; suggesting that women are more vulnerable than before.

The use of Biblical manipulation to represent authority is also a common theme throughout. Aunt Lydia reads the passage of Rachel and Leah: “Give me children or I die” to brainwash and manipulate the handmaids into revolving their lives around getting pregnant. This appears to create rivalry between the women in a competitive manner; Offred said about Janine: “She’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her”. Janine seems to gain strength with pregnancy, she is seen “glowing”; whereas she previously appeared weak to everyone. Gilead’s manipulation is emphasised with the quote: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” which the government ironically claim is from the Bible, yet it is a quote from the founder of Marxism: Karl Marx.

[4] Showing how the government is able to manipulate the Bible to fit their ideal society as the quote is originally about Communism, but can be manipulated to the women filling the ‘needs’ of society (reproducing). However, the handmaids are controlled and vulnerable to religious manipulation and control because they will never know if it is part of The Bible: “The Bible is kept locked up… who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read.” This can be compared to William Blake’s poem ‘The Garden of Love’, which evokes the image of The Garden of Eden before the fall of mankind[5]; this is where Adam and Eve could love without consciousness and embrace the freedom of sexuality.

The second garden relates to the ‘Song of Songs’ within the Old Testament which is an erotic poem but has been manipulated further into a ‘purer’ love such the relationship between Christ and people. This ideology could be represented by Blake in this poem because the “green”, “sweet flowers” have been built upon by “graves”, representing the death of sexual freedom and how religion restricts people, preventing them from acting in a way that is natural and instinctive. This is similar to The Handmaid’s Tale using religion to manipulate the way people express love and lust, including Offred and Nick who had to be intimate secretly, making them more vulnerable to Gileaden control.

The men in the novel also use their authority to turn women against each other, shown with the relationship between the handmaids and Aunts. Offred appears to not take her indoctrination not too seriously; she dismisses Aunt Lydia’s aphorisms such as “Modesty is invisibility”. However, the structural use of repetition throughout the novel manifests the idea that the indoctrination has worked on Offred as she finds herself repeating the aphorisms in her head and it affects her behaviour, for example: “they also serve who only stand and wait.”, which was a quote that one of the aunts told the handmaids in a ‘lesson’.

Christian spokeswoman Joyce Meyer has said “Instead of being critical of people in authority over you and envious of their position, be happy you’re not responsible for everything they have to do. Overwhelm them with encouragement and appreciation!”[6] This is not dissimilar to the attitude of the aunts in terms of the authority of men; Aunt Lydia said to the Handmaids: “Try to think of it from their point of view she said…It isn’t easy for them”. The aunts may feel like they have a form of authority but they are still controlled by the men: the Handmaids’ jealousy toward one another and the syllabus the Aunts teach was based on the ideology of the patriarchal Gileadean government. The moral of this by Atwood was perhaps to encourage women to empower each other against patriarchy, the solidarity creating a stronger, less vulnerable female society.

In Blake’s poetry, it is clear that he had a deep concern for the children of the 18th century, who were often used for child labour as young boys were often used as chimney sweeps where they were forced into tiny spaces and many suffered from ailments based on their ‘job’[7]. In the ‘Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence, Blake uses the naïve narrative of a child and the syndetic listing of regular boys’ names “Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack”-emphasising the normality of the boys; meaning this kind of exploitation could have happened to anyone. He creates an innocent tone with a dark underlining message; “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” This ambiguity and innocence allows the reader to sympathise with the child who believes that if they do the duty of chimney sweeping, God will protect them and they will go to heaven.

On one hand this can be seen as hopeful because the angelic semantic field (“angel” “bright” “white”) suggests a ‘guardian’ as a form of protection; the juxtaposition the “black” soot and the “white” imagery could represent religion being able to give hope and encourage the children in dark times. The narrator comments on this thought making his friend “happy and warm”. However, it is also possible that Blake is criticising religion because of the false hope it gives the chimney sweeps with the quote “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”, this suggests the owners of the young and naive sweeps indoctrinate them by manipulating them to do their jobs and if they don’t they will be doing something which is ‘morally wrong.

The authority of the master-sweep is comparable to the Gileaden government and parallels can be drawn between Offred and the boy narrator. This is through the manipulation both parties have inflicted upon the most vulnerable, indoctrinating them with phrases such as “if all do their duty they fear no harm” from the master-sweep and “they only serve to those who stand and wait” from the aunts which does set some of their moral in life. The progression between ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in innocence to experience presents a more negative tone with a dark semantic field “weep”, “death” “woe” “misery” Blake’s message could have been to show that with age, the innocence of hope dies away and the older you are, the less likely you are to be manipulated which emphasises the vulnerability of the innocent children.

‘The School Boy’ by Blake offers an insight into the theory that children are indoctrinated by authorities (adult teachers) in a way that prevents them from being free spiritually. This poem is also narrated in the voice of a child, likewise to ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ but is located in Songs of Experience. The honesty in this poem: “Worn through with the dreary shower”, contrasts with the positivity and passiveness of The Chimney Sweep, suggesting that there is not only a vulnerability of children through adult authority but also between educated and non-educated children. The language is a lot more sophisticated and low frequency “dreary, “mellowing” showing the narrator’s level of intelligence; the message perhaps being that un-educated children are more prone to vulnerability as they rely on hope and religion, the abstract nouns such as “mellowing” suggest that they have got nothing concrete to look forward to as they are manipulated by religion; whereas the schoolboy does not rely on abstract values because he sees himself ‘at one’ with nature and knows he would be happier if he was free in nature, not free by death/heaven.

This is presented thorough the comparative imagery of a bird; “The skylark sings with me” showing emphasised unity between the schoolboy and the bird/ nature. The vulnerability is present in this poem with the schoolboy feeling as if he trapped by the teacher’s “cruel eye”. The cliché phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ is relevant within this poem because the narrator knows he is being controlled and doesn’t rely on religion for happiness, whereas the narrator in the ‘Chimney Sweep’ from Songs of Innocence has hope; he believes that is he does his duty he “fears no harm” and is ignorant towards the control inflicted upon him. Structurally, Offred has the ability of reflecting in the ‘night’ chapters of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale and when she does, aspects of the ‘time before’ are revealed including her carefree past. “I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was” now she is not ignorant, she realises how she used to be and that the problems of patriarchy were under the surface all along.

The language within The Handmaid’s Tale also plays a big part in control and manipulation. This includes the use of neologisms that the Gileadean government had imposed upon the public as a way of controlling the way they think; feminists and deformed babies are degraded and treated as sub humans, denoted by the terms “Unwomen” and “Unbabies.” Black and Jewish people are defined by biblical terms “Children of Ham” and “Sons of Jacob”; this purposely sets them apart from the rest of society, making the ‘Christian’ white American easily view them as different and abnormal; linking with the theme of Biblical manipulation.

The authorial intent of using neologisms from Atwood would perhaps correlate with modern governmental neologisms: most likely American. For example, President Reagan had penned the term ‘Evil Empire’[8] whilst talking about the Soviets during the Cold war in order enforce propaganda by emphasising his distrust towards them. This term would have also most likely been used within American media and amongst members of the public in order to create further hostility and to view the Soviets as the enemy. This links with the power of authority because both the Gildeaden and American government had the ability to determine the public’s depiction of aspects of society they deem wrong or that go against their principals/ viewpoints.

Likewise to ‘The Chimney Sweep’, ‘Holy Thursday’ from Songs of Innocence presents a naïve tone. This is shown through the song-like structure which includes rhyming couplets of ABAB; however the underlining message is dark and ironic to the tone, with themes of vulnerable orphans and controlling guardians. The poem can be viewed as a criticism on behalf of Blake towards the corruption in Christian charity schools, which are often viewed as a positive aspect from the general public in the 18th century and today. Sarah Trimmer, a writer, critic and educational reformer had stated ‘Children of the poor should not be educated in such manner as to set them above the occupations of humble life, or so as to make them uncomfortable among their equals’.[9] This point of view can be perceived as the general thought process of a lot of those in authority, who generally believed that each class should remain to their ‘God-given’ position on earth and orphaned children were no exception.

The boys and girls are described as “companies” which presents a sense of unification within the children; however it also suggests that they are under corporate supervision and they are being restricted by the constant authority figures described as “grey headed beadles”. This is parallel to the restriction the narrator experiences in ‘The School Boy’, who dreams of being free within nature and free of the prisons of school, where there is mass control. The juxtaposition of colours between the children, who are described wearing “red & blue & green”, manifests the imagery of grey, dull supervisors alongside the colourful children dressed in prominent primary colours.

To conclude, both texts express sympathy to the vulnerable in society and serve as an overall message to the readers. Whilst Atwood’s novel can be perceived as a ‘warning’ to women to remember the roots of feminism as Offred had only just realised the importance of Women’s righrs and a criticism of traditional old-fashioned patriarchy, Blake’s poetry creatively highlights the corruption of child labour, expresses the importance of nature and the unity of the human race. Both Atwood and Blake present the young as more vulnerable; The Handmaids are young in order to reproduce and the children are controlled in Blake’s poem in a new age of industry and labour. This suggests that the authorial intent may have been to present the youth as being naïve and easily manipulated by the older generation (shown by the Chimney sweep and Offred’s indoctrination) but can also be the root of change and evolution (presented by the thought process of the school boy and Moira’s character).

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[1] The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism

[2] http://articles.latimes.com/1990-03-04/entertainment/ca-2834_1_atwood-tale-handmaid

[3] https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/primary-sources/weimar-culture

[4] http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/utopia/methods1/bourgeoisie1/bourgeoisie.html

[5] http://crossref-it.info/articles/24/Garden-of-Eden,-Adam-and-Eve,-‘Second-Adam’

[6] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/joycemeyer565203.html

[7] http://www.wellerschimneysweeps.com/?page_id=384

[8] http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/

[9] Reflections upon the Education of Children in Charity Schools- Sarah Trimmer

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