Postmodern Lens - Alex Allan

Post-Modernist Lens – Visit to the Doctor (Chapter 11) Alex Allan
Pg 74-76 (Black+Red ed.) / Pg 56-57 (White ed.)

Postmodernists have a world view based on uncertainty, doubt, and questioning. They are suspicious and skeptical of society’s explanations of how the world should work. In literature, this skepticism is revealed through the use of irony, satire and plays on words. Postmodern authors often “break the rules” by using fractured, jumbled narratives and/or multiple perspectives.

Narrators often use a style called "stream-of-consciousness," where the narrative follows the course of a person's thoughts, not a structured timeline of events. Each person’s mind constructs (rather than mirrors) reality. Therefore, postmodernists question knowledge. There are no ultimate principles. No absolute truth. Everything is relative to each individual’s perception. Language reflects instability, fragmentation, and contradictory identities. This use of language often conveys mistrust and paranoia.

Since postmodernism represents a decentred concept of the universe in which individual literary works are not isolated creations, writers will often focus on “intertextuality”, the relationship between a novel, for example, and another work of literature. In A Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood refers to phrases directly from the Bible (see examples below).

Offred’s description of her visit to the doctor is told in a kind of “stream-of-consciousness” style; her thoughts come pouring out as she thinks them, as she reflects using the present tense on the previous day’s to the doctor. Her reaction to the doctor’s offer to “help” her is an example of the kind of fragmented sentence structure used in the postmodern style. Initially Offred misunderstand the doctor’s intent to impregnate her. “Help me? ... How? ... Does he know something, has he seen Luke, has he found, can he bring back?” (p. 56, white ed.).

Offred describes the red cloth on the folding screen in the doctor’s “inner room”. It has an “eye” painted on it, symbolizing the “Eyes” who are the spies who work for the government and who constantly watch the citizens. This “eye” on the screen in the doctor’s office contributes to Offred’s paranoia, which is an example of the postmodern lens. It's interesting that the visual aspects of spying are emphasized when you consider that the Handmaids, in particular, are supposed to be kept from both seeing and being seen. As reproductive objects, they must not be sexualized, and one of the freedoms Gilead is supposed to provide them is freedom from the lustful male gaze. But the watching that the government does, through the “Eyes” is even more invasive.

The red cloth on the folding screen also has a snake-twined sword, a bit of “broken symbolism left over from the time before”, Offred acknowleges (p. 56, white ed.). This reference to “broken symbolism” is a signal of the postmodern lens which questions society’s knowledge and conventions. In Greek mythology, the rod entwined with one snake was used by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine. This rod became confused with the “caduceus” of Hermes, which consists of two snake wrapping around a winged rod. However, in mythology, Hermes is more often associated with two concepts that aren’t usually aren’t associated with modern medicine: magic and death. In mythology, Hermes would lead the dead to the underworld—precisely the opposite of what physicians try to do to their patients. The traditional medical symbol below the “eye” on the red screen in the doctor’s inner room signals that the doctor is part of the conspiracy of spies in Gilhead. This suspicion is another example of the postmodern lens.

In normal society, the doctor’s office is considered a safe and trusted place. The relationship between doctor and patient is based on trust and is above reproach. A Handmaid’s Tale turns this relationship on its head, as just one way that Atwood pokes holes at society’s conventions, from a postmodern perspective.

First, we see Offred as the patient, treated in a dehumanized way, as an object, in perfect sync with the society’s views on treating women as child-bearing machines. A sheet suspended from the ceiling, “intersects” Offred so that “the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only.” (p. 56, white ed.).

Then we witness the doctor, supposedly a revered person in authority, abuse his trusted position and break the rules. This breaking the rules by a person in authority is par for the course in this novel, and reflects the postmodern view of skepticism and cynicism.

The doctor breaks several rules. First, he is not “supposed to speak” to Offred, his patient. “But this doctor is talkative.” (p. 56, white ed.). This is an example of a postmodern use of irony to question the Gilead society's convention that a doctor is not supposed to speak to a patient.

Then Offred is shocked when the doctor says “a forbidden word”: “sterile”. “There’s no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” (p.57, white ed.). This acknowledgement of the flaws in society’s perception that there are no sterile men is an example of postmodern skepticism, as well as being another example of irony. The idea that there are no sterile men and that only the women are to blame is absurd (but, of course, is perfectly in sync with Offred’s society’s oppression).

Finally, the doctor shows the ultimate abuse of his power and manipulation of his patient by playing on Offred’s fears of the consequences of not getting pregnant. The doctor offers to have sex with her, as he harasses her by sliding his ungloved hand up her leg and addressing her in a sleazy voice and calls her “honey”. Since the Commander might in fact be “sterile”, this could be Offred’s only route to pregancy, the fulfilment of her social duty, and the maintenance of some sort of social status. “It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way, out, a salvation” (p. 57) expressed in Biblical terms. More than just the risk terrifies Offred. Her perception of the truly profound irony of her situation is terrifying: the "choice" is no choice; this "salvation" is a damnation, an acceptance of society’s plans to eliminate her as useless to society if she does not bear children.

Offred is not fooled by the doctor's suggestion that she has some kind of "free" will here; "it's your life," he responds, when she turns him down. And that too is said with the utmost of, probably unintentional, irony. Her life? It is, and it isn't. The common expression "well, it's your life" generally means "go ahead, you're free to mess up your life if you want to." But in this repressive social context, this casual expression resonates ironicly. First, her life is not her own because according to Gilead her body is not hers to control; second, the likely consequence of "messing it up if you want to" is exile or death. This scene of irony emphasizes the falseness of both Offred's and the doctor's positions, a typical perception through the postmodern lens.

Another example of the postmodern intertextual discourse, shot through with irony, is Offred’s citing of the Bible in response to the doctor’s suggestion that he have sex with her and his question, “You want a baby don’t you?” She says to herself, “Give me children, or else I die” (p.57, white ed.). This is an echo of Rachel’s plea to her husband Jacob in the Bible, Genesis 30:1, when Rachel decides to use her “haidmaid” Bilhah as a surrogate baby-maker for Jacob. For Offred, this plea underlines the threat to the Handmaid’s life. When Offred says, “There’s more than one meaning to it”, she doesn't just mean that she as a childless mother will suffer from grief and anguish. Offred knows that she is doomed, no matter what. Presented with another "either/or," she recognizes that even the statement of the option is ironic. After all, she already has had a child, who was taken from her. Furthermore, to accept this doctor's "gift" to go through with the covert (and technically illegal) insemination, is to submit entirely to the Gilead regime, to give herself over to the idea that "salvation" is having a baby; that to be childless is to be useless, condemned. Offred recognizes that the offer is not a "way out," but the way into truly abject complicity with her society’s oppression. Sex is controlled by power, and in a totalitarian regime, there are always those who can undermine the roles because of their own positions of power.

In conclusion, the passage describing Offred’s visit to the doctor reinforces the novel’s message about the manipulation of the people by those in power. Anyone who wants power will try to manipulate you by appealing to your desires and fears. This is part of the cynicism and pessimism of the postmodern world view.

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