Postmodernism - Noah Labinaz

A Postmodern Interpretation of The Scrabble Game inThe Handmaid's Tale
Reference:Chapter 23, pg. 173-176 (B+R) and pg. 130-132 (W)

Note: All quotes used in this piece make reference to the Black and Red version of the text.

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian fiction set in the future which talks about the role of an authoritarian government in the United States that has eliminated all women’s rights. The novel itself is written from the perspective of an oppressed woman living in this country and throughout her experiences the reader is made aware of many social commentaries presented by the author, which include the value of women, society’s class system and the influence of government on its people. Based on the various commentaries presented by the author, the most significant and effective method of analysis for the novel would be through a postmodernist point of view. One passage that can be effectively analyzed from a postmodernist point of view is in Chapter 23, when the protagonist plays Scrabble with the Commander of her house.
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The purpose of analyzing a passage from a postmodernist perspective is to examine the manner in which the author questions the norms of literature, specifically how they break the rules that have been put into place by other authors or the culture in which the novel was written. An example of a postmodernist perspective is shown through the narrator’s description of the situation. After the Commander says to the protagonist:

"'I'd like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,'" (pg. 174)

she is seen thinking about how wrong this situation is:

"Now of course it's something different. Now it's forbidden, for us. Now it's dangerous. Now it's indecent. Now it's something he can't do with his Wife. Now it's desirable." (pg. 174)

However, although she is describing how forbidden the interaction is, she never provides an alternative to what she is supposed to be doing. From a structuralist point of view, one must define the opposite of a word or concept in order to fully understand the stated phrase. Without the opposite, you cannot fully understand the meaning of the phrase. In this passage, the author has decided to exclude the opposite descriptions that the narrator is supposed to use. If Scrabble is forbidden, what is allowed? If Scrabble is dangerous, what is safe? If Scrabble is indecent, what is acceptable? None of these questions are ever answered, even though they should be presented in order for the reader to fully understand the concepts and what they mean to the narrator. I believe this paranoid postmodern description of the situation is very helpful in contributing to the helpless atmosphere of the novel. The narrator has been stripped of so many freedoms and has been oppressed so frequently that she can no longer describe what she is allowed to do, only what she is forbidden to do.
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Another important part of this passage that has a significant postmodern perspective occurs when the protagonist describes how her encounter with the Commander has been a reconstruction. While the reader is examining this passage, they are taking the protagonist’s word as truth. However, the last line at the end of the passage:

"That is a reconstruction, too." (pg. 176)

leaves the reader questioning what was really happening between the narrator and the Commander. Two interesting postmodern elements are revealed through this comment. The first has to do again with the lack of opposites as seen in structuralist novels. Normally, authors must define the opposites of words in order for their reader to fully understand the concept, but in this situation Atwood simply states that what the protagonist is saying is a reconstruction and is not true to what actually happened. This leaves the reader questioning what amount of the story is true, since there is no indication that any of what the narrator said was accurate or to what extent the reconstruction was created. Also, as the narrator lies to the reader by reconstructing and potentially changing the truth, Atwood creates distrust in the reader towards the protagonist that is not usually seen in literature. In most structured or modern novels, the reader can trust the protagonist and take what they have to say as true, yet here Atwood makes the narrator someone who the reader questions from this point in the novel onward. This is a distinctive postmodern literary element that highlights the paranoid atmosphere found throughout the novel. The reader can never feel that they trust the characters in the novel now that the narrator has become questionable, unreliable and undescriptive, just like the protagonist feels about all of the characters she interacts with within the novel.
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A third part of this passage that is interesting from a postmodernist point of view deals not so much with the content as with the written structure of the passage. Throughout the passage the author uses unconventional sentence structures to convey the narrator’s perspective. One notable example would be in this section:

"I try not to lean forward. Yes? Yes yes? What, then? What does he want? But I won't give it away, this eagerness of mine. It's a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. She who does not hesitate is lost. I'm not giving anything away: selling only." (pg. 173)

Here, the narrator is talking to herself in her head without quotations and is using common, informal sentences to describe the situation. Usually authors maintain a more formal format when describing what the narrator is thinking and they only reserve more common language structure for quotations. This rule is not adhered to in this case, where in this passage, and throughout the novel, Atwood allows the protagonist to use more common language structures at all times. Short, fragmented sentences:

"Yes? Yes yes? What, then? What does he want?" (pg. 173)

and sporadic thought sequences:

"It's a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. She who does not hesitate is lost. I'm not giving anything away: selling only." (pg. 173)

break down any sort of structure that is found in more traditional writing. This is contradictory to the rules of literature, which makes it very interesting for a postmodernist. The direct opposition to structural rules could be a comment on the novel as a whole. As the new government has tried to prevent order from occurring among the women of society, we see through the narrator’s eyes and experiences that this has not worked since the protagonist is always thinking of ways to defy the culture depending on her current situation. I believe this occurs because human nature requires people to have an equal amount of order and chaos in their lives. Therefore, the reader can see that the lack of structure, as observed in the narrator’s thoughts, is an influence from the unstructured life women have created for themselves in their minds to oppose the government.
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The final significant element of this passage has to do with the narrator’s reaction after the Commander asks for her to kiss him:

"I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart, the toilet in my own bathroom, on a bath night, quickly and quietly, so Cora outside on the chair would not hear me. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander's study, the next time, because after a request like that there's always a next time, whether you say yes or no. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between the ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands." (pg. 175-176)

This passage describes what the narrator thinks immediately after she is asked the question and there are many postmodern aspects in this portion of the passage that highlight key points in the novel. The first aspect has to do with the structure of the passage. Here, the narrator uses long run-on sentences to describe what she is thinking as well as a broken, fractured train of thought to describe her plan for killing the Commander. This long and seemingly random description of her murder plan goes against any structure rules that have been put in place by traditional authors. Usually narrators talk in an even and fluid manner, even when they are talking to themselves, yet the use of this hurried thinking by Atwood is an important postmodern characteristic that could relate to the mental state of the narrator. Since the novel takes place in an oppressive and anxious environment, the reader can see that through the writing style this anxiousness has been engrained in the nature and character of the protagonist as well. The second important aspect of this passage relates to the sentence where the narrator is explaining how sexy it would be if she were to stab the Commander:

"...[I would] drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between the ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands." (pg. 175-176)

This is a very contradictory statement because blood and sex are usually not associated with each other. Here, the author is using black humour and irony to portray her idea. This is a postmodern element because it directly defies the serious nature of literature that has been put in place by structuralists and modernists. Usually death is a serious topic, but the author integrates the emotion of love and lust with death in order to shock the reader. Once again, Atwood may have included this peculiar phrase to emphasize the extent of oppression that is felt by the narrator. The life of the protagonist has reached a point where she can no longer distinguish between love and death and therefore uses the two incorrectly in the same situation.
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As you can see, there are many aspects of this passage, found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which can be analyzed through the literary lens of postmodernism. Through this analysis, one is able to uncover important ideas about the characters, the plot, the themes and the atmosphere of the novel that the author is trying to convey through the thoughts and actions of her protagonist.

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