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Breaking the sound barrier

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Title:
Breaking the sound barrier contemporary feminist utopias voiced
Creator:
Demming-Kressner, Dee
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
v, 95 leaves : ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Degree:
Master's ( Master of Arts)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of English, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
English

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Feminism and literature ( lcsh )
Utopias in literature ( lcsh )
Feminism and literature ( fast )
Utopias in literature ( fast )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references.
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Department of English.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Dee Demming-Kressner.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
26186649 ( OCLC )
ocm26186649
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1991m .D43 ( lcc )

Full Text
BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER:
CONTEMPORARY FEMINIST UTOPIAS VOICED
by
Dee Demming-Kressner
B.S., University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 1974
M.A. University of Colorado-Denver, 1991
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of English
1991
F A h ?
j ' >,
tixj.'UMiwia.T


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Dee Demming-Kressner
has been approved for the
Department of
English
by
/


Demming-Kressner, Dee (M.A., English)
Breaking the Sound Barrier: Contemporary Feminist
Utopias Voiced
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Bradford Mudge
Utopian literary forms provide an excellent
vehicle for feminist writers, allowing for imagined
future or alternate cultures and promoting mind
expansion. Furthermore, the utopian genre is proof of
hope, for it denies the greatest of all societal evils,
apathy, as it seeks to generate revolution. Three
skilled Western female authors enabling us to see
current feminist thought in utopian writing are Ursula
Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood. Le Guin's
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a seminal work,
gently utilizing utopian elements of a gender-free
culture to usher in a new era of feminist utopian
writing.- Piercy's controversial Woman on the Edge of
Time (1976) demands violent revolution in order to
achieve equality. Finally, Atwood's The Handmaid's
Tale (1985) is a dystopia that reflects both the
recognition of the present-day failure of the women's


movement to achieve lasting results and the failure of
the utopian genre to move society in this direction.
Each of these contemporary feminist utopias determines
that women will achieve freedom only through voice and
action.
IV


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION............................. 1
Utopia as Feminist Vehicle...............15
Mythical Woman: The Awakening............20
Toward a New Mythology....... . .......28
2. NEW WORLD FEMINIST UTOPIAS VISITED........38
The Left Hand of Darkness................38
Woman on the Edge of.. Time.............5 4
.....................6 9
3. CONCLUSION................................87
BIBLIOGRAPHY.....................................92
v


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Since the dream of a utopian world first flowered
in Thomas More's Utopia (1551), the world has never
again been the same. Subsequent utopian writing has
been subsumed since the mid-1900s into what has come to
be called science fiction. Indeed, that genre both
reflects the standards of its time and culture and
strives against them. True utopian vision shatters the
limits of the known world, going beyond that which we
have learned is "scientifically possible, logically
probable, or historically inevitable" (Bammer 11).
Utopian writing authentically risks re-visioning the
world in ways never before imagined. By showing us the
difference between what is and what might be, it
strives to engender dissatisfaction with the present.
By its very definition, then, utopia intends to
stimulate activity, disruption, and revolution. It
recalls us to the tentativeness of any existing social
system; and the possibility of change, made possible by


estrangement from our own culture, encourages the bold
among us to explore alternatives. Frances Bartkowski
claims that "the future can only be anticipated in the
form of an absolute danger" as it "breaks absolutely
with constituted normality" (1). Hence its
contemplation inspires fear for many. Additionally,
each vision of utopia that has historically come to
pass, such as the Russian Revolution and the German
uprising under Hitler, has generally taught the
destruction of, rather than the creation of, freedom.
Many modern texts, therefore, demonstrate the
belief'that the. integration and wholeness of society is
only to be won at the cost of tyranny for the
individual. The traditional utopia, virtually
synonymous with blind optimism for the future of
humankind, has therefore encountered growing disbelief
as a viable form by both the general public and the
academic community in the twentieth century. The
utopia of the past, a simplistic and static model of
perfection, has been put to rest in our brave new
world. Out of its ashes have arisen new utopian forms
2


in the last quarter century, forms as vital, credible,
and revolutionary as the first utopian dream.
Infused with new, dramatic life, filled with a
diversity of forms and ideas, this dying genre has been
rejuvenated by a restless world in search of
revolutionary answers. This search may be seen in both
the events of the real world and the utopia's newly
granted status as serious literature. Renowned world
leaders and governments have demonstrated utopian
thinking in both'words and actions. Dreams of peace,
unity, and justice have unfolded in the movements
toward unilateral disarmament, resolution of centuries-
old fear and hatred between peoples, national
reunification, personal and national autonomy,
international aid projects, and global demands of
justice for all (Stimpson 1-5).
As world citizens we must ask what this recent,
serious utopian impulse means. First, it demonstrates
a growing openness to change and an admission that
conventional institutions and methods have failed to
handle many of our current problems. Second, it
3


suggests a reexamination of utopian dreams that would
once have been dismissed as wild fantasies, with an eye
to exploring worthy directions and methods for
achieving them. Third, it means that we uncover an
immense array of utopian experimentation--both literal
and actual--across the ages. By so doing, we also-
relearn that one person's utopia, the individual's
noblest depiction of the future, may be another's
dystopia, a nightmare of perversion and oppression.
Utopian vision, once threatening to collapse under
the weight of its role as presumed "blueprint for the
future," no longer credible to an increasingly complex
and sophisticated readership and world, has expanded
and metamorphosed the very genre from which it sprang.
Today's new utopian forms, neither laughable fantasies
nor blueprints for tomorrow, bear living testimony to
the hope that springs eternal. Powerful testimonies to
much more than mere survival, they illuminate the
marvelous imaginative capacity to transcend time,
space, and self, thus throwing the present into focus.
4


We must also ask by what means we have been led
from the peaceable utopia of More's England of the mid-
1500s to the restless utopian forms of the Western
world of the late 1900s. To whom do we ascribe the
transfusion of energy and meaning found in these new
utopias? Catharine Stimpson, among others, names
feminism as "the primary utopian movement in the West
today" (2), a movement born of fantasies reawakened in
the late sixties in Americaby a general revolutionary
cry that also surfaced in the Black Power movement,
Woodstock, communal experiments, and the Vietnam War
protests. This loud outburst of anger stirred
considerable reaction in the West with its strident,
yet hopeful, cry. Women who suddenly recognized their
age-old confinement and inequality began to battle back
against their oppression. Discovering that they could
not look to the classical patriarchal utopias of their
culture nor to earlier female utopias for answers (with
the significant exception of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's
Her 1 and of 1915, which breaks with the classical
utopian mind-set), they began to create their own
5


worlds in new feminist utopian writings. Thus emerged
such texts as Anne Roiphe's Up the Sandbox! (1970),
Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), and Marge
Piercy's Woman on..-th.e.-Ed.g.e....o.f .-Time (1976).
The aim of such novels, which center on human
freedom and equality, could only be dramatic social
change. Based on the theme of historical gender
inequality, feminist-Utopians envisioned worlds of
individual freedom balanced by community
responsibility; social, political, and moral evolution
without chaos; and satisfaction of all material needs
without subordination of spiritual values. These same
writings display a distrust of centralized authority in
favor of village democracy and the acceptance of
disorder, diversity, and fullness of personality, both
individual and communal, in an ever-evolving society.
The world of pure reason and logic proposed by
More and others,. ref 1ective of patriarchal, dichotomous
thinking, could simply not satisfy the needs of
twentieth-century women. The modern female utopia they
designed intertwined logic with emotion to reach a more
6


whole and balanced vision. Stress was placed on simple
difference, not opposition, and was seen to enhance
society. The transformational nature of all life was
heralded as key to individual and social rejuvenation.
Change emerged as a necessary and welcome ingredient in
the text, admittedly indeterminate and incomplete,
typically ending with questions rather than answers.
More philosophical than practical at times, these new
utopias used public policy as a means to the end of
fully developed human relationship rather than as the
end of the revolution itself. Connection, wholeness,
and feeling superseded the divisiveness and cold logic
of the classic utopia. Anarchic rather than orderly,
experimental rather than static, in harmony with nature
rather than its master, these new utopias relied on
reader participation to construct personal meaning.
The dictates of science, which had long since
superseded first the Muse and then the Bible as the
authority for human living, would serve to support
women in their endeavor, for modern science too had
recognized that the universe could no longer be
7


represented to the world as a "perfect mechanism to be
objectively and final 1y known and mastered" (Rosinsky
107). "Like Eastern mystics" science had discovered "a
dynamic vision of the universe that contradicts the
pragmatic principles underlying so much of Western,
patriarchal civilization." Gradually the West was
learning that it does not and can not have all the
answers and had long ignored many literary searches for
truth, particularly those by women.
Once aware that our culture has long been blind to
the feminized utopian voice, Westerners open a wide
array of literary possibilities for consideration. In
the last two decades an expanded understanding of the
messages and types of utopian writing has led to the
the search for- utopian feminist forms in what
traditionally had been women's literature intended
solely for the self or one another--1etters and
journals. And certainly we can see feminist utopias in
obvious acknowledged texts such as Charlotte Perkins
Gilman's Her1 and (1915). But we can also see feminist
utopian strivings in the female characters of such
8


works as Elizabeth Barrett Brownings
(1856), George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860),
and Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). Such impulses
exist too in present day minority literature such as
Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
(1969), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and
Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). And they certainly
exist in the realm of recent feminist speculative
science fiction.
By way of enlarging public understanding of
utopia, a necessary first step in the creation of a
finer world, realistic critics such.as Angelika Bammer
include Martin Luther King and Anne Frank as examples
of Utopians, for such hopeful visionaries have openly
acknowledged the discouraging realities of their own
day while daring to dream a different dream (44). Each
dream must have authenticity at its core and openly-
acknowledge the impossibility of creating a
static,"perfect" humanity or world, warning against
the stagnation that results from the imagined
achievement of such a goal. This study offers Ursula
9


Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness as an instructive
example in support of this expanded vision of utopian
writing. While not explicitly a utopia, it clearly
offers images of the new utopian diversity of form and
the ever-evolving world so vital to the genre.
An analysis of today's forms reveals three broad
types of fictional utopias: the classic utopia, borne
of the authoritarian mode of male domination; the
dystopia, borne of the general belief in the horror
that classic utopia pushed to its limits may become-:
dream turned to nightmare; and the open-ended utopia,
borne of the female belief in the value of disorder and
a. reflection of uncertainty, as well as a reaction to
the limits of the classic mode. Indeed, various
definitions of utopia have been proposed since the time
of Thomas More's first attempt in 1516, his coined term
having the ambiguous meaning of both "no place" and
"good place" (Ferns 452). As we have seen since its
inception, More's ironic pun certainly lays the
groundwork for heated discussion as to the definition
and purpose of such a fictional form. George Katebs
10


definition of utopia perhaps best communicates the
underlying principles of the traditional form, in which
"harmony is at the center: harmony within the soul of
each man, harmony of each man with all others, harmony
of each man with society at large" (qtd. in Thomas 16).
In the traditional utopia, a male protagonist, who
serves as narrator, leaves his world and journeys to
another, in which he is shown the indisputable merits
of a new way of life. He is quickly won over and
returns home to tell his own people about the journey.
The story has the traditional beginning, middle, and
end and is complete on its own terms. Female
characters in traditional utopias have typically
"provided the domestic and sexual services, nurtured
their men and children, enhanced daily life with their
beauty and charm," and, most importantly, have stayed
"happily submissive" (Bammer 113-14).
Another prominent feature of the traditional
utopia has been a reliance upon reason rather than
political agitation as the stimulus for change. Even
later nineteenth-century utopian forms, which strove to
11


allow for variety, achieved unity only through
calculation and classification. The either/or thinking
of the rationalists created such absolute dichotomies
as spirit/flesh, science/art, authority/freedom,
mind/body, self/other,- and good/evil. The ultimate
result of such static and closed utopias, valorizing
the "'corrected' state, stable and complete," is
satirization by today's dystopias and open-ended
utopias (Jacobs 110).
The initial satiric response to the traditional
utopia, the dystopia, portrays the worst of all
possible worlds--in short, hell on earth. It is a
world in which we are completely disconnected--alone,
isolated, and without community. With no one to
sustain or refute us, we are utterly silent and
meaningless, shadows on the barren landscape of someone
else's imagination. The dystopia posits hopelessness
in favor of hope and provides us with no solution, only
a terrifying future. By comparing itself with its
opposite, a dystopia offers us a definition of utopia.
And by graphically demonstrating the difference between
12


what is and the horror that could be if we follow a
particular path open to us, it activates us to press
for other directions. By this vital means, utopia and
dystopia unite against their common enemy--apathy.
Finally, we come to today's open-ended model in
which many feminist Utopians typically put forth
alternate futures, offering an array of utopias,
ambiguous utopias, and dystopias in a single text. In
doing so, unlike Foe, they do not anticipate a single
effect, but expect the reader to determine meaning.
Readers need not read the novel in the same way to be
moved in the same general direction, and a wide range
of responses to a given work, although not just any
response, may be truly hoped for.
The complex nature of these works requires a
reader willing to experiment with the writer through
such elements as time/space travel, non-linear plot,
changing point of view, unreliable narrators, non-
traditional and/or multiple heroes, confusion of "fact"
and "fiction," subversive humor, and open endings. Two
purposes in distancing the reader with such devices
13


remain: to heighten the effect of the interwoven
threads of life' to which there jja. no single truth or
meaning, and to simulate the psychological stretch of
the proposed journey to another world beyond the male
and female to discover a life form potentially greater
than either--the whole human being.
The modern feminist utopian vision, then, is
continually evolving and often demonstrates the theme
that the imagined utopia of the individual precedes
that of the society. In fact, the protagonist in such
works is often responsible for acting to create his/her
version of utopia without ever knowing that it will
come to pass and certainly without expecting it to
remain a constant. Though the modern utopia fully
recognizes that a transformational and open society and
its inhabitanats will alw.ays be faced with problems, it
believes that such difficulties infuse society with new
life and seeks to offer each member of the community
fulfillment without the possibility of
exploitation, . . . social harmony without
becoming life-denying, . . . order without
suppressing spontaneity, and . . . stability
without becoming hopelessly rigid (Ruppert
103) .
14


All of these possibilities exist for the person
who is willing to work at them. They do not come
without cost, and they do not equal an easy life.
Instead, they must be won every day by the voice and
action of individuals in community with others. No one
is forced to travel a certain path. Rather, rejection
of what is and the freedom to create new directions
prove the ultimate hope for the individual and society
in the modern utopia.
The question remains, perhaps, as 'to why today's
feminist writers so often choose science fiction as a
vehicle for their efforts. As a genre that reflects
"the search for a definition of man and his status in
the universe," we may see science fiction as a
measuring stick of human progress and the story of its
process (Aldiss 11). Though many think of science
fiction as a predictor of the future condition of man
and society, others such as Ursula Le Guin define it as
a "thought experiment," the purpose of which is "not to
15


predict the future . . . but to describe reality, the
present world" (LHP ii). In it women may demonstrate
the bravery, authority, intelligence, creativity, and
strength of which they are capable, though they are
often disallowed them in our present culture.
Superiority even becomes imaginable.
By ostensibly removing the story from the present,
the author creates the distance that makes the text
more palatable and less threatening to today's readers.
Science fiction thereby bridges the gap between today's
here and now and the future's tomorrow. Women in
science fiction utopias can therefore be "human" first
and "female" second because the genre stimulates the
creation of new worlds and uncharted behaviors.
Whereas Mary Shelley, the "mother of science fiction,"
created female characters that barely breathed and
whereas Frankenstein's own pitiable -creation, his
child, seemed to parody woman herself, denied voice by
her male creator yet thirsting for understanding,
! v 'f i . -ace f icti(. u cho ractecs may even
exist eni.iiily cu: t s i de c> E their relationship to men.
16


Female writers are no longer confined to creating
tortured souls and monsters representing the female
self in order to be published and read. Rather,
today's frightening and frightened outcast, rejected by
man, is explicitly a woman or an androgynous male.
Joanna Russ, in agreement with Darko Suvin,
suggests that science fiction resembles medieval
literature in tha.t it depicts "the life of the soul," a
life in which the individual finds itself in a new
world, without home or identity and without knowledge
of the new rules. According to Russ, the "soul"
journey in such a tale always involves a quest for
society and self, and that is why science fiction is an
extraordinarily suitable vehicle for women's literature
(18-19). The struggle to identify the soul and make
sense of the past as well as the present is vital to
women both as members of society and as artists. And
the quest to discover what is wrong and change it makes
such fiction both political and mythological.
For indeed the purpose of feminist writings, which
at the least strive to achieve social, political, and
17'


economic equality for women, is to create a new
literary mythology, one which reflects women's actual
life experiences rather than those society has imposed
upon them. We now witness women writing and telling
tales for themselves and others, struggling to create
new worlds in.which the fatal myths of the past that
silenced them for so long are matters only of history--
dead but not forgotten. To this end, women must create
a new mythology: open, daring, imaginative,
harmoniously diverse, life-giving, spiritual,
affirming, active, and ever-changing. The new utopian
forms provide both a marvelous reflection of the
limitless possibilities that might exist in a gender-
free culture and a warning regarding today's gender-
restrictive structures.
If by "feminist" we mean the social, political,
and economic equality of women, all the writers of this
study qualify as feminists. Though each one may not
ally herself with the women's movement specifically,
each believes the place of of women now to be
unnatural, unfortunate, and unjust. More importantly,
18


perhaps, each believes we have the power to change this
condition, as these utopian writings boldly proclaim.
If we also agree that the greatest value of
utopian writing is not to predict what the future will
bring, but to undermine the reader's apathy about the
world that presently exists, mere speculation on
possible tomorrows is not enough. Each individual must
take present responsibility for its creation, as
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale makes all too
clear. If we as individuals and as women do not act,
we condemn ourselves to someone else's vision of
utopia, which may well be our own nightmare. Thus
women, now sharing and gaining understanding of their
own history, become responsible for their past and
knowingly create their present and future.
The utopia always involves a journey, be it
physical, psychological, spiritual, and/or mental.
This journey to a virgin-world offers unlimited
imaginative possibilities if one is experimental, and
any event may occur here. Feminists today recognize
that humankind is, indeed, on a journey, and its
19


future, particularly for women, remains uncertain. The
modern utopia with its diverse possible tomorrows
typically leaves the reader with more questions than
answers and an open ending.
Feminists also purposely employ the modern
utopian forms because they subvert a common and strong
male literary version of utopia. Pitting women against
patriarchal culture and its' institutions, these new
worlds offer a constant hope for both the present and
future.
Mythical Woman: the Awakening
Since Biblical times, and perhaps before, woman
has been cast in- the role of the debased other, an
inferior being who was not only considered an
afterthought but also frequently evil. From Eve in the
Garden of Eden to the madwoman of the recent film Fatal
Attraction, she has been depicted as a wicked and
unstable temptress. As the mythical "Mothers of all
Misery," Eve and her descendants were beings to be
feared and mastered.
20


If possible, she was ruled. Denied power, other
than sexual and reproductive, and denied learning for
centuries, woman came to be the wily and unpredictable
being that man had most feared. Yet in time man grew
to understand that perhaps he might recast or recreate
woman by redefining her nature. This recreation he
might best accomplish by "killing" her into art
(Gilbert and Gubar 14-25). By remolding the image of
woman, particularly through literature, he might form a
gentler, kinder, more stable creature than he had yet
known. And he would lose nothing of his control over
her by doing so; she would gratefully accept the new
elevated position in society he was to-design and
believe in her new-found power therein.
Thus beginning in the eighteenth century, man
commenced the transformation of the willful other known
as woman into a model of selfless perfection known as
the "Angel in the House," a phrase coined by Virginia
Woolf in her essay "Professions for Women." The
reflection of utter obedience, sacrifice, piety, and
chastity of the Victorian period, the "Proper Lady"
21


might hope to be rewarded by marriage and ultimate
security in a precarious world. Above all, the gentle,
quiet, restrained nature of the newly created "Savior
of all Mankind" proclaimed the complete and "triumphant
sublimation of the. sexual anxiety that [had] generated
the. former ['Mother of all Miseries']" so feared by man
(Poovey x). Designed to stand eternally as "passive"
and "secondary," she was to prove helpful and unheard
in her relationship to man.
Yet inside every "angel" reposed (or perhaps
wrestled) a devil, as both men and women of the period
feared--thus the importance of woman's publicly
presenting both a physical and moral likeness to the
innocent Virgin Mary rather than the knowing Eve. If
woman could- sublimate her true nature and act the
sublime role her elevated position demanded, she would
guarantee her own safety and reverance forever.
As an innocent reborn being, diminished woman was
to be oblivious to all outside worldly corruption and
was to raise her .children to be the same. Never was she
to strive to excel or compete- in the limited art forms
22


she had been expected to master as part of her role.
Instead she was to follow the dictates of the conduct
books and periodicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, which naturally echoed the values of the
culture, revealing woman to be "above earthly concerns,
generous to the point of self-sacrifice, quiet,
forgiving, and capable of absolutely selfless love"
(Gorsky 34). The "paradoxical commands of propriety"
of the Victorian era included the expression of "desire
. . . through modesty," turned "power . . . into
influence, and sought "fulfillment . . . through
meekness," guaranteeing that "indirection and
accommodation" would become woman's "most effective
strategies for self-expression," whether as writer or
homemaker (Poovey 242).
Accepting the reflection in the mirror that
Western patriarchy had held to her face--careful1y,
beautifully prepared on the outside--in order to mask
the monster she feared lurked beneath, woman quickly
internalized the message until it became her own. She
no longer recognized or understood the difference
23


between this mythical creature known as woman and her
own true and unique self. Her general obscurity
attests to her mastery of- the "arts of silence" she had
learned as wife, mother, and/or daughter (Gilbert and
Gubar 43). If she openly understood the "creation of
Woman" as.a false myth and cried out against it,
privately or publicly, she risked het valued position
in Victorian society. Her strict moral/social code'
also taught that such "unfeminine" behavior attested to
the sin of hubris, contemptible in the eyes of both man'
and God.
So well had she learned the theme of
unselfishness that any sign of valuing her personhood
over responsibility (by desire for self-development or
creative self-expression) only confirmed woman's true,'
evil nature. Her many social responsibilities all
arose out of her care for and confinement to the home;
a woman's energy, time, and attention were all devoted
to her family. She was frequently pregnant and
restricted to the house as she carefully maintained and
nurtured the new life inside her, raised her other
24


children, and provided for her husband. All of these
restrictions were as true for the literary woman as for
any other woman.
Therefore, the vast majority of women who did
write in this period did so largely in journals and
letters intended only for self and close others. The
few female writers to emerge publicly during the
Victorian era were either unmarried, married late,
childless, or wealthy enough to obtain good domestic
help (Moers 92). Of those who did publish, most chose
to use male or androgynous pseudonyms in order to
protect their identities and conducted negotiations
through male family members. And most of what was
published by women in the period was closely controlled
by male editors and deliberately confined by male
critics, for to cry out with the clear and threatening
voice of "female rebellion" was to demand silencing
(Gilbert and Gubar 36).
But "just as every woman writer knew conservative
women, who urged her toward convention and silence, she
also knew active feminists," at least through her
25


reading, who soon "prodded her pen" toward the
discovery of personal truth (Moers 19). A handful of
women with creative energy, available time, belief in
their abilities, and the rare good fortune of literary
training did tell their own stories. Others read,
understood, debated, and followed in their path. In
fact, the written word has become more and more the
work of women since the eighteenth century. Their
indispensable contribution must be understood not only
as a part of literary history but also as a part of
social evolution. The bold new thoughts of today's
female writers owe their voices to eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century forebearers, such as Charlotte and
Emily Bronte, who struggled in seeming isolation and
fear to produce texts that said "no" to the vision of
female self long accepted by Western culture.
Writing continues to determine the shape of life
itself. How did thinking women begin to awaken to the
need to discover their true selves, and what path has
their journey taken? First, a literary sisterhood
gradually needed to be established. A few inspired
26


early female writers in America such as Mary
Wol1stonecraft, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley
demonstrated the ability of women to think clearly,
develop writing that spoke to women in particular, and
still be published, as had some of their English
counterparts, perhaps "because of their enforced social
and political inactivity" (Moers 21).
Flora Tristan, for example, herself both a
novelist and a feminist, discovered a "'revolting
contrast'" in England "'between the slavery of women
and the intellectual superiority of women writers'"
across the ages, including such visionaries as Lady
Mary Wortley Montagu and Harriet Martineau (qtd. in
Moers 21). In an age when it wasn't considered
"proper" to assert oneself, the very act of writing
heralded a rebellion against the ideology of the
culture. Women such as Elisabeth Barrett Browning and
Harriet Beecher Stowe, recognizing their bondage and
often comparing it to that of slaves and industrial
workers of the same time, began to challenge and change
the world through their writings.
27


In Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, and Aurora Leigh
we begin to see rebellious girls and women in open
defiance of custom and command imposed by patriarchal
authority and equally enforced by both men and women of
the time. As women had begun to see their own
inequality with men in a clearer light through
comparison to other outcasts, they demanded social
progress in many fields in what was to become an epic
era of change. Though Western woman herself would wait
many decades and is perhaps still waiting to achieve
full legal and societal equality, her voice, having
long been given little credence by the ruling
patriarchy, finally began to break through.
All of humanity, male and female alike, as
individuals, communities, nations, and civilizations,
need to dream dreams. If the utopian impulse is an
"aesthetically organized and politically motivated^
daydream," as Bartkowski infers (7), it is equally the
creation of a myth, just as vital to our culture. The
28


West has become a world of largely lost traditions,
rituals, and heroes, In many science fiction tales, we.
are presented with a heroine or hero who alone or in
small company sees the truth and acts upon it. In
dramatic opposition to the present culture, this
individual's rebellious vision is eventually heralded
as the path of a new society, and the tale becomes a
classic myth, a shared sacred story utterly true in its
essence (O'Flaherty 19-32).
The "others" ofsuch a tale certainly illuminate
our own personalities and reflect our way of life. And
in an entrenched system such as ours, characterized by
excessive materialism, capitalism, high technology, and
mass culture, the urgent need for defining strong
personal values and beliefs is clear. The mythic
effect of science fiction, then, whether in print or
powerfully reinforced on screen, provides us constant,
crucial, traditional and non-traditional heroes.
Science fiction also seeks to communicate archetypal
truth, needed to maintain our balance in this frantic,
precarious, ever-changing world.
29


As outcasts still, our strategy for survival and
growth as women "must include the reclaiming of our
fantasies and dreams from a culture that has forced us
to renounce them" (Bammer 109). In other words, we
must search out and create our own myths by telling our
own stories. Once unable to even see that we might
hold dreams or unable to understand or voice those
possibilities, we must now-stand firm in creating a
better present.
We have discovered as well that the voice of woman
is not a single shout, but includes the questions,
fears, and dreams of many individuals. While some of
what women have recognized as "truth" has remained the
same, other beliefs have certainly altered with the
distancing of time, new awareness, and further
understanding. For instance, the initial anger of
women at being treated unfairly for centuries, which
often resulted in placing the entire blame on men, has
been tempered by new thought. The myth of women as
weak, unsuspecting victims without responsibility has
been generally superseded by the belief that women have
30


operated as co-conspirators in their own victimization.
Women have allowed and are still allowing for their own
repression and oppression by not speaking and acting.
So all feminist authors exhort women to tell their own
stories, for not to tell is akin to death.
Simultaneously, voice must be joined with action,
another traditionally male domain. For not to act is
not to truly believe or be believed.
By making public judgments, female writers become
responsible'too for the acts of both self and society:
war, economic and political justice, and much more. As
with all novelists, they achieve the truth by lying, by
"inventing persons, places, and events which never did
and never will exist or occur . . . and then say[ing],
There! That's the truth!" (Le Guin, LHJ2 ii-iii).
Feminist visions for most effectively influencing the
future range from simple conveyance of the belief- in a
socially evolving world to the most violent physical
response to intolerable conditions imposed by the
ruling patriarchy, war.
31


Therein we discover another truth about the new
direction of thought in women's writing: duality has
been eliminated in favor of plurality. Truth is
glimpsed only by seriously listening to the diverse
cries of many individuals. Being female necessarily
alters what women say, but each of us speaks with a
different voice. And whereas we had once considered
all that men said simply the objective truth, the
women's movement has certainly made clear that "the
fact of being male alters what men say too," as Atwood
reminds us. We now recognize that no person, past or
present, has demonstrated a totally objective view.
Our filters determine that "nobody can claim to have
the absolute, whole, objective, total, complete truth.
The truth is composite . . ." (qtd. in Castro 232).
Because feminism holds as primary the belief that
a persons sexuality affects his/her "economic,
political, cultural, psychological-, and imaginative
position in society," it demands recognition of "the
connections among all the spheres of an 'individual's
behavior" (Poovey xviii). The integration of the self
32


succeeds only if the protagonist discovers the self in
all its complexity and then speaks and acts for the
same. Similarly, imaginative cultures in modern
feminist texts rely on diversity for richness, new
life, and truth.
Breaking away from the rationalist mode of the
patriarchal Western utopias means also the literary
creation of new worlds in which human relationships are
of an order quite unlike the traditional. In new
utopian forms each individual strives for the
attainment of his/her complete potential, and men,
women, and children rise above the cultural myths of
the past' and present to become fully human. The
"Principle Hope" is no longer
reduced to the illusory belief that "we" will
change (or get rid of, or escape from) "them."
Rather, it is the knowledge that as we create
the possibility of a different history all of
us together will be transformed. (Bammer 391)
By this transformation all humanity gains.
Recognizing that considerable progress has already been
made, some feminists are hopeful that a new and better
world is emerging. Other feminists feel despair at
33


what they judge to be a lack of progress. And all seem
cautious about proclaiming victory and risking a
slipping back into past modes because of fear,
complacency, or over-zealousness. Lucy Freibert aptly
broadens the definition of feminist writing by
determining it as that which asserts "principles and
practices that would create a society free of
oppression and discrimination based on sex, race, age,
class, religion, and sexual orientation," thus assuring
women equality and freedom (49).
Yet in order for such a society to be created,
more women need to experience their present condition
as oppressive. Imaginative literature is meant to
stimulate readers to examine and evaluate their own
belief systems. The purpose of feminist literature has
become first to seek out women and men who do not
define themselves as feminists and then to lead them to
ponder the inequality of women in relation to men in
their own worlds. Awareness, then, is the first step
on the road to understanding. It must yet be followed
by speaking and acting. The journey towards a non-
34


discriminatory culture comes not without pain, but with
the belief that such a world is possible and that the
value of such a journey is equal to that of the
destination..
Other patriarchal myths being dispelled by
feminist writers today include the perception of woman
as monster or angel, solely in relationship to man; the
inability of the language to evolve into a more
personal and gender-free mode of expression, thus
positively influencing the culture; the prominence of
high technology at the expense of harmony with nature;
the reliance on might over the power of communi'cation;
and the belief in order, stability, and rationality at
the cost of freedom, growth, and emotion. Here also we
find much criticism of the highly materialistic
capitalist system and the deadening results of the
creation of a vast mass culture in the West.
A pervasive theme in women's literature from its
genesis still holds true in the contemporary feminist
utopian texts we will explore--that of isolation and
confinement. Women have felt themselves to be and have
35


proven to be both literally and figuratively restricted
by the historical, social, and literary constructs of
Western patriarchy. Through a redefinition of self, of
art, and of society, they strive still to establish
community and break the terrible social, legal, and
economic fetters which confine them.
This study, then, explicates Ursula Le Guin's The.
(1969), Marge Piercy's H-0.man._QJi
( 1976), and Margaret Atwood's Xha.
(1985), all contemporary Western
women's dynamic utopian forms of the last quarter
century that have proven to be of a seminal nature and
have been accepted as part of mainstream literature.
Exploring patterns, concerns, and alternatives
demonstrating womens valid discontentment with the
present, we may glimpse the truths of their captive and
searching protagonists. Le Guin's Genly Ai, for
instance, is literally held imprisoned in the frozen,
uninhabited reaches of an alien world called Winter.
Piercy's Connie Ramos is first settled in a tiny,
locked apartment in the heart of American crime-and-
36


drug-culture. She is moved from here only to the
further confinement of a locked mental institution.
And Atwood's Offred is locked within herself in a tiny
room in a hostile house in a fearful and barren city.
All learn, as women have learned historically,
that they may shatter the terrible walls of their
imprisonment only through community with other
outcasts. Though their witnesses differ and they may
fear accusations of perjury, women must direct their
individual time and efforts toward the painful
examination of their beliefs. Through this means alone
may voice and action, the ultimate testimonies to the
truth, break free.
37


CHAPTER 2
NEW WORLD FEMINIST UTOPIAS VISITED
The Left Hand of Darkness
While Ursula Le Guin's Ihe_Ills.E.QS.a_e^s_edJ_Aii
Ambiguous Utopia is seen by many readers and critics to
be the author's first and most influential utopian
study, a new form that freely acknowledges its
uncertainty as a model in its very title-, Le Guin's
previous masterpiece, The...Left_Jjajad^Qi_Darka&&&,
written five years beforehand, actually initiated the
new Western feminist utopian wave. Much criticized by
feminists particularly, ICha_2L£j:.t HaJid__0-f_D3xkn^.s.s., like
its avowed counterpart, The Dispossessed, uses a male
protagonist. According to Le Guin, a male protagonist
achieves two set purposes: it allows her.suitable
distance from the text and it embraces the greatest
number of science fiction readers, who are male. Le
Guin states that she thought "it would be easier for
them if they had a man--and a rather stupid and bigoted


man actually--to work with and ... be changed with"
(qtd. in Bittner 25).
In fact, the use of the male protagonist, at once
knowledgeable and ignorant, is a choice Le Guin makes
again in The Dispossessed, although in this work she
eliminates the use of the false generic "men" and
awkward singular possessive pronouns entirely. But I
think it important to recognize that Le Guin's purpose
in using the naive Genly Ai allows us to see that for
him and for the general science fiction reader of our
time "the generic is. male" (Peel 253). The readers
male eyes shape the story, determining what will be
included and excluded, forcing us to recognize that
each of .us perceives the world through his/her own
filter. Moreover, since Gethenians are of a single sex
essentially, the use of the pronoun "he" .in reference
to such an individual is at least more apt than our own
use of this terminology. By calling attention to this
problem, the author insists that we recognize the fact
that our world simply does not have a generic pronoun
in the singular.
39


Le Guin's story opens with an introduction
concerning the nature of science fiction and provides
the suggestion, that readers see this tale as a "thought
experiment," not predictive of the future but
descriptive of the present. We are cautioned
especially to remember that for both creator and
participating reader "truth is a matter of the
imagination" (vi), a thought Le Guin repeats in the
opening paragraph of chapter one, this time coming
through the voice'of the story's protagonist, Genly Ai,
as he reports back to a federation of planets known as
the Ekurnen. His opening words, "I'll make my report as
if I told a story" (1), highlight the mode of personal
communication vital to both individual and world. For
this union's contact with members of other planets with
whom it seeks alliance occurs only through individuals,
recognizing that the "one voice speaking truth is a
greater force than fleets and armies, given time" (27).
The Ekurnen does not seek to dominate but to
share, learn from, and enjoy the diversity of the
intelligent life it encounters. By the time of the
40


story, the utopian Ekumen consists of eighty-three
habitable' planets, this alliance evidence of diversity
co-existent with unity on a grand scale, and Genly Ai
functions as diplomat seeking to join one more planet
to the federation. Only later does he learn that it is
not only for the sake of the peace of the alien that he
comes alone, but also so that he must listen and be
changed. Interestingly, though written first, Ih.e_L_eij;.
Hand of Darkness is the last book in Le Guin's Hainish
series, postulating a prime world, Hain, from which all
other planets have been colonized. The Dispossessed,
on the other hand, though written last, depicts the
first events of the series, from which the vital
communication device known as the "ansible" is
theoretically created by the protagonist. This
structure supports Le Guin's .thematic concern of the
indelible linkage of future, present, and past used
throughout the series.
Genly Ai functions herein as the "I who holds the
story together, though as he openly acknowledges, it is
not all his story nor told by him alone; finally the
41


listeners themselves must judge whose story it is, yet
"it is all one story" (2). For the primary narrative
is to be continually interrupted by a series of diverse
mythical tales, an earlier investigative report, and a
religious text, all of which serve to echo the ideas of
the main narrative. The story actually serves as an
anthology composed of many forms: a science fiction
novel, an autobiography, an adventure narrative, a
scientific travel log,.a political novel, a mythology,
a journal, a dystopia as well as a utopia, and a love
story all artfully intertwined in a single text. It
has' several "tellers," but Genly Ai and his mission
form the nucleus of the tale. Only from the whole
comes the truth. Symbols, legends, and story parts
interact and are woven with the main story, only to be
recycled into further myths and legends by the primary
cultural unit of the planet, the hearth.
As the narrative opens we learn that Genly Ai,
certainly a non-traditional hero, neither always right
nor invincible nor effective, has been sent to the
strange and inhospitable planet of Gethen, aptly called
42


"Winter" by outsiders, a world on the verge .of change,
a world which, though technologically slow to develop,
less materialistic and more in balance with human and
environmental values, has operated until the present
without war. Ai is a being alone and without weapons,
whose strength must come by verbal persuasion rather
than violence. This diplomat seeks an alliance between
Gethen and the interplanetary federation known as the
Ekumen for the purposes of enrichment--material as well
as mental and spiritual Genlv Ai hopes to achieve
this mission through the aid of one of the most
powerful "men" on the planet, Estraven, a title
signifying the "King's Ear.
Genly Ai discovers that the Gethenians exist as
sexually latent beings throughout most of their lives,
but monthly enter a sexually active stage known as
"kemmer" in which they may briefly become physically
either male or female (depending-on hormonal
dominance). It is this biological nature that Ai finds
most disagreeable and most frightening on this frigid,
alien planet. The extreme in love of another on Gethen
43


may be seen in the vowing of "kemmering" for the other,
the equivalent of monogamous marriage, which one may
declare but once in a lifetime. No individual has
control over the sex he/she will become at any time and
no way of knowing which gender will dominate. This
phase lasts for two to five days,- after which the
Gethenian returns to an androgynous or neutral stage
once more. As a result, an individual may well become
both biological mother and father several times over in
a life span. Consequently,
anyone can turn his hand to anything. . . .
There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. . . .
There is no division of humanity into strong
and weak halves, protective/protected,'
dominant/submissive, owner/chattel,
active/passive. (93-94)
The revolutionary results of the Gethenian sexual
nature, apparently produced, as this tale itself has
been, as an experiment set free, include an astounding
alteration in the people's lifestyle and the complete
bafflement of the outsider to these unique beings.
They are completely isolated from the rest of humanity
since no one shares their physiological traits. On
Gethen "one is respected and judged only as a human
44


being. It is an appalling experience" (95), as an
investigator of the first Ekumenical landing party to
Gethen relates. Additionally, the investigator
hypothesises that this experiment might have been
designed to test either "whether human beings lacking
continuous sexual potentiality would remain intelligent
and capable of culture" or whether war would cease in
the absence of a separate male entity (95). Fittingly,
it is only at the end of the investigator's field notes
that we learn they are the work of a woman.
The true protagonist of this imaginative tale must
be recognized- either as both beings who move its
action, Ai and Estraven, or as the developing
relationship between the two as Ai learns to overcome
the self. When EstraVen, who has been working on
behalf of Ai's mission, is exiled from his native
country of Karhide by the domain's mad king, the
foreign diplomat blindly imagines that the king's
counselor has been working against him all along.
Having labeled Estraven's behavior at dinner "womanly,"
Genly Ai determines that the "King's Ear" is "all charm
45


and tact and lack, of substance, specious and adroit
(8-9). Ai wonders if it is this "soft supple
femininity" that he so distrusts (12), for Ai
acknowledges his inability to see any Gethenian as a
composite being and the diplomat's own need to force
Estraven into those sexual categories, first man, then
women, "so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to
my own" (12). Calling Estraven "faithless" (13),
"dark," and "enigmatic" (19), Ai detests what he
imagines as "effeminate deviousness" in the other (14).
Yet ironically, though Estraven with his open emotion
and stong intuition does represent the female, Ai
cannot think of this politically powerful figure as a
woman. Therefore, Ai denies Estraven his full
personhood throughout most of the text.
The importance of communication in the text cannot
be overestimated. It emerges from the opening chapter
as Genly Ai's purpose for coming to Gethen and holds
continuous prominence throughout the story. Both
written and oral language are essential to the truth Ai
seeks to reveal, and a communication device is the only
46


tool the diplomat brings to the planet. Yet he remains
incapable of relating to Gethenian society until he can
relate to the one, that one being the "King's Ear."
Never having understood Estraven's nature or
intentions, Ai abandons all hope of completing his
mission through the interest of Karhide and resumes his
purpose otherwise, first investigating its people,
including those of the Handdarata, whose mystical
Foretellers ascertain for a very dear price, as always,
that Gethen will join the Ekumen within five years. At
the center, patterning the foretellers, is Faxe, the
Weaver, whose words express the Handdara philosophy
which rules Karhide: "'The only thing that makes life
possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not
knowing what comes next' (71). Such a consideration
is clearly alien to this new world diplomat of the
Ekumen and leaves him much to ponder as he travels on.
Next journeying to the unknown realm of Orgoreyn,
Karhide's rival superpower on the planet, Ai discovers
the nation's overruling principle of order,
characterized by a steady, subdued population; for
47


Genly Ai it is
refreshing change from Karhide's
principle of chaos, demonstrated by a passionate and
colorful populace. But in "Is Gender Necessary?" an
article written in 1976, Le Guin points out that
the "female principle" is, or at least
historically has been, basically anarchic. It
values order wi-thout constraint, rule by custom
not by force. It has been the male who
enforces the order, who constructs power-
structures, who makes, enforces, and breaks
laws. On Gethen, these two principles are in
balance: the decentralising against the
centralizing, the flexible against the rigid,
the circular against the linear. But balance
is a precarious state, and at the moment of the
novel the balance, which had leaned towards the
"feminine," is tipping the other way. (165)
This more masculine nation, Orgoreyn, is a comfort
after the diversity and mysteriousness of the more
feminine Karhide, where each one is an individual and
nothing is very clear cut. Yet the sort of anarchy
that rules Karhide is not political chaos, but a system
in which no one rules over the others. The two nations
are used to criticize our present social and cultural
order, and in Le. Guin's complex thematic approach, also
to praise elements of society that we have little
developed but have the potential for. Orgoreyn,' it is
48


soon learned, has become virtually a police state, and'
it is Estraven alone, fleeing to this frightening realm
to save his life, who still seeks to support and
protect the ambassador.
Despite Estravens strained efforts on his behalf,
Ai is swiftly arrested in Orgoreyn and transported to a
work camp on the outer reaches of the frozen land,
where he is expected to die and is on the verge of
doing so in short order. Only Estraven's unfaltering
loyalty to Ai and his devotion to the cause of aiding
humanity save the "other" world diplomat from a sure
death., and the remainder of the main narrative traces
the journey of these two strange exiles as they
dramatically battle the deadly Gobrin Ice fields to
reach Karhide and complete what has become their joint
mission to the world.
This journey-serves as the focal point of the
story. It first reminds us that to Le Guin "a book
does not come . as an idea, or a plot, or an event,
or a society, or a message; it comes . as a person"
(Le Guin, "Science Fiction" 24). In this particular
49


case, in fact, it comes as two people, Genly Ai, who
represents our society, and Estraven, who embodies th
best of Gethenian society as well as the best of the
female. We must approve his lack of political and
sexual chauvinism, recognizing him as flawed but well
intentioned, weak but determined, exiled but beloved.
Like Genly Ai, who had chosen to leave friend and
family through his calling to a higher mission,
Estraven has also been called to sacrifice home and
hearth for a higher purpose. Better and wiser than
Genly Ai by virtue of his ambisexuality, "he" is
clearly freer to love and relinquish the self than is
Ai. To connect is always to risk going beyond self.
This journey, the on-ly means by which the
fragmented, isolated self may become whole, is truly
Genly Ai's quest and our own. The greater the
connectedness, the farther the possible journey; the
greater the risks, the more meaningful the life. The
continuous breaking down of barriers and the risk and
change that accompany this process equal our hope for
meaningful survival.
50


Genly Ai finally recognizes on the journey back
that his inability to communicate with Estraven has
been the result of his fear of the Gethenian's alien
sexual nature. Only by transcending gender
restrictions and seeing the person whole can we each
become fully human. Ironically, this closeness,
established in the story through mind speech and
through consciousness of the significance of the act of
speech, does not make the alien less different.
Difference, in fact, nourishes closeness. Genly Ai
concludes that "'it was from the difference between us,
not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the
difference, that . . . love came'" (248-49). When the
team finally conquers the Ice and stumbles into
Karhide, their sharing of mind is so complete that Ai
thinks it is he who has asked, "'Will you look to my
friend?'" when-it is Estraven who has spoken (272).
But, of course, there is a price to pay for the
invaluable journey. The cost for Genly Ai is not death
itself, but the pain of the death of the selfless other
who has saved him. Death is required to bring new
51


life, that to be symbolized by the arrival of the ship
from the Ekumen, just as the passing of Estraven and
the king's son signal the death of the old. The
falling of the two governments within ten days is
actually attributed by Ai to his "not acting" and "not
caring" (287). And the prophecy of the banished,
noble Estraven, who had early recognized that his "one
way home" could only be "by way of dying" (73) is
fulfilled.
Because his friend dies to achieve planetary
harmony, Genly Ai, with a heavy heart, must honor
Estraven .by pursuing that dream of unity, even by
acting for it without waiting for the king to clear
Estraven's name. As the cycle of the seasons comes
round again to spring, Ai meets Faxe the Weaver once
more in the king's court, now a member of the ruling
council and.soon, perhaps, to assume Estraven's high,
.position as the "King's Ear." Genly Ai also discovers
that he is even more removed from his own people now,
who look to him "like a troupe of great, strange
animals of two different species" (296), for by bonding
52


with Estraven,. he has himself become androgynous. He
is as yet as unable to see the two sexes of his race as
whole beings as they are to see him in such a light,
though through the journey of love he has learned to
accept his own hidden self, the "feminine" side he has
so often denied. We see this clearly in the chapter
entitled "Homecoming" in which he is unable to stop his
tears of fear, finally accepting Estraven's judgment
that "fear's very useful. Like darkness;1 ike shadows"
as he shows the other Earth's yin and yang symbol:
"Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female,
male" (267). The "both and one" Genly Ai identifies as
Estraven he also finally accepts for himself as his
journey nears its end. Yet like Faxe, he will be ready
to change totally only when his world itself changes.
The ingeniously interwoven and compelling
narrative text ends with a Genly Ai's visit to the
Inner Hearth of Estre, that of Estraven, where he finds
no solace but offers up his own stories and Estraven's
journals. The story telling must go on, and in this
land that is forever in the Year One, linking past,
53


present, and future, it is significant that Ai is asked
both about his past experience with Estraven on the Ice
and about the present in other worlds. We are left
knowing that the future of Gethen, linked now to that
of many other worlds and dependent on both past and
present, awaits the telling, as does our own.
Woman on the Edge of Time
If Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness emerges as
feminist literature too tame and conservative for some,
Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time stands as too
vicious and radical for others. While Le Guin sticks
with the traditional generic "he" to identify the
androgynous people of Gethen and speaks of these people
largely in the traditional male arenas of politics and
adventure, leaving the reader sensing, that in time our
evolving society will promote the full personhood of
each individual and requires only that we change with
it, Piercy dramatically steps out in another
challenging-direction. Le'Guin's seemingly less angry
utopia stresses balance and wholeness in its content,
54


while Piercy's stresses todays fragmentation and
separation, insisting that the reader act to carry out
her dreams of revolution in many different areas--
racial, sexual, social, economic, and political. As
Natalie Rosinsky points out, Le Guin's Genly Ai is only
accidentally forced to confront his sexist attitudes as
a result of his diplomatic mission to Gethen (35).
Piercy's Connie Ramos, on the other hand, actively,
though subconsciously at first, seeks an alternate
society, compelled both personally and socially to
discover a more whole, sane, and natural mode of
existence.
The novel's narrative structure focuses on the
present rather than the future and does so in graphic
and realistic detail, opening with the action-packed
arrival of Connie's niece Dolly, bruised and bleeding,
at Connies bolted door. Dolly, the subject of a
beating by her pimp Geraldo, represents the victimised
female of today's society, afraid and submissive.
Dolly is Connie's favorite niece, though she has been
reduced to the male plaything her name suggests, and
55


Connie hasfantasized living with Dolly and her
children as a real family again. Dolly's fear of and
dependence upon her "Man" is what prevents this utopian
vision from becoming a reality. Likewise, what
prevents a sane, harmonious lifestyle for. Connie is her
fear of and dependence upon a patriarchal system--the
state. Both women, and all women in today's society,
as the novel presents it, are linked and rendered
powerless by patriarchal authority. Connie hates the
scheming Geraldo and has dreamed of slitting his throat
with his own diamond. For her he represents
her father, who had beaten her every week of
her childhood. Her second husband, who had
sent her into emergency with blood running down
her legs. He was El Muro, who had raped her
and then beaten her because she would not lie
and say she had enjoyed it. (15)
When Geraldo tells his "doctor" friend to abort
Dollys baby, the pimp's own child, Connie for the
first time in her life takes physical revenge, smashing
a wine jug into his face and breaking his nose. As
anticipated, Connie is sent to the mental institution
following a serious beating by Geraldo, once more the
victim of a system that has not even bothered to
56


interview her but has only talked with the
"significant" male party. Here she awakens to find her
mind obliterated by heavy doses of tranquilizers,
foreshadowing a possibly worse future world to come.
Abused and silenced by a system that fears her, even
now she knows that she has been right this- time to
strike out at the enemy rather than herself.
When Connie is finally interviewed, we learn that
she doesn't stand a chance of being believed since she
has a history of child abuse and has been
institutionalized before. Though she tries to explain
that she had been truly sick when she had struck her
chi 1 d kicked to the very depths of despair by a world
that had taken so much from her, she is merely brushed
aside. The state, meant to help those in need,, has
simply condemned her as criminal and sentenced her to
life without hope, taking her chi 1d and leaving her
nothing.
Yet Connie, we soon learn, possesses an unusual
gift totally unrecognized by her narrow Western
culture. She is an extremely sensitive telepath (again


Piercy employs the realistic mode), able to receive
communication from a human being of another time and
place. As a result of her societal training, Connie
first believes this alien visitor to be male, for
Luciente possesses an "air of brisk unselfconscious
authority" and takes "up more space than women ever
did" (67). But Connie quickly discovers that she must
alter many misconceptions about this androgynous being.
By the same token, this personal contact with an alien
being she alone can hear and see initially makes Connie
doubt her own sanity; yet this vital experience will
eventually allow her to gain strength and hope as she
struggles to survive in the outcast's hell of her own
society. For up until now she has lived her life in
America with five strikes against her: mental illness,
unfitness as a mother, economic dependence,' and
minority stature as both female and Hispanic. Now she
must learn of her power to resist.
The time traveler Luciente is from a village named
Mattapoisett in nearby Massachusetts, but she lives in
the year 2137. Since she is a strong sender and Connie
58


a powerful receiver, Luciente is mentally able to take
the hospitalized woman back to her own small community,
the same type of small, close primary social unit used
in Le Guin's works, and here Connie experiences a new
world in which society operates on a reduced economic
basis, at least for the present. There is no buying,
selling, or owning of material goods or people, for all
is shared, and all people are racially mixed, though
each village maintains a separate cultural identity.
People of all ages, sexes, sexual persuasions, and
unique qualities are valued, for here diversity means
richness, and all talents are recognized and
celebrated.
The language of this future world perhaps serves
best as the focal point of change. Connie's world had
dehumanized people through the use of language, as
demonstrated by Connie's former boss, who had called
all of his Latina secretaries "chiquita," and used up a
fresh "helper" each year. It is also vividly reflected
by the state institution, which has used language to
pigeonhole people such as Connie, rendering them
59


powerless. Luciente's world instead uses a simple,
fluid language that enlightens rather than diminishes
or categorizes. It is a language reflective of the
lack of class structures and the importance of social
relationship. As David Foster indicates, "lexical
improvement is essential to change" (150), a theme
reinforced in the text by the practice of open name
selection by each adolescent in society, with
alteration always possible as the individual grows and
changes. The use of generic pronouns and nouns also
establishes the new reality made possible by language.
Beyond this creation, the importance of
communication is highlighted not only by the value
placed on empathy and telepathy, but also by the
insistence of each community on hearing the voice of
each of its members and maintaining open dialogue
between them on both a personal and public level (true
democracy). Likewise the community celebrates
communication between human and animal as humankind has
effectively learned the language of various species.
Technology has also enabled instant information as well
50


as communication through the use of a device known as a
kenner. Many varied artistic forms additionally hold
communication value, and art and the artist generally,
especially storytellers, are prized in the community.
Yet we are reminded that a single piece of art cannot
be expected to construct the whole of the truth, which
is only transmitted through diversity.
The one power women have had to relinquish in this
society in order to achieve equal power, or perhaps
relinquish the concept of power altogether, is that of
childbearing and its traditionally attendant
responsibility, mothering. Each baby that emerges from
the technological brooders of Mattapoisett is fed,
taught, and raised by three voluntary members of the
community, both male and female, and this comothering
tie is severed early in order to prevent it from
becoming a burden to any party, including the child.
Technology is also the greatest factor in enabling
freedom from tedious work once done by women and
dangerous work once done by men, for any unfulfilling
or perilous tasks can now be done by machine. This
61


relief from the burden and fear of work leaves
villagers a great deal of time for personal development
and simple play, an activity Piercy sees as essential
to healthy people of all ages.
Another striking feature of this "New World" is
the interconnectedness of all life. Harmony of human
with human is no less important than that of human with
nature. Careful maintenance of a wide genetic field
and the natural system are the hallmarks of this
utopian society. Along these lines, death, whether in
plant, animal, or human, is marked not as an element of
loss, but as an essential return, unless it occurs
unnaturally. Time of death may be chosen, and always
the sorrow of death is countered with the joy of birth
by the community, who follow the wake with a trip to
the brooder. Individual freedom too in Mattapoisett is
carefully balanced by the needs of the community,- with
the only risk impossible to consider that of "'people
remaining stuck in old patterns'" (116).
Yet we are not to envision this as a perfect
society. It is an evolving world in which struggle
62


remains a part of daily life, and this condition is
both expected and considered vital to personal and
social growth. Work has certainly not been eliminated
though it has become far less burdensome on the whole.
Certain seasons and occupations still demand immense
effort, and as Jackrabbit reminds Connie, "At spring
planting, at harvest, when storms come, when some
crisis strikes," people work until they drop (128).
The community also shares the burden of the less
pleasant or significant tasks, which are either
performed by volunteers or handled by rotation.
People also certainly experience interpersonal
problems such as jealousy and anger, as we witness
occurring between Luciente and Bolivar, and village
members constantly seek to recognize and heal the
wounds that inevitably occur between people in
community. Mental breakdowns, though not seen as
negative, are still common, and we learn that suicide
still occurs in rare instances in this "utopian" world
Clearly the existence of war and its requirements of
both killing and risking unnatural death are not
63


normally considered utopian, but they too exist in this
utopian tale. And political controversy, such as that
demonstrated between the Shapers, who want to breed for
selected traits, and the Mixers who do not, never
ceases.
Piercy, then, is not about to let us imagine this
writing as merely escapist science fiction. By the use
of less than ideal elements in her new world and the
employment of ambiguity and graphic, jarring realism,
she keeps us firmly grounded in the present, as the
continuous process of Connie's gaining consciousness
reawakens her to the horrible reality,of her New York.
The entire.narrative structure, in fact, actually
centers on consciousness and its absence in a society
that downplays, represses, and perverts the voices of
women. The dystopian present, characterized by
"battered women, child abuse, street drugs-and the
betrayal of women by women through a reliance on men
who rule by force" forces readers to greedily
anticipate Connie's every slip from conscious awareness
so they may learn more about this possible future
64


society known as Mattapoisett (Bartkowski 69).
Crucial to the purpose of the story is an
understanding that Connie and the reader live in a
decisive time and control the direction of the world.
Even though the highly technological, materialistic,
and patriarchal society from which Connie comes, and
which is still battling the Utopians, has been
decimated in Luciente's sphere of existence, this world
represents only one possible future. When Connie
learns that the hospital has selected certain patients,
including herself, for radio-controlled brain implants,
the horrified Luciente tells her:
It's that race between technology, in the
service of those who control, and insurgency--
those who want to change the society in our
direction. In your time the physical'sciences
had delivered the weapons technology. But the
crux, we think, is in in the biological
sciences. Control of genetics. Technology of
brain control. Birth-to-death surveillance.-
Chemical control through psychoactive drugs and
neurotransmitters. (223)
Connie's first form of resistance beyond physical
struggle upon arrest now becomes attempted escape, the
product of collective resistance aided by Luciente and
Connie's friend Sybil, therefore an alliance of past,
65


present, and future. Connie's slave-like flight to
freedom is brief indeed, and when she is captured and
returned, she must face the fact that those who have
undergone the doctors' experiments no longer can
resist. Unfortunately, she is implanted before she can
devise any successful escape, and while under the
knife, envisions the doctors "believing themselves
rational and superior [as] they chased the crouching
female animal through the brain with a scalpel" (232).
Following the surgery, Connie mistakenly enters a
possible dystopian future far worse than her own
terrible present. This alternative society represents
all that Luciente's world has fought against: an
intensely polluted and over-populated world in which
all but the richest die an early death, having lived
out their lives with no opportunity for advancement or
change, their only stimulation coming from drugs and
the violence and pornography of a "Sense-All" unit.
Each common person in this racist and sexist culture is
owned by a corporate body and is both physically
imprisoned and monitored from birth to death. Connie
66


at last awakens from this frightening future knowing
positively that "this world that might come to be...was
Luciente's war, and she was enlisted in it" (.301).
Then retreating to the utopian future, Connie's
unresponsiveness frightens the doctors and renders them
unable to proceed with their experimenting. In a panic
they remove Connie's controlling device, another major
victory, and she asserts the right and duty of
defending herself despite the consequences.
Recognizing that happy dreams and present survival will
not create the possible utopia, she employs violent
action, fighting back with one of the same weapons used
on her, chemical, to poison the ward doctors. Moving
from her initial position as victim to that of
persecutor-, Connie enacts Piercy's cry for direct and
immediate action of the most extreme kind. If Connie
is indeed mad and this entire story is simply a
hallucination, as has been debated, it is because a
warped society has created its own worst nightmare.
And if she is not, we can only despair the tragically
-limited choices of her world that have resulted in what
67


is seemingly the only sane act which she can take at
this juncture--murder.
Though we learn little of the consequences of
Connie's actions, the text suggests that the future
depends on the concerted actions of many individuals
rather than a single one. Yet change must first be
personal, involving a redefinition of the self, and
every voice and every action may be significant in
moving others to social and cultural change. What is
clear is that Connie has taken responsibility for
ending this particular experimentation project and
seems to have made some change in history, based on her
vivid memory of a battle of the future which Luciente
now says never took place. We also know that Connie is
to remain in the state ward presumably permanently, the
price- of her victory. All this is imaginably
worthwhile to a woman who has at last seen her family,
friends, lover, and self living happy and productive
lives in the doubles of the future.
The text, which ends with excerpts from Connie's
hospital files, forces the reader to see the state,
68


society's official voice, as false and prejudiced. It
also echoes the theme of action without guarantee of
success. Piercy does not allow Connie any voice at the
end of the story, perhaps in keeping with her theme of
realism. Connie's tale, as far as we know, is never
heard by her world; her reasons for committing horrific
crime are only communicated to us. Still Luciente's
future world of struggle and pain far outweighed by
pleasure and fulfillment is clearly better than our own
present and must be created in the here and now day-by-
day living of our lives. The future offers us hope
only at the price of immediate and unswerving action.
The Handmaid's Tale
Looking back to Thomas More, we observe that his
belief that a truly utopian society would require a
powerful state, which would severely restrict the
activities of the individual, has prompted other great
thinkers to pour forth their own thought experiments on
the birth of such a society. Peter Fitting's argument
that the "feminist-inspired utopian fiction of the
69


1970s" has been replaced by this more pessimistic
dystopian fiction is reflected in such works as
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (155), a story in
which we see a grotesque backlash against the women's
movement in the West.
Dystopias such as Atwood's depict a brutal male
dominance in future society, further extended by the
tale's epilogue of the succeeding "better" society cf
the future. We can see in this vision no real gains
made by the feminist movement of the past decades.
This kind of study necessarily raises the question as
to whether we should be displaying a better possible
future or warning society not to be satisfied with the
progress of the present. But Piercy and Atwood unite
to lay the responsibility for the development of both
dystopia and utopia on the individual reader. This
position then demands the imagination and study of both
utopian forms as transformers of the present rather
than as predictors of the future.
Atwood, a Canadian, cites her country's "genius
. . . for compromise" as the reason why The Handmaid's
70


Tale could not have worked in a Canadian setting as it
did in the United States where "extremes in everything"
are much more commonplace (Lyons 223). She also
credits her Puritan ancestors for having helped to
determine the storys location, considering "the mind-
set of Gilead [her imaginary dystopian society] really
close to that of seventeenth-century Puritans." In
fact, she dedicates the tale to her own Puritan
ancestor, Mary Webster, hanged for a witch in
Connecticut, and Perry Miller, an authority on the
Puritans.
The main story line fittingly opens and ends in
the night time, and "Night" is the title of alternate
chapters throughout the text, with the exception of
Chapter 5, which is entitled "Nap." Night is, of
course, the inexorable beginning and ending of life,
the cycle of darkness to darkness both daily and life-
long. Atwood also explains that she uses these "night"
sections as an organizational system to define "periods
of action, punctuated by periods of reflection
(Hancock 203). For the protagonist these waiting times
71


are both dangerous and necessary to survival, since
they mark her only freedom to think. As she says, "The
night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as
long as I am quiet" (49).
Being quiet is indeed the watchword of the new
society of Gilead, a republic established in the
northeastern United States in the late twentieth
century, after excessive consumerism, unlimited
personal freedom, and utter disregard for nature and
the Earth have led to societal takeover by the extreme
Moral Majority. This "new world," founded on masculine
measures of control, has completely perverted nature
and twisted God's word to support its totalitarian
regime. The ironic tone used by Atwood throughout the
text is suggested in the very name of this tyrannical
state. In Biblical terms Gilead referred to the most
fertile and prized section of the Promised Land, the
area God promised to destroy because of His people's
disobedience. God names it as a land in which
every one deceives his neighbor, and no one
speaks the truth. . . . they commit iniquity
and are too weary to repent.' . . . they refuse
to know me . . . (Jeremiah 9:5-6).
72


Indeed, the second wave of destroyers of this once
fertile and prized new world have listened only to
their own counsel, creating a "utopia" meant to address
the problems of their, own society. Among these the
pollution of the environment has been largely
responsible for creating humankind's own demise--
sterility and genetic deformity. But in so doing the
reformers have exceeded the destruction of the land
with the destruction of humanity itself. Without
remorse, they have lied to the people and obliterated
any hope of freedom, using all means, particularly
religious, to achieve their deadly purpose of absolute
order and control .
As the narrator, Offred, discovers in remembering
the past in order to reconstruct both her own identity
and to understand how Gilead came to be, takeover was
actually achieved with little difficulty. Having
declared a national emergency, following the murder of
the President and Congress (acts blamed on Islamic
fanatics), the revolutionaries suspended the
Constitution, censored the press, and issued
73


Identipasses. The stunned population stayed home at
night and otherwise continued on as usual.
Pornographic businesses were closed; then national
banking cards and accompanying accounts in the name of
women were transferred to male family members at the
same moment that all women were discharged from their
jobs. The narrator wonders, "What was it about this
that made us feel we deserved it?" (229). Her own
searching shortly leads her to the answer to this
important question: "There were marches, of course, a
lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than
you might have thought. . . . Nobody wanted to be
reported, for disloyalty" (232-33).
The most horrible sin, then, proves to be the
avoidance of reponsibi1ity, seen in the apathy and
cowardice of the general public and Off red herself, who
does not march because she is afraid of what will
happen to her own small family. All the conventional
domesticity of baking and housework Offred can muster
to fill her time and ease her conscience does nothing
to erase her own choice in her victimization. At the


.same time it does nothing to alter the fate of
countless generations to come, for which she too is
responsible. By her silence she has chosen mere
physical survival over sisterhood, thereby sacrificing
"her own integrity, that which is, for Atwood, more
crucial even than life" (Rigney 116).
In this "brave new world" she, like all members of
the population, has become a piece of human property to
be used like all the others, a mere tool. Given the
limited choices presented her, Offred has chosen to
become a handmaid, a "two legged womb," a position in
which she is passed from owner to-owner; hence her
current name Offred delineates her ownership by "Fred
and also signals the perversion of the gift of-
sexuality, "offered," and the handmaids actual forced
condition. As a handmaid Offred also faces the
imminent possibility of being shipped to the chemically
poisoned and always lethal Colonies for her failure to
procreate within the specified period. In Gilead all
useless or defective tools are simply discarded as
"Unwomen" and "Unbabies." Politically threatening
75


tools (state enemies) are sacrificed at public
ceremonies called "Salvagings" and after mutilation and
death are hanged for public viewing. Men in no way
escape the brutality of the new regime. Community
collusion is insured by force: physical participation
by all in expected in these ritual murders. All
things considered, there is no balm in Gilead.
In truth, Gileadean society pays only lip service
to God, for control here is by only too human forces,
including a military hierarchy of Guardians, Eyes,
Angels, Commanders, and Aunts puported to protect the
population, which actually serves to reduce and destroy
it. Such a stratum as the Aunts, for instance, under
whose training Offred learns her duties as a Handmaid,
controls its charges through brainwashing, electric
cattle prods, and even brutal torture. Society seeks
to establish complete control by creating divisions
between classes as well as by alienating the individual
from both self and other. Wives, Handmaids, Marthas,
Aunts, Econowives, Widows, "Unwomen," and the
unclassified club prostitutes are foreign and hostile
76


to one another and completely dehumanized as they
operate in their narrow mazes, carrying out their
necessary functions in society. Personal contact
between the classes is largely avoided, and when it
does occur, the misunderstanding or envy of the alien
"other" comes across clearly.
In this closed system, confinement behind narrow
walls in tiny rooms in specific quarters of the-city is
physical as well as spiritual, moral, and
psychological. Gilead has perfected the ultimate
prison--that of being locked totally within the self.
If dystopia is truly "the absence of promise," a world
in which "we lose not only hope but even the language
with which to identify what has been stolen from us"
(Rohatyn 99), it is alive and well in Gilead. For true
communication has ultimately become the forbidden
fruit. Reading is now a criminal offense, books and
magazines are burned, and all media is controlled by
the government.
Only Offred's need to communicate to herself by
reconstructing and understanding the past and the need
77


to communicate by believing in the possibility of
future readers make the daily life of horror bearable
for just one more day. As Offred says, "I tell,
therefore you are" (344). We learn about the present
and the past through Offred's story, though sometimes
the tale of the present becomes too despairing, and -
Offred escapes into the past to tell that happier tale.
Yet clearly past, present, and future are closely
related by the element of responsibility and must be
joined before understanding can be achieved.
Since it is precisely by not crying out or looking
beneath the surfaces, claiming innocence through their
silence, that an entire nation of people has become
enslaved, Offred is really in search of her voice. The
story demonstrates unequivocally the belief that
confrontation, speaking the truth, is not merely a
choice. It is a moral -responsibility. To Atwood and
her heroines, communication is
the final and irrevocable commitment to one's
society and to one's own humanity. . . .
Language, in itself, is the ultimate
affirmation and the greatest revolution.
(Rigney 121)
73


The authorized sexual act between Commander and
Handmaid, completely dehumanized and intended solely
for the purpose of procreation, in no way prevents the
Commanders from enjoying illicit sexual pleasures on
another level. This divorcing of sex from love is an
example of the parodying of nature we discover
throughout the new society. Man's unnatural control is
established in the text through the image of the
blighted planet. Only flowers still grow, but these
too have become artificially produced and operate as
symbols of the forced procreation of which the
Handmaids are the vehicles. And the rote Handmaid
greeting "Blessed be the fruit" echoes the theme of
manipulated rather than natural reproduction.
Yet the seeds of this new society had been planted
long before the revolution itself occurred. Atwood
allows no escape from the responsibility of fueling.the
horror that is to come. We are forced to recognize our
own twentieth-century circumstances as realities that
Atwood has simply pushed t'o the limit: military
buildup, disregard for the environment, nuclear
79


accidents, right-wing and left-wing sexuality clashes,
pro-life and pro-choice division, backlash against
sexual prorniscuousness and freedom. These have set
the stage for overthrow, indicting "by sheer exposure
those who espouse simplistic solutions that deny the
rights and welfare of others" (Freibert 284). Here the
radical feminist movement, of which Offred's mother has
been a part, is also harshly criticised by Atwood, who
bears witness to the fact that fanaticism breeds only
an opposite fanaticism. Offred's mother too, now
either an "Unwoman" dying in the colonies or already
dead, must accept the. guilt of having given birth to
this monstrous society.
Yet as Offred has indicated earlier, "there will
always be alliances, of one kind or another" (166).
The Handmaid is finally enabled to make certain
connections even in the fragmented society of Gilead;
these teach her the ultimate power of language and the
necessity of connecting past, present, and future in
risking physical survival in order to attain spiritual
salvation-. Her first connection is made in the
80


training center when her best friend iMoira from the
life before is captured and joins the training group.
Throughout the story Moira proves an inspiration to all
those who fear but despise the system, especially
Offred. Moira twice risks death of self and others to
escape her fate, and is seen for the last time by
Offred at Jezebel's, a secret night club where she
works as a prostitute for the upper echeclon Commanders
who still believe variety for men to be "nature's
plan." Though she never sees her again, Offred keeps
Moira alive by preserving her language as part of the
Handmaid's tale. Moira herself embodies past, present,
and future in her struggle to understand, survive, and
overcome the system.
Ironically, Offred's next contact is the Commander
whom she is servicing.' Under his rule, she must
secretly abide by his desire to see' her privately as
well as publicly. What he seems- to most desire is
relief from the guilt of having created this horrible
society which has murdered so many, including his
previous Handmaid, whom Offred has come to know only
81


through the message she has painstakingly scratched and
hidden in her closet. That message, "Nolite. te
bastards grind you down" (242), serves as a connection
to the past and a hope for the future--escape.
.Unfortunately, the only escape the previous Handmaid
could devise had been that of suicide. So it is that
Offred recognizes her connection to humanity and prays
the only terse but real prayer in the text:
keep the others safe, if they are safe'. Don't
let them suffer too much. If they have to die,
let it be fast. You might even provide a
Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell
we can make for ourselves. (252)
' But it is the Commander who teaches Offred the
power of language and enables her to use her voice.
With wit and imagination she may survive to tell her
tale to generations to come, but only if she
strengthens her belief in her voice, combining
intellect and language, fed by the Commander, with love
and emotion, fed by the Commander's chauffeur, Nick.
Emotion must be employed finally to move from thought
alone to action, as Offred realizes at the end of the
M
meaning
TT
Don't let the
82


main narrative when she trusts Nick and steps into the
waiting state van, not knowing whether this is the "end
or a new beginning" (378).
It is death in the end that moves Offred to
action'. She has again allowed her reliance on a man
and the little life she has created for herself, even
in the terrible dead center of Gilead, to swallow her.
She recalls that her mother had once said, "Humanity is
so adaptable. .... Truly amazing, what people can get
used to, as long as there are a few compensations"
(349). Her lack of action comes from her love of Nick
and is most apparent to Ofglen, the Handmaid with whom
she has been partnered throughout the story.
Ofglen'is a member of Mayday, the underground
resistance movement, but she begins to see that Offred
truly no longer wants to escape Gilead. Yet when the
new version of Ofglen arrives for shopping, Offred must
find out the truth or remain forever silent. This
event brings her a new alertness and sense of danger as
she discovers that Ofglen has killed herself in order
to avoid being taken by the approaching black van of
83


the Eyes.
Offred's recognition that "she has died that
I may live" (367) is vital because it confirms the
responsibility each must have for the other. It too
bears witness to the understanding that what Offred has
now in Gilead is not life, but death. Thinking that
she has wanted to go on living in any form at any
price, Offred yet snatches at the only possibility for
freedom left her at this terrible juncture, trust of a
fellow human being, a trust made possible by Ofglen,
Nick, Moira and also the future listeners who may hear
her tal-e. Not knowing whether it is to salvaging or
saving that she goes as she enters her own black van,
she step[s] up, into the darkness within; or else the
light" (378).
The epilogue Atwood cleverly adds to the text
allows us to learn that Offred presumably escaped in
order to record the audio tapes being studied by the
present society. We are given hope as we also learn
that Gilead cannot and does not last. Such a society
feeds on itself until it self-destructs. For Gilead
this collapse had occurred more than a hundred years
84


prior to this meeting of the Twelfth Symposium on
Gileadean Studies currently being conducted. Atwood
herself attributes the epilogue to the need to explain
certain points to the reader that the Handmaid could
not possibly know and to her optimism that a Gilead
will be succeeded by something else, reminding us that.
George Orwell also employed this device in his 1984 to
show that the events of the main text would become a
matter of history (Hancock 217). .
Yet she also makes a strong case here for the ease
with which the individual and society may slip into
past mistakes. The conference's keynote speaker
attempts to entertain his audience with a series of
blatantly sexist remarks and jokes, shirking any
responsibility for making a judgment concerning
Gileadean society by declaring that "our job is not to
censure but to understand" (383). He also seems more
concerned with the details of the men who shaped
Offred's life than with Offred herself, and is mainly
interested in getting all the details "right" in
defining the text of his presentation. Satirizing the
85


society that treats the life of a person as an academic
question and forcing us to see that a Gilead does not
just suddenly happen but occurs gradually and easily
without' pur hardly noticing it, Atwood fortunately
leaves'the narrator and the reader with the last word.
For the final remark of the epilogue takes the form of
a question clearly addressed to its audience: "Are
there any questions?" (395).
36


CHAPTER 3
CONCLUSION
Western feminists, the primary force behind
today's revitalized utopian movement, have forever
altered the shape of utopia. Revolutionary by nature,
utopian forms describe the present reality and also
open new worlds of the future by charting unknown
possibilities. Forever engendering dissatisfaction
with the present, modern feminist utopian/dystopian
eternally inciting humankind to risk and change
(Rohatyn 100). Joining art and science, fantasy and
realism, and art and politics, these stimulating
hybrids demonstrate a transformed science fiction genre
that revolts against the traditional Western culture
and sets the whole human being free.
These modern utopian texts regard the importance
of the journey itself as paramount, for there is no
eternally fixed "there" at which to arrive as a
society. A .reflection of the new feminist appreciation


for diversity, these utopian forms value chaos above
order, prize harmony with nature over technological
mastery, embrace diversity over singularity or duality,
and celebrate experimentation over pattern.
This theme of diversity is also echoed by the
writers' combining of utopian forms within the space of
a single work. The Left Hand of Darkness for
instance, employs a utopian element (androgyny) within
an ambiguous utopian world which is on the verge of
great change in a dystopian direction. This global
game is played out within a larger universal near-
utopian confederation known as the Ekumen. Woman on
real, largely dystopian present world in which many of
society's outcasts are confined to mental institutions.
This microcosm is set within a basically utopian future
impose neither limitation nor expectation upon
individuals. But the text also relates a highly
dystopian alternate future possibility in which
extremes in class stratification and gender difference
, on the other hand, develops a very
(Mattapoiset
place in which gender differences
83


control all facets of life. Likewise, The Handmaid's
Tale is based on a dystopian future (Gilead) in which
freedom for anyone, particularly for woman, is but a
wild fantasy. This text hypothesizes an ambiguous
utopia to follow the nightmare of Gilead, but also
warns against the easy slide back into dystopia.
All of these novels choose non-traditional,
imprisoned heroes who gain strength and wisdom only
through connection with other outcasts. These heroes,
initially disoriented and alienated in order to
experience a new vision of life, a vision which may
only be achieved through the status of the exile,
mirror the position of women in traditional society.
Each "stranger in a strange land" functions as an
observer as well as a participant and offers the reader
a subjective interpretation of events, which she/he
must in turn interpret. Today's feminist utopias,
then, force both writer and reader to actively
participate in determining textual meaning.
At the core of each work is the need to embrace
the importance of communication among all peoples
89


regardless of sex, race, religion, class, belief, or
color. Only through honest communication may the world
achieve its own utopian dreams. We must tell our
stories first to our own kind and then move on to tell
all others. The traditional voids of silence must be
dispelled for all and collaboration in all spheres must
become the hallmark of a new society.
The hero of each of these contemporary utopias may
only break free of his/her fetters-by first recognizing
both the self's true belief and communicating this
truth to others through voice and action. Becoming a
credible witness in this "brave new world" involves
three major facets. First, the story must be our own.
It must be our genuine, first-hand account of our
experience. Second, the story must demonstrate our
understanding of the significance of this experience in
our lives. And third, we must live the new reality.
There must be a tangible, observable difference in the
way we live each day, based on our beliefs.
Why must we as Western women take the stand?
First, we don't have a choice. We are already there,
90


and the world is watching and waiting to judge us.
Second, if we don't speak forth, who will? We have
come to realize that we are responsible for our own
past, present, and future. And third, we believe that
the outcome does indeed matter. It matters both to
womankind and to all humankind. For only by this
means, by each one of us telling the truth to each
other, do we arrive at real truth.
Risk-taking, in the final analysis, is a product
of freedom. It is a dare that disregards the personal
safety of its author and is the crucial factor in
achieving change.- Acting as individuals, yet
recognising our vital connectedness to others, open to
all voices, we have the power to create positive
change. Escape and/or silence are never answers.
Every protagonist, as every writer of these texts, has
chosen freedom by voice and by action. Every reader,
then, must do the same.
91


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