Lauren Miller

The idea of social change is somewhat ambiguous when stated plainly, the phrase itself lends to different ideas even when polling a small group of people but when placing the word “significant” in front of such a phrase, the concept takes on an even greater meaning.  It implies that not only is there a change in the nature, the social institutions, the social behavior or the social relations of a society, but also that its effect lends to an extreme change in mentality for all involved within society.  It is the nature of this change that much of the literature touches on and, more importantly, how individualized emotion translates into this grand idea of social change.  Within the novels The Awakening and The Handmaids Tale, the circumstances of love and the human conditions play a major role in bringing about social change in their own way, catalyzing forward action for each character individually as well as in the society around them.

When first looking at the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, it is immediately noted that an overt lack of love is what has been translated into every facet of the dystopian society that exists for our main character, Offred.  She has become someone’s possession with the singular purpose of procreation, given the label “handmaid” to signify a hierarchy of status throughout the novel.  She remembers the love she experienced with her best friend Moira, the love she felt for her child and even the love her mother displayed for her but has been stripped of all of this.  Each of these memories serves as a motivation in some way for her to stay strong mentally even though she continues to perform her “duties” as a member of the Gilead society.  Her memories of Moira reflect a person not tethered to societies’ rules, even pre Gilead as well as the experiences they share during training to become a handmaid.  Her love for her child motivates Offred to persevere and offer a tiny hope that she might one day be reunited with her.  Even the love she experienced with her mother reminds her that women have suffered persecution for many years and helps to keep her strong when being confronted with the realities of the society she now exists in.  It is these memories that have shaped her character and effect the changes in mentality she undergoes throughout the novel.

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In addition to this, Offred also experiences the emotions attached to love during the Gilead society’s reign with a man named Nick.  Though we also see Offred begins to detach herself from ideas of joining the resistance for fear of losing her chance to continue to see Nick, what ultimately results from their union trumps this fact and leads to Offred’s ability to tell her story to the world.  Without their love, she would have not been expedited out of the situation and it could be inferred, based on the information given throughout the novel, that she would have been put to death swiftly if her correspondences with Nick and the Commander had been revealed in any other light.

The novel itself also serves as a warning that in underestimating the human condition and negating moral realities, a society such as Gilead is not such a far stretch while also highlighting the social progression that love creates is the reason that Gilead does eventually fall.

The novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin is another novel in which the sensations attached to love create an emotional journey for the main character, Edna and ultimately, foster the possibility of social change.  The period in which this novel is set reflects the treatment of women as objects with little purpose of furthering their husbands’ careers.  Immediately the reader is thrown into this experience with the main character, who considers her marriage to be the cure for love, showing the authors intent to challenge the traditional ideals of a mother and wife in such a society. Chopin implies that in fulfilling these social duties, woman is without passion or her own mind.  It is only when Edna experiences love with Robert that she begins to transform, stepping out of societal roles and forging her own path through life.

Edna realizes awakening within herself when she comes face to face with the death while learning to swim. She realizes within herself the need to access her individuality and a new way of looking at the relationship with men, which was almost impossible for her in Creole society.  This essence of individuality in her makes her to reach on the edge of jouissance, a sense of fervent, joy and happiness with a painful joy attainable to only those who have devoid themselves of social conventions. Though awareness of her individuality allows her to deny all the social conventions of the society and demands of the culture yet alienates her from the society. Her unending struggle for attaining individuality comes to end when she completely shuns all the norms of the society and swims away from it towards her ultimate destination death.

Although in the Creole Society, women have to feel themselves vulnerable and dependant upon men, but awakening within Edna is made possible only by the virtue of her gender and marital status. The Edna’s journey begins only shortly after when her husband criticizes her skills of parenting and mothering. Her husband falls asleep, leaving her behind to question the life she is living. At this time only, it is an “indescribable oppression, which seem[ed] to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish” (Chopin 6).  This abuse from her husband is enough for her to show her assertiveness and an attitude that she is also a human being, not just wife or a woman but a simple human being. She reaches the situation when she realizes that she has completely submitted herself for domination and has to free herself from bondage. Her aggressiveness attitude is quite clear in the lines when she says, “I don’t want anything but my own way.  That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others…”  (Chopin112)

She is therefore able to enter into relationship with Robert that society would have never allowed her. Edna thinks that her infatuation with Robert is a fire ready to burst. “She found in [Robert’s] eyes, when he looked at her for one silent moment, the same tender caress, with an added warmth and entreaty which had not been there before—the same glance which had penetrated to the sleeping places of her soul and awakened them”.  (Chopin 98)

Urge of Edna for self-realization is above her children, family and friends. But she is even aware of the fact that she is alone and with her individuality, she cannot realize her will for survival and also knows that she cannot realign herself with social values and beliefs. She also knows that she wouldn’t be a good wife and a socially acceptable mother to her children.

The intensity of emotions she feels for Robert were unknown to Edna but when she surrenders herself to Robert, she finds herself caught in these emotions. She felt the mix response of fear, cry, anguish, deep beating of hearts on one hand and the feeling of delight of male arms holding her body. She seems to be missing someone just as “one misses the sun on a cloudy day”. (Chopin 27) But all these emotions are like fantasy away from reality. Robert was responsible for bringing to the surface the romantic passion increasing her desire for love whereas on the other hand it only became a means of comfort for her though intending to live the life according to her own fantasies she was not able to live it. She gets trapped between what she wanted from her life and what she was getting. Arobin aroused her sexual instincts giving pleasurable experience to her bodily needs. In reality, she wanted the combination of love and passion but in she “felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour.” (Chopin 77)  In the end she realizes that there is no one else except Robert she wanted and she has a hope that he would realize but “the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” (146) By selecting death, she assumed to live away from the tyranny.

Mrs. Chopin was ahead of her time tackling the most fundamental issues pertaining to personal, spiritual and sexual matters. When Kenneth Eble said the book was about sex, he was not taking into consideration the deeper essence of love and sexuality of woman.  The story of Edna is not merely about sex but within its realm lies deep meaning of love and its true value in society. At the onset, it appears that love has undermined the possibility of most important social change, but the intensity of love carried by Edna in her heart reveals the fact that love is a most powerful force. Her death is a beginning of new awakening. As Elaine Showalter puts it: “Chopin went boldly beyond the work of her precursors in writing about women’s longing for sexual and personal emancipation.” (Godard, Online)

On the other hand it is the known fact that the catalyst of love is what brings to light many of the important themes of the novel. After Edna’s interactions with Robert, she begins a journey that ultimately leads to her realization that she must find a marriage of her mind and spirit to become the new Edna we see throughout the book.  Without her introduction to passion and love, she would have never been awakened to these ideas and experiences and although Edna dies at the end of the novel, it is her transformation that leaves the reader with the sense that love creates social change for her character and empowers her to make the decisions she does.  Not only do we see this change for Edna within the novel, but the effect that this novel had on society at the time it was published also give way to the notion that a significant social change applies to both situations.

Offred in Handmaid’s tail follows her own rules in male chauvinistic society but it is also a fact that as she has adopted Commander and Nick, she starts feeling that she now has the power to assert her individuality and the power to know what’s going on with the Commander. This feeling brings her joy of having something over Serena. “The fact is that I’m his mistress. Men at the top have always had mistresses, why should things be any different now?…Sometimes I think she knows…. and is laughing at me as I laugh, from time to time and with irony, at myself.” (Atwood 163) But she also knows that she does not love commander but he interests her.  She says, “This gives her a sense of power and a sense that somebody actually wants her for more than just her ovaries”. (Atwood 163)

While his meeting with commander, she goes to meet Nick, who is a young guard assigned to the house. With the help of Commander’s wife, Offred somehow begins to meet Nick regularly. Both the Nick and Offred make love with each other, and Offred gets great satisfaction. There relationship was not mere confined to sex but was more than that. Offred starts to tell Nick things. She would talk to him every day and every night for many hours altogether, whereas he would just lie at her side and listen to her and Offred would feel herself safe in his company. She would cling to Nick and would allow him to fill the vacuity in her heart. When Eden would be on her own, she would seem to get lost but once she had one strong male figure with her and tells him everything, she would be all right and feel more than content. An opportunist moment came when commander himself began to treat Edna more than just mere bearer of child. Commander would play scrabble games with her and give cosmetics and old magazines to her. Dressed in Cocktail dress, he takes her to an illegal nightclub. That is the place where Offred comes across her old friend who has become a prostitute now. Somehow Serena Joy, wife of commander finds the cocktail dress that General gave to her. Though she knew the fault is General’s but accuses Offred and sends for the police to take her away to kill her but fortunately for her van of the police was being driven by rebels who saved her.

Voices of all the women in the novel reflect the feminist positions dating back to the Women’s liberation movement of 1960. Offred’s mother also belonged to the activists group often campaigning for sexual freedom. The feminist movement increased in America by winning over the Congressional endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 and the women who opposed feminists movement were the Commander’s Wife and Aunt who were trying to bring liberated minded women back into the traditional form of gender roles. The younger women who grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s also varied, like from those women who as female victims like Janine to the women who were radical in their approach like lesbian feminist Moira and Offred whose stories are a mixture of dilemmas and various paradoxical situations. Here it is also quite clear that there is no clear distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. If men resort to violence so women too. Offred is narrated with passive approach and indifference. She was the face who though suffered from oppressive times yet was a symbolic of significant social change

What is most important to draw from both of these novels is the simple idea that love and the emotions that come with it is a powerful thing.  It is underestimated in both situations yet it was the power of Margaret Atwood who with the combination of radical feminism and conservative positions, and blending of suppression and dangers endowed in patriarchy system, there is a possibility that love can bring significant social change and that love can be a more powerful force than rule or expectation put in front of us.

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