An Introduction to E. M. Forster and “Howard’s End”

ForsterE. M. Forster, born January 1st, 1879, a mere three years after Queen Victoria adopted the title Empress of India, came of age in the late Victorian period, and much of the social anxiety of that period around empire, the status of women, radical politics and social class infused his writing. However, if one message threads through all of Forster’s writing, it is that admonishment at the start of Howard’s End – “Only connect!”.  In A Passage to India, Forster strives to connect India and Britain, Adela and Dr. Aziz, in A Room with a View, the upper-middle class Lucy finds love with George, her social inferior, in “The Machine Stops,” Forster envisions a future society where social intercourse, mediated by the Machine, has increased immensely, but at the expense of real intimacy with others, and the posthumously published Maurice is dedicated to “a happier year,” perhaps to when two men can love each other openly. Finally, in Howard’s End, Margaret contemplates her ability to save her suitor, Mr. Wilcox:

Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.  Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.  With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire.  Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings.  The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy-going.


It did not seem so difficult.  She need trouble him with no gift of her own.  She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man.  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Perhaps Forster’s own desire to connect was inherited.  The marriage of his parents was a union between two social classes, with the poor Lilly marrying “up” into the wealthier Forster family.  Perhaps, too, the fact that Forster’s father, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, for whom Forster was accidentally named, died when Forster was two meant that Forster missed that connection.  Perhaps, Forster’s depiction of, at the time, socially problematic connections (Indian and British, male-male, social inferior and social superior), was produced by his reading of his father’s homoeroticism.  After all, as Wendy Moffat writes in A Great Unrecorded Life:  A New Life of E. M. Forster, Lilly and Eddie had gone on their honeymoon, not with a lady companion for Lilly, but with a male friend of Eddie’s, Ted Streatfeild.  Moffat notes that Aunt Monie “wrote that [Streatfeild] was ‘very nearly’ a lady companion, ‘I own, but not quite’” (25), and “While Lily rested at the hotel, the men walked and talked” (25-26).  Perhaps, Forster sought connection because of how others read him as a child as effeminate:

The whole of the world appeared as a set of rules, to be negotiated with care if you were not powerful.  There seemed to be ways to earn a little safety.  At the age of four, Morgan told his mother he “would much rather be a coward than brave because people hurt you when you are brave.” At other times it seemed that however much one tried, who you were was determined by whether you adequately act a part.  But both his anachronistic dress and his extremely sensitive manner made him seem “half a girl,” Lily complained.  “I was he was more manly and did not cry so easily.”  Once, when he was mistaken for a girl by a servant, he was told to go back and correct the misapprehension. Dutifully, he returned and announced, “I’m a little boy.”  “Yes, miss,” was the reply. (Moffat 30)

Perhaps Forster’s desire to connect arose out of his own homosexuality.  Later in life he would record how he and a neighbor boy “built a little house between a straw stack and a hedge, and often lay in each other’s arms, tickling and screaming” (qtd. in Moffat 31).  It might be proper here to historically contextualize Forster’s sexuality.  In 1895, the year Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for a homosexual affair, Forster was sixteen.  Forster died in 1970, just a year after the Stonewall riots in New York, and only three years after the process of decriminalizing homosexuality had begun in Britain.  No wonder, then that Maurice, Forster’s ode to homosexual love, was not published until after his death, fifty-eight years after he wrote it!

As we move into a discussion of Howard’s End, I think we need to keep all of the above in mind, and we need to also keep in mind Forster’s humanist ideals.  He wrote, “The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” His belief in the human race, his desire to “only connect,” meant that tolerance would never been enough for him: “Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely  means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”

You may wish to read the following:

An excerpt from Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History”

Edwardian Transcendentalism … Maurice, by E.M. Forster


More resources for reading “The World’s Wife”

I  thought that those of you reading Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife for this semester’s free class might like to hear from her about why she wrote these poems.  In an interview you can read here, she explains:

What I wanted to do in the book was to look at all the stories—fairy tales, myths, stories from history, film and pop music or whatever, stories of heroes which had informed me as a writer, part of my cultural ancestry.  So I wanted to celebrate them, in a way, but also find a truth which hadn’t been amplified previously.  And the way I wanted to do that was to find a female perspective on the character, and I did that by finding a personal connection with the fairy tale, myth, piece of cinema, etc., so that although I’m wearing the mask of Queen Herod or Mrs Beast I’m not lost in my own place, my own life.  It might be that it is autobiographical in that it might be true to my imaginative life or my emotional life but not necessarily true to the actual details of my life.  Once I’d done that I typed out the poems in a sort of chronological movement.  So we start with “Little Red Cap” which is about a young girl becoming a poet and end with “Demeter” which is about a woman becoming a mother.  So that it follows the arc of my own life in some ways.


Preliminary Thoughts on first Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s “The World’s Wife”

Michael Amey


“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see,” opines Janie Crawford, the protagonist of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  While Janie’s statement is a generalization, it does convey the strength and resilience of many black women in the face of adversity.  Carol Ann Duffy’s title, The World’s Wife, builds off of a similar theme.  Mules and wives have frequently been reduced to “beasts” of burden.  Shakespeare puns off of the “bearing” of mules and women in The Taming of the Shrew in this exchange between Katharina and Petruchio:


Asses are made to bear, and so are you.


Women are made to bear, and so are you.

ambassadorsIf women are made to bear, then at very least Duffy wishes to give them voice.  Her The World’s Wife is a collection of thirty dramatic monologues, in which women from history or folklore, or women married to famous men, provide their own accounts of events.

The purpose of these monologues is to have the reader re-examine characters or stories in a new light.  Consequently, these poems render anamorphic stories we thought we knew.  From this new perspective we learn that Little Red-Cap is NOT the victim of the wolf, Pygmalion’s bride comes to life and responds to his Anamorphosiscaresses to get rid of him, Freud’s wife has penis pity instead of penis envy, and Queen Herod becomes the catalyst for the slaughter of the innocents because the three Queens, presumably on their way with their husbands to visit the newly born Jesus, tell her to watch for a star revealing the location of

The Husband. Hero. Hunk.

The Boy Next Door.  The Paramour.  The Je t’adore.

The Marrying Kind.  Adulter.  Bigamist.

The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat.

The Heartbreaker.  The Ladykiller.  Mr Right. 

who will break her daughter’s heart.

Each of these poems subverts the power structures of the original stories from which they are derived.  Thus, Little Red-Cap is no longer the passive victim of the wolf’s trickery; she has agency of her own, and makes “quite sure [that] he spotted me, / sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink, / my first.”  The wolf may think that he, and his command of poetry, have control over the “waif”, but she is in charge and uses her time in apprenticeship to the wolf.  Ultimately, no woodsman is required to save this young woman – she’s never been lost, and she takes an axe to the wolf, “as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat,” not to escape him but to see what’s inside him.

In some of the poems, Duffy switches the sexes of the characters, as in the case where King Kong is re-imagined as Queen Kong, and the helpless female “victim” is replaced by a willing male “partner”.  Removed from the story is any threat of violence, sexual or otherwise.  Queen Kong merely thinks that she can “swat his plane from these skies like a gnat,” without actually doing so, and her trip to New York to retrieve her paramour, far from involving the violence of the movie, turns into a shopping spree for “clothes for my man, mainly, / but one or two treats for myself from Bloomingdale’s.”  The biggest change, however, is the ending of the story – Queen Kong and her lover have “Twelve happy years,” and he dies peacefully, in stark contrast to the violent death of King Kong.

Part of what Duffy is doing, of course, is subverting the racist and sexist coding of the original movie.  A number of critics have suggested that the 1933 movie, King Kong, played into white fears of miscegenation.  The massively strong ape becomes a stand in for the “threatening” black man.  The trip to King Kong’s island by the “filmmaker” is a nod towards imperialist expeditions to “exotic” and “savage” locals.  The ape’s fascination with the white, blonde woman is another iteration of the worn-out literary and cinematic trope of hypersexualized black males seducing and / or assaulting white women.  For a more explicit presentation of that trope one need look no further than D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation.  In the case of King Kong, the entire military and police apparatus of the white state is brought against the black “menace,” and the woman is “saved” by the death of the monster.


While Duffy explicitly “others” her Queen Kong, she makes clear that a mutually satisfying relationship is possible.  Queen Kong may have come in pursuit of her lover, but he has a “blown-up photograph” of her over his head.  However unusual Queen Kong’s relationship with her paramour might be, she, and the reader, don’t doubt that “no man / has been loved more”

Before concluding I want to point out that Duffy employs a variety of poetic forms, meters and rhyme schemes.  For example, her poem “Anne Hathaway” is written as a sonnet, which, of course, is appropriate for the wife of Shakespeare, who popularized that form in the English language.  At the same time, Duffy, makes the poem uniquely Hathaway’s by having her adhere to iambic pentameter in the meter but eschew Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef) for the three quatrains.  The volta, however, follows Shakespeare’s pattern by being a rhyming couplet that moves the speaker from a discussion of her and Shakespeare’s bed and love life, to his death:  “I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head / as he held me upon that next best bed”.

For a better discussion of these poems, visit this link:

Jeanette Winterson “On Carol Ann Duffys ‘The World’s Wife'”



Welcome to a long delayed post on another classic dystopian novel.  Today I’ll be introducing you in a general way to Brave New World, and we’ll be examining the relationship, if any, between biology and destiny.  This post will also lay the foundation for a later post on the 1997 movie, Gattaca.     


Crossing the Frontier into Huxley’s Brave New World

Huxley            Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, I think, a departure from most of the dystopian fiction we’ve encountered or are likely to encounter.  Huxley’s description of a dystopian society, for example, lacks the grime and poverty evident in 1984.  Instead of describing rundown apartments and outdated technology, Huxley depicts a society at that is technologically advanced, that possesses a range of commodities, and that can only be described as decadent.  This departure from Orwell’s grim vision of dystopian society can perhaps be understood when one realizes that the World State was modeled, in part, on Huxley’s perception of the United States.  As David Bradshaw points out in his introduction to Brave New World, the feelies (an advancement on Hollywood movies), the over consumption of goods, the references to Ford and the Model T, and the depiction of amoral men and women living life in the present were all meant to be caricatures of life in the United States in the early 20th century.


Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?

Great Gatsby

For those of us who might wish to protest that life in America in the ’30s couldn’t have resembled life in Huxley’s World State, it might be wise to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  The characters of that novel, with their lavish parties and decadent lifestyles, would have undoubtedly felt just as at home in the World State.


The difference between Orwell’s dystopic vision and Huxley’s extends, of course, beyond simply the physical descriptions of their respective societies.  More surprisingly, where Orwell describes a citizenry that wears an “expression of quiet optimism” because it fears Big Brother, Huxley presents a citizenry that at least thinks itself happy, even if that happiness is illusory (Orwell 5).  Indeed, Huxley’s World Controllers are also very different from Orwell’s Big Brother and Zamyatin’s Benefactor.   For one, we, the readers, can be sure that, unlike the other “leaders”, the World Controllers actually exist.  Their function is also different.  Where Big Brother acts as a deterrent for bad behavior by creating fear, the job of Mustapha Mond is, according to himself, “to serve happiness.  Other people’s — not mine” (209).  Unlike O’Brien in 1984, Mond clearly does not have to rely on torture to control his citizens.  By comparison to 1984 and We, the apparatus of governmental control in Brave New World is virtually invisible.  Huxley dispenses with the Thoughtpolice of 1984 and the Guardians of We.  Spies apparently are not necessary in this “utopian” dystopia.  Of course there are police, but far from using the violent methods described in 1984 and We, these police use the calming influence of drugs and soothing voices to quell a rioting mob (195-196).   The results of this mob control are quick and effective:

Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect.  In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another — half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace.  Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying.  A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break.  “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you!  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you.  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest …” (196-197).

This description of the rioters parting would be starkly out of place in either Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s novels.  Nothing here suggests the violence implied by the Guardians and the Thoughtpolice.

Perhaps more striking than the absences of a police apparatus and a totalitarian regime are the things that are present in Huxley’s society.  Sexual activity, far from being discouraged, like it is in Oceania, or being controlled, like it is in The One State, is permitted and, indeed, actively encouraged.  Where Winston and Julia have to slip away Brave New World namessurreptitiously for a rendezvous in the countryside, Lenina and Bernard can simply take his plane for a romantic weekend.  Where the young women of Oceania join the Junior Anti-Sex League, the children of the World State engage in erotic play, and Lenina gets scolded for being too monogamous.

Religion, absent from the two prior novels, is also present, but it appears to be a religion that lacks dogma or condemnation of any sort.  The religion of the World State combines the fetishization of Ford with religious elements from Christianity.  The following passage shows how the World State has mimicked the Eucharist in its Solidarity Services:

The President made another sign of the T and sat down.  The service had begun.  The dedicated soma tablets were placed in the centre of the dining table.  The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, “I drink to my annihilation,” twelve times quaffed.  (72)


The soma tablets at the center of the table are meant to stand for the wafers offered during communion, and the cup of strawberry ice-cream soma replaces the cup of wine traditionally passed around among Catholic celebrants.

In addition to sex and religion, the World State differs from Oceania and the One State in that it provides a range of leisure activities.  These activities include visits to the feelies, games and, of course, the use of the drug soma.  

Omelas and Brave New World            Given Huxley’s sharp departure from the model established by earlier dystopian authors, we might ask if this novel can fairly be characterized as dystopian.  Part of the ambiguity that readers experience when reading Brave New World is a consequence of Huxley’s own ambivalence about the society he had described.  While he seems to decry much of what he describes, Huxley actually had a much more complicated relationship to the themes discussed in his novel.  He was, at least up to the time of writing Brave New World, partially convinced that in order for humanity to be saved, a dictatorship might have to be imposed and eugenics (the act of selectively breeding humans for certain traits) might be necessary in order to save the European race (Bradshaw 1994).  For all of his implicit criticism of the United States and American technology, Huxley actually applied for American citizenship, and, although it was denied, lived for many years in America.  While Huxley’s description of the drug soma seems disturbing, Huxley actually used psychedelic drugs such as peyote, mescaline and LSD.  His experiences with the drug mescaline are described in his book The Doors of Perception.  All of this background information obscures any facile interpretation of Brave New World.    If the novel is dystopian, then it presents a complicated dystopia, more in line with the Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas than with Oceania or the One State.


Losing Human Freedom:  Predestinating and Conditioning

            If law enforcement seems remarkably absent in Huxley’s Brave New World, it is because the World State does not require force and violence to control its citizenry.  Clearly, the abdication of violent means took some time.  In describing the evolution of society to the students at the hatchery, Mond notes that in the early years, “[e]ight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green” and “[t]hen came the famous British Museum Massacre [where] [t]wo thousand culture fans [were] gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide” (44, 45).  It was only after these violent attempts to regulate the citizenry that the World Controllers came to realize that violence was a highly inefficient way of controlling the population (45).  In essence, the World Controllers recognized what John Locke, the British philosopher, had argued in the 17th century:  rulers only rule with the consent of the ruled.  The problem was that the World Controllers did not want their citizens to have any choice in giving their consent to the social structure.  Fortunately for the Controllers, science offered solutions to the nagging problem of free-will and individuality.  The solution that the Controllers would take was premised on the same ideas that would be developed by the American psychologist and writer, B. F. Skinner who, in his novel Walden II, argued that “man is determined by the state” (1957, 276).  For the Controllers, the means of determining the destiny of humanity resided in two areas:  1)  biology and 2)  conditioning.

The biologic aspect of control in the World State is premised on the assumption Picture5that biology is destiny.  If a person inherits certain genes, he or she will excel at certain activities and do poorly in other activities according to this theory.  While Huxley could not have foreseen the genetic manipulation that is available today, he was able to foresee the concept of “designer babies”.  All of the babies in the World State are, in fact, designer babies inasmuch as they are created to specifications determined by the state.  To begin, experts at the haterchery carefully screen genetic material.  The best genetic material is reserved for manufacturing upper caste members of society.  Less desirable material is reserved for the lower castes.  After the material is selected, it is carefully manipulated to produce or enhance specific characteristics.  The fetuses destined to be lower caste citizens are injected with alcohol to create brain damage, thus ensuring lower levels of intelligence.  As Mr. Forester explains to the students at the hatchery, “in Epsilons […] we don’t need human intelligence” (12).  Using this pragmatic approach, the World State only gives to its citizens what they will need to fulfill their predestined existences.  For example, citizens destined for a life in the tropics are acclimatized to hot conditions and are immunized against tropical diseases before they are even “decanted”. The state’s tampering with these humans/products effectively narrows the possibilities available to each of them.  Even if an Epsilon could possess the desire to be an engineer, for example, she would never possess the intelligence required for the job.

The production of humans is carried on along the same basis as a production line.  Indeed, Henry Ford’s automobile plant is clearly the inspiration for the assembly line at the hatchery.  Among the stages involved in this assembly line are quality control and the tailoring of each product to, as I’ve already indicated, fill specific social needs.  As Mond points out, the task of mass producing these humans is made infinitely easier by Bokanovsky’s Process, a process which allows for the creation of clones.  The result of the process is “[s]tandard men and women; in uniform batches [so that the] whole of a small factory [can be] staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg” (5).  Humans, then, become interchangeable cogs maintaining the social machinery.  Individual identity is sacrificed in favor of caste identity.  One of the consequence of this mass production is that citizens are also “plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about” (201).  These roles are abolished, both because they are unimportant to the continuation of the World State and because everyone is replaceable.  If a woman loses the man she was sleeping with, she can always get an identical product to replace that man.  In theory, at least, nothing distinguishes him from any of the men produced from the same bokanovskified egg.  Given that each caste member is also conditioned to have the same likes and dislikes, it is possible that the substitute product male would be identical to the original.  Who needs to worry about the concept of a boyfriend when you can date an identical individual whenever you want to?

Given the fact that the World State designs and produces its citizens, it is easy to understand why citizens like Lenina are willing to accept the hypnopaedic proverb, “Everyone belongs to everyone else”.  In the case of the World State, this is very nearly true.  This proverb echoes the law in Zamyatin’s One State: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  In both societies, the individual is viewed as a product of the state.  However, where in the One State a law has to be made to the effect that each citizen has the legal right to any other citizen’s body, no such law is necessary in the World State.  After all, the World State doesn’t merely claim to own its citizens, it actually manufactures them.

Biologically predestinating individuals determines the likely future of each citizen; conditioning makes them happy with that lot.  As the Director of the hatchery explains, “All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny” (13).  This conditioning occurs through a number of different techniques.  There is both physical conditioning, as when Delta children are electrocuted to make them dislike and fear books, and verbal conditioning, as in hypnopaedia.  The point of hypnopaedia is to shape the mind of the child through repeated suggestions, until, according to the director at the hatchery,

at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind.  And not the child’s mind only.  The adult’s mind too — all his life long.  The mind that judges and desires and decides —- made up of these suggestions.  But all these suggestions are our suggestions!  [….] Suggestions from the State.  (25)


The director’s point is made even more cogently by Mond when he explains to John Savage the role of Epsilons in the World State:

Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle — an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course […] goes through life inside a bottle. (203)


A very similar view of the power of conditioning is presented in B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel, Walden II.  In Walden II, the spokesperson for the society, Frazier, explains to his guests:

Our members are practically always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do—but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community.  Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free (Skinner 1976, 279).

Frazier’s assertion that citizens can be free even when their behavior is predetermined presents a paradox.  To a certain extent, the citizens of Huxley’s World State have a more accurate understanding of the limits of freedom and predestination.  Thus, when Lenina observes to Henry that perhaps Epsilons, whom she personally finds revolting, don’t mind being Epsilons, he responds, “Of course they don’t.  How can they?  They don’t know what it’s like being anything else.  We’d mind, of course.  But then we’ve been differently conditioned” (66).  Henry goes on to explain to Lenina, “if you were an Epsilon […] your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha” (66).  Evidently Henry recognizes that he and Lenina aren’t in fact free; more disturbingly though, this lack of freedom doesn’t bother either of them.  To a certain extent, these two products of the World State are far closer to the machine-men envisioned in Zamyatin’s One State.  After all, Henry and Lenina can’t help but be happy.  The state has won, not because it has shaped reality to suit its citizens, but because it has shaped its citizens to suit its reality.  Unlike the rebels in Zamyatin’s One State and Orwell’s Oceania, far from rebelling, these citizens of the World State cannot even grasp the concept of rebellion.

Although upper caste members of society seem to lack choices just like their lower caste counterparts, they do, in fact, have some capacity for rejecting the conditioning that they have experienced.  Perhaps they require an element of rationale thought and free will to ensure that society continues to operate smoothly.  The possibility of bucking this system is revealed by the Director’s criticism of Bernard Marx, “Alphas are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behavior.  But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform.  It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination” (88).  As I shall show in my next post, the inclination to remain infantile is encouraged by promoting unconstrained consumption and instant gratification.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World.  Perennial, 1998.

Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We.  Penguin Books, 1972.


Cartography of The Lesbian Body: Erotic Discourse in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Poetry


“Este es el viaje de la sangre mía:

apenas viaje, espuma de palabras.”[1]

(Apenas Viaje (1))


                                   ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Through the Looking-Glass (193))


As Humpty Dumpty pontificates, the power of language is based not in the possibilities of language to signify things, but in the ability of language to create a system of representation that is not directly linked to the objects represented.  Language is a system that in fact, needs no objects at all.  Language controls and determines the horizon of experiences of anyone using it.  There is nowhere to go, no place outside language.  Therefore, language establishes the norm. Language dictates normality, and consequently, morality, by restricting the areas where definitions can be acquired or transmuted.[2]   As noted by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et Les Choses, the linguistic path toward restriction of meaning is of a dialectical nature.  A pattern of signification is established by means of opposition: good versus bad, moral versus immoral, normal versus abnormal, heterosexual versus homosexual.

Given these dialectical pairs, it is logical to infer that a homosexual discourse of the erotic is established against a heterosexual one and as structurally pertaining to a dialectical system of representation.[3]  The problem is that placing the homosexual erotic discourse — specifically in this case, the lesbian erotic discourse — as oppositional, implies a hierarchical system of distribution of legitimacy where homosexuality takes a subservient role, functioning as a response to a previous (and therefore more legitimate within its own tradition) heterosexual discourse.  It is often argued that this dialectical system serves the political purposes of both sides of the argument: the heterosexual side defining itself as original; and the homosexual one placing itself as the antithesis for the production of a synthesis where previous discourses (i.e. heterosexual ones) will be eliminated.[4]

In examining the poetic works of Minnie Bruce Pratt,[5] a different reading of the erotic discourse can be established.  It is no longer merely dialectical.  Pratt’s works establish her discourse beyond/outside the limits of heterosexuality, where language acts not as a divider but as a place where it is permissable to talk within the contradiction.[6]  This reading of her work is possible not as an act of will on the part of the reader but because Minnie Bruce Pratt opens the door to it: “…when I write and speak of my life as a lesbian, my poems have also been seen as outside the bounds of poetry.” (Rebellion (228)).

This makes Pratt’s political/poetic project quite different.  The spaces she claims as her own are not to be juxtaposed to heterosexual boundaries, but perceived within their own integrity.[7]  If anything, Pratt acknowledges that the possibility for the existence of her writing has a material base shaped by a lesbian community that opens a space of difference where she can express herself:

The only reason that I can now choose to piece together my… way of making a living is because many women… have made places within the economic system where I can do my work and be paid for it…. I do not have to leave the land of myself, my lesbian self, my woman self, in order to do my work. (182)

“When I began living as a lesbian, I had no place in that world of legislators and poets except as a criminal. I had to create a new reality… a vision and a dream of a place without domination, without injustice authorized by law. I can say because of that dream I have become a poet… one who offers possibility, threatening to some, desired by others, but possibility.” (229)

Her poetry can thus, be read as a dialogue between Pratt and her community, particularly because the distance between the persona in the poems and Minnie Bruce Pratt is almost non-existent. She crosses the line when commenting in her essays about her own writing, there are constant references to her own sons, her lovers, her history.  She also crosses the line when in the acknowledgements of her books she thanks “the many women who talked to me after poetry readings, for their conversation with me about this work” (We Say We Love Each Other (v)). Her poems can be read as autobiography where the self expands to express other selves, as a form of retribution, and as a form of continuation and recognition: “Unless I write explicitly of how I am a lesbian, I will be denied my identity, my reality.” (Rebellion (134))

It is because of this that Pratt does not establishes her erotic vocabulary from a literary vacuum, but from a mark of reference of those who have been there before her, and those who are there with her, both as fellow writers and audience: “And that is how I learned to be a lesbian poet: other lesbians taught me.” (132)  Her poetic language is an individual creation but it is also immersed in the language of the community for which it was created.  That is why it is not possible within Pratt’s poetical/political project to resignify heterosexual erotic language.  Such a movement would automatically establish her poetry within the boundaries of dialectics. Lesbian sexuality would be, under those circumstances, read as an imitation of heterosexual sexuality.  The movements, the gazes looking at the lesbian bodies would became, by means of dialectical functioning, a distorted reflection of heterosexuality.  In that reflection, a double motion would take place, one that would portray heterosexuality as the norm, and lesbian sexuality as the aberration. The difference would not be a signifier of otherness, rather, a mark of failure.

I can see the desire

The first strategy Pratt uses to create her erotic vocabulary is to go back to a place where –as Michel Foucault indicates in The Birth of The Clinic— the distinction between the objects being named and the words used to name those objects is nonexistent.  A place where there is no distinction between the act of seeing and the act of saying, and therefore a place where new layers of meaning can be added or mutated, and where the objects themselves can be transformed.  This area is created by fragmentation, spacing, and superimposition of meaning over the same word.

Both in We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature texts are spaced and fragmented. Empty spaces surface between words or the words themselves stretch beyond a single line of verse.

like a dragon-

fly skims the pond, darns the water…

(We Say We Love Each Other (46))


Tonight it is raining ice, no thunder, no light-

ning, just the cold rain icing in the leaves. (65)


A grey day, drenched, humid, the sun-

flowers bowed with rain.  I walk aimless

to think about this poem. Clear water runs…

(Crime Against Nature (29))

These openings in the text fulfill a double function: they serve as a reference to Sappho, a recurrent gesture in the writing by lesbians which allows the poem to be recognized within a tradition –albeit fragmented and almost lost– and they point to the silence and the violence the text[8] has to suffer in order to exist.[9]  The meanings of the words are multiplied by their breaking.  The dragon escapes the dragonfly, the light escapes the lightning, and the sun the sunflowers.  All the escapees have a characteristic in common: they are larger than the linguistic prison that contained them.  They grow when they are free, when they are released.  It is a powerful metamorphosis that mutatis mutandis expands from dragonfly to dragon, from a tiny insect to a mythical creature; not just a bolt of lightning, but all the light; not just a flower following the motions of the sun, but the sun itself.

The title of her second book of poetry announces that her writing is a “crime against nature.”  By a heterosexual definition, the representation of lesbian desire is in itself an act of violence.  The violence consists not only in the public announcement that the text, the persona of the poems, and the writer herself are lesbians, but also that simultaneously, text, persona and writer are mothers, sisters, and daughters.  Defining herself as a lesbian is regarded as breaking the code of silence, but defining herself as a lesbian mother is breaking the order of the discourse.  A lesbian mother alters the social texture because it juxtaposes meanings that were held as incompatible.  A lesbian mother resignifies the notions ascribed to women.  Everything that a woman does is, by a sleight of hands, turned into something else.[10]  The hands that rocked the cradle, that caressed the sons, that fought the ex-husband, that closed into a fist, are the hands that now make love to another woman “my fingers sunk in you/ up to the knuckles and palm…” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  And those same hands are repeated in one of the sons:

He has my hands, wide palm, long fingers.

He has my big hands, which are my mother’s.

(Crime Against Nature (107))

What does this mean?  Does it mean that the son carries, somehow, the lesbian self of the mother?  There is an urge in the moralism of heterosexuality to restore the imbalance. This moralism has no problem accepting the mother as the author who dedicates the book to Ransom and Ben, but it is troubled by the nature of those poems.  It has no problem –almost– accepting the lesbian as the author who writes erotic lesbian poems, but it is troubled by the offering of those poems  to her sons.  The disruption is not present in any of the terms of the equation.  The equation itself is disruptive.  A mother? yes; a lesbian? yes; but not the two together in the same person.  In Crime Against Nature mothers and lesbians are one and the same woman; there is no sign to mark a distinction between them.  The disruption has been established.  Furthermore, this disruption is prolonged in the reading of the erotic, because now one of the favored tropes of lesbian sexuality is superimposed on the tropes of maternal affection.  If the lesbian/mother has the power to give her hands to her son, it follows that she has also the power to give birth to her lover, “flat on my back, thighs open, against the board” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  Now that differences have been erased, where is the instance distinguishing childbirth from love-making?  This question does not remain at the level of the text.  It moves into the realm of the iconic and the photographic representation that comes with the poems.  After all, the (apparently) naked Minnie Bruce Pratt on the cover of We Say We Love Each Other is the same Minnie Bruce Pratt who smiles to us, sitting between her sons, Ben and Ransom, from the back cover of Crime Against Nature.  Even more, the woman who took the pictures, Joan E. Biren, was Pratt’s lover at the time. Not only does Pratt present herself as the writer of the poems, but also as a mother and the object of desire of another woman.  “In your photographs… I can see the desire.” (We Say We Love Each Other (87)).  Because we look at the photographs Pratt’s lover took, we see through Joan E. Biren’s gaze, her lesbian gaze.  Does that make lesbians out of us?  How are we supposed to react if we are not part of her community of readers?  The mechanism of inclusion is not a given, as it would be in a heterosexual text, which always presumes the heterosexuality of the reader.  That is yet another disruption that the juxtaposition of words forces upon the reader.  The gaze of the lover and the gaze of the reader are, by action of the photographs, simultaneous.  Minnie Bruce Pratt was smiling at the camera, at the woman behind the camera, but now, she is smiling back at us.

Gen.2,20./ The one who tells the tale, gets to name the monster

By the end of the nineteenth century, medical science in Europe –with particular emphasis in Germany– had already started to clinically name the homosexual as the deviant and the pervert.[11]  This definition was (still is) widely supported by the religious and social apparatus, because it gave a physical body to the notion of evil.[12]  The lesbian becomes a monster because her instincts are loose.  No longer restrained by reproduction, the sexuality of the lesbian is explicitly an act of pleasure and desire, without other purpose than its own expression.  The homosexual does not re/produce in herself the surrounding ideology because she does not re/produce herself biologically when making love to another woman.[13]  What makes a monster and a pervert out of a lesbian is specifically this ability to redirect her sexual desire without hiding its nature.

The action of naming is more than simply ascribing a sound to an object, and it goes beyond the Saussurean notions of signifier and signified.  A name establishes a place within the universe, and reinforces the hierarchical boundaries of that universe by subordination.  The judeo-christian tradition has always been very clear about this.  Adam, the first man, is master of all living creatures because he gives them a name.  It is this ability that makes him human.  Given the fact that it is language that fixes the limits of perception establishing the boundaries within which each individual will be able to recognize her own identity, it becomes necessary for the lesbian author to take over those names given to the monster and the pervert and invert their meaning.[14]  And this is precisely what Minnie Bruce Pratt does when she resorts to both the obscene/monstrous and the medical/legal vocabularies to articulate lesbian desire and to place it into a different geography of the erotic language.

The figure of the lesbian as a monster is a recurrent one throughout Pratt’s poetry.  Lesbians are “monsters,” “beasts”  with “tentacles” and “delicate knifeblade tongues.”  They are “Godzilla Satans” with “basilisk eyes, scorching phosphorescent skin.”  The linguistic space of the word woman is already completely taken.  The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists under woman: “one possessing in high degree the qualities considered distinctive of womanhood (as gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly)[15]” (2629).  Out of necessity, the lesbian discourse of desire takes over the monster.  Because of its mythological nature, the figure of the monster is blurred, and lacks definition.  It is within those holes in the signifying structure of the word monster that new meanings can be added to the term.  The monster becomes the lesbian, but the lesbian is not a monstrous being.  In this open area, Pratt is able to signify, describe and regulate, the behaviors of the monster/woman/lesbian. These monsters are now loving ones.  They take great care of each other, they are tender and loving.  They no longer terrorize –they never did– but rather “explain/ the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure/ on the walls of my vagina.” (We Say We Love Each Other (77)).  Pleasure and knowledge are intertwined and give power to those who are, as if by nature, rejected by the social morality.  It is interesting that monsters, witches, and giants are part of the cosmology of fairy tales, and that according to Bruno Betelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, these figures work, many times, as devices by which the children listening to the story can acquire some of the characteristics of the adults without losing their own.  The same movement is performed by Pratt, who as a lesbian writer reclaims her woman self through the monstrous.

But lesbians are not only defined as monsters, they are also defined as obscene and vulgar: queer, dyke, butch, inhuman, crooked, slut.  And this is still another area that lesbian authors have to claim in order to define themselves.  The tactic is similar to that applied to the monstrous.  It consists in an affirmation and validation of the insulting term in order to claim it as property to be altered and changed.

You some kind of dyke?

Sweating, damned if I’d give them the last say,

hissing into the mouth of the nearest face, Yesss,…

…[my] mouth like a conjuring trick, a black hole

that swallows their story and turns it inside out.

(Crime Against Nature (112))


I’ve never gotten used to being their evil,…

No explanation except:    the one who tells the tale

gets to name the monster. In my version, I walk

to where I want to live. (115)

The evil one, the monster, the sweating dyke who hisses back are all the same figure: a woman reclaiming her place.  The story needs to be rewritten in a way that makes possible the existence of the woman/lesbian/mother; in a way that creates a location to live in.[16]

In Pratt’s poetry, the monstrous and the indecent are contested in the same movement, not because there is a certain didacticism on the side of the author, a need to simplify in order to make the information more accessible, but because the discourse of aggression erases the limits between Godzilla and the queer.

…You some kind of dyke?” (112) where “some kind” points precisely at that space of the undefined, which is also a space of recognition.  Establishing the unknowability of the other –in this case, a lesbian– opens up the possibility that such an other could be someone alike.  And that is what makes this appropriation so disruptive to the social order.  It turns things inside out, because it enables the perverts to become human beings without having to define their selves as the opposite dialectical end of the equation where heterosexuality establishes both intention and meaning.  It turns things inside out, because now the monster gives herself a name she likes, and the one who told the tale, has lost his voice.  The monster does not need him any more.  If she now chooses to stay where she is, it is out of her own will, it is because she does not reject the other because of his difference.  Monsters, as redefined, are loving creatures.  The one who told the tale, has become himself, truly heinous.  The hatred that the monsters/lesbians would not take, is of a heterosexual nature.

Obviously, what applies to the lesbian applies to her body, which becomes fragmented, a “disreputable cunt,” a “filthy vulva.” But what has been aimed towards lesbians as a means of aggression becomes, through Pratt’s poetry, a place of recognition: “Her cunt…/ …The shape and color/ mine exactly. We could be sisters by the resemblance.” (We Say We Love Each Other (31)) and a place of strength:

as I advance in the scandalous ancient way of women:

our assault on enemies, walking forward, skirts lifted,

to show the silent mouth, the terrible power, our secret.

(Crime Against Nature (120))

This strength is born out of openness, out of presenting in public what was kept in secret.  The motion that lifts the skirts uncovers a vertical mouth which utters a discourse that goes beyond the gesture of the words, because it silently exposes itself.

Or criminally unnatural

Any classification implies a moral judgement, and when this judgment is negative, it forces a transformation of the discourse into the legal arena.  A deviant behavior is not only linguistically censored, it is legally penalized.[17]  “To be a poet who is a lesbian is to be a potential felon in half the states of this country and the District of Columbia, where I live.” (Rebellion (228)).

As with the vocabulary of monsters, medical and legal terminology are a constant presence in Pratt’s poetry, particularly in Crime Against Nature where the title itself establishes this recurrence.  Clitoris, shoulderblades, vulvas, vaginas, tendons “tense as wire,” woman’s genitals, orgasms, androgen, lesbians, coexist with bestial, custody, depraved, deviant, pervert, per anum, per os.  This collision of terms is also an exercise of appropriation.  Because there is no established language to express erotic tension and sexual desire, Pratt resorts to the vocabulary imposed upon her, resignifying it.  Both medical and legal terms are given new layers of meaning through the context in which they are immersed.  The bestial snake-like tongue is not poisonous, but pleasant: “and tongue like a snake (bestial is in the statute)/ winding through salty walls…” (Crime Against Nature (116)). The genitals are fruits awaiting “in the bed where we devoured each other…” (We Say We Love Each Other (78)), they bring “…a rush of pleasure…” (Crime Against Nature (114)).  Because of her status as a lesbian writer, Minnie Bruce Pratt faces two levels of silence.  Socially, as a woman, she is not expected to talk about sexuality, much less, about sexual pleasure.  As a lesbian, she is not supposed even to exist.  As a writer, when Pratt talks about her sexuality and her pleasure, she is shattering the silence and pushing the limits of the medical/legal definitions: “The law when I read it/ didn’t mention teeth. I’m sure it will some day if/ one of us gets caught with the other, nipping.” (117)

The last section of the book, from which Crime Against Nature gets its title, forces this push beyond the text itself because it portrays her actions not only as an occurrence of the past and the present, but also as an announcement of the future, and as an announcement of “crimes” such as “nipping” still not contemplated under the current regulations.  It acts as a gesture of defiance and also as a foundational gesture.  Pratt claims for herself –and therefore for her lesbian community– a sexual act (past, present, and future) that has not been announced first by the heterosexual erotic discourse.  It is the basis for an independent vocabulary, that coexists with the heterosexual, without being subservient to it.

A place not marked yet in any map

Pratt’s erotic discourse and vocabulary is still evolving and it is already mature.  It is already established and it is yet to come.  It is already established because it allows other women to recognize themselves within its patterns of representation.  It is yet to come because it defines its presence as a pulsion towards the future.  Its announcement has not been made.  As expressed in the last poem of the collection, the mouths are open, but they are still silent.  They are ready to tell all they know, but they have not started to talk.  They have disclosed the existence of a secret, but they have not revealed its nature.

This space of uncertainty is where Minnie Bruce Pratt’s erotic discourse is rooted. The area of the undefined is the location of Pratt’s political/poetic project, and the erotic vocabulary is an essential element.  It appears as an individual expression, but it is presented out of a dialogical communal experience.  It is a practice that consists of the creation of geographies: “our thighs clearing/ a wider and wider space on the cold slippery floor.” (We Say We Love Each Other (98), but these geographies acknowledge their own temporal nature.  The erotic expression functions as an horizon of possibility: “A dream, a place I’ve never come to, though I’ve travelled/ miles.” (95)  It is in the nature of horizons not to be reached.  The distance between the traveller and the end of the visible landscape remains unchanged. The paradox is that the horizon is inscribed within the body.  What is at stake is the design of a glance able to see the object of desire without the historical elements of oppression that constrain both desire and its object. But it must also sustain the consciousness that reminds the eye of the historical struggles that made possible a free glance.


I asked myself several times what is the purpose of this paper.  More accurately, what is my purpose on the paper.  Why lesbian desire, why Minnie Bruce Pratt as subjects?  I can justify my options on the methodological and theoretical level by mentioning the necessity of exploring lesbian/feminist writing and theory in order to have a better understanding of my main area of interest, namely: lesbian, gay and bisexual texts/discourses in the Americas.  But what does it mean to me, as a gay/bisexual man, to write about erotic lesbian discourse?  I believe there are two main reasons for me to do so.  The first one, is that I have a strongest suspicion that my mother was, once, in love with another woman.  The paper becomes a means to understand my mother and her silences.  The second one, is that confronted with the possibility of publicly acknowledging my homo/bisexuality, my mother threatened suicide, pushing me back to geographies of silence.  The paper becomes a means to recover something of the voice I have lost, even though it is now in a language that twists my tongue, in a language that my mother does not understand.  The paper entitles me to speak, even to speak loudly, but also entitles me to be coward, and not to face myself with my mother’s suicide on my name. It would seem that after all, I see some guilt in my desires. I had to travel six thousand miles in order to lovingly embrace a man and still feel safe.  Maybe that is a third reason for the paper: a sort of exorcism to discover the inhabitants of all my desert islands.



Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

——, Nietzsche et la Philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

Derrida, Jacques. Eperons. Les Styles de Nietzsche. Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of The Clinic. An Archeology of Medical Perception. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

——, Histoire de la Sexualité (Tome 1, 2, 3). Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

——, El Discurso del Poder. México: Folios Ediciones, 1983.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Nietzsche’s Zatathustra. Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939. (Volume 2), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Mohin, Lilian, ed. Beautiful Barbarians. lesbian feminist poetry. London: Onlywomen Press, 1986.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy     of the Future,  New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——, The Genealogy of Morals. A Polemic, New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——,  The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

——, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

——, Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle. New York: An Owl Book, 1986.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. We Say We Love Each Other. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1985.

——, Crime Against Nature. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1990.

——, Rebellion.  Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1991.

Sappho. Works. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Apuntes para un estudio de la linguística. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1974.

Walsh, María Elena. Apenas Viaje. Argentina, Buenos Aires: El Balcón de Madera, 1948.


1 “This is the journey of my blood/ barely a journey, a spume of words.”

2 One of the most obvious examples of this is George Orwell’s 1984.

3 This system of representation goes beyond the dialectical discourse of Hegel and Marx, and its roots can be traced at the core of “the Western civilization” and it is grounded in an essencializing reading of its (acquired/appropriated) sacred text: The Bible, and its oppositional system of good and evil, Heaven and Hell.

4 Obviously, this is not the only political possibility to challenge the social structure, but it is one that does not challenge the existence of such as structure, nor it claims for its disappearance.

5 For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature.

6 For a perspective on anti-dialecticism I am following Nietzsche’s theories particularly as they are expressed in Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, sections 1, 3, 4, 9, 21, 24, 36, 44, 153, 161, 169, 198, and 219.

7 As Nietzsche puts it: “How could anything originate out of its opposite?… Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool. (Beyond Good and Evil (6)).

8 And the writer, and the reader.

9 This becomes evident particularly when looking at different editions of the works of Sappho. In most instances, the translator/editor is force to interpret the language, to fill the blanks with hypothesis, and to guess what has been lost.

10 Not casually, the word “hand/s” is the most common noun in the two volumes of poetry, appearing sixty-seven times in We Say We Love Each Other, and fifty-one times in Crime Against Nature, not to mention synonyms and related words such as fingers, palms, fingertips, etc.

11 Both Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle, provide a good source of information and bibliography on the subject.

12 Through the ages different groups have been given the role of evil: women, jews, pagans, blacks, homosexuals, etc. depending on the cultural context, and the levels of discrimination socially permitted, but only women have been a constant presence in each and every one of these groups.

13 Needless to say, homosexuals (both men and women) do have sons and daughters, far more often than presumed, as it is the case of Minnie Bruce Pratt.

14 For the concept of language as the location where to establish and determine human behavior I am following Michel Foucault’s theories, as expressed in Les Mots et les Choses.

15 Interestingly enough, the concept of gender and womanhood are not linked by the definition.  A woman is therefore one who possesses the qualities of a woman, not one who merely has female genitalia.

16 This urge for the constitution of a lesbian geography is evident in the novels of many contemporary authors, such as Monique Wittig, Jewelle Gomez, Rebecca Brown, Patricia Ealkins, etc.

17 A recent example of this being “Amendment 2” by which voters tried to amend Colorado’s constitution to prohibit lesbian and gay rights laws.

Groceries, Guns, and Garlic: Richard Matheson and the Survival Horror Genre

On July 16th, 2017, I received three messages in rapid succession telling me that George A. Romero had died. If that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, know that Romero almost single-handedly created the modern zombie tale, as well as many of the conventions and tropes of the horror genre. In particular, Romero is associated with what I’ve heard called “survival horror.”

As designators go, survival horror might sound a little obvious. Any horror tale is likely to involve someone trying to survive something. But, whether you like that term or no, it does describe a particular subset of stories that focus on what characters must do and must have to survive in the face of a sustained threat. That might mean gathering ammunition and food supplies, barricading doors and windows, establishing roles and responsibilities, and creating systems and (eventually) societies.

The tension in a survival horror story stems from the struggle to achieve these measures and the threat to them that inevitably follows. What’s more, the source of that threat is very often internal. Yes, the zombies are getting more numerous out there, and those boards on the front door are only going to hold for so long, but what’s really worrying is that guy in the corner of the room who’s sweating profusely and muttering to himself.

At its core, survival horror is about the toll exacted on people psychologically when they’re placed in extraordinary circumstances. Very often, the pressure of unrelenting horror causes people’s worst attitudes and behaviours to take center stage. Quickly, some of the survivors opt to sacrifice their comrades, or even loved ones, to save their own lives. It’s a grim picture of human nature.

As Romero himself indicated, the greatest threat in these tales generally isn’t the obvious monster. To quote Charleton Heston: It’s people.

If you want to see concrete examples of what I’m describing, and you haven’t already seen any of Romero’s works, you should probably start with the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the original Dawn of the Dead. Just in case there’s any doubt in your minds, though, know that both are very graphic.

While George A Romero could easily be credited with establishing a lot of the tropes we see throughout the horror genre nowadays (and not just in zombie films in particular), he himself said that the inspiration for his work was Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. This being a literary blog, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to Romero to draw some attention to a work he clearly loved.

I Am Legend takes place in a world where human life has been almost completely eradicated. In its place, there are vampires; lots of vampires. The one living human we know about at the beginning is Robert Neville. The story revolves around Neville’s attempts to keep himself alive and sane. Both are a daily struggle.

The first part of the book details Neville’s survival regimen. Each day, Neville has to gather supplies to eat and to reinforce the defenses on his home (including mirrors and cloves of garlic, both of which repel vampires in the Western tradition). He also keeps himself physically fit and then drinks himself into a stupour as part of his daily routine.

maslow-pyramidI’m going to take a quick detour at this point and talk about one of my favourite psychologists for a moment. Abraham Maslow formulated this theory he referred to as “the hierarchy of needs.” I’m grossly oversimplifying his theory when I say that it describes how people prioritize their needs.

The illustration on the right shows the hierarchy, with physiological needs at the bottom and more abstract, conceptual needs as you progress toward the top, culminating with self-actualization.

I’m mentioning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because I think it’s relevant to the survival horror genre. Generally, you’ll see characters move up and down this hierarchy in the course of the narrative. The audience feels relief as physiological and safety needs are achieved, hope as love/belonging needs look like they might be met, and despair and terror as each is taken away again.

Let’s get back to poor Robert Neville. During the day, Neville is faced with the crushing reality that he’s the sole survivor of the human race. Alone, he locates and stakes vampires through the heart as they sleep. When darkness falls, he barricades himself at home, weathering the onslaught as best he can with a combination of alcohol and loud music.

In terms of the hierarchy of needs, as the story opens, Neville seems to have his physiological and safety needs mostly under control. He has food supplies and a protocol for regular upkeep of his home’s defenses. He’s worked out that garlic, crucifixes, and mirrors all offer a defense against the undead. So, feeling that those most primary needs are (at least temporarily) satisfied, Neville experiences the higher needs in the hierarchy, and that’s where he’s vulnerable as we meet him.

The vampires’ attacks are largely psychological, targeting Neville’s need for love/belonging. The jeering voice of his former neighbor, Ben Cortman, is a constant reminder of the sense of normalcy lost. (I don’t necessarily get the sense that Neville liked Cortman in life, but even the neighbor you avoid engaging with on your way to the mailbox offers an oddly comforting sense of the routine.)

Further, each night, female vampires perform lewd and grotesque acts on Neville’s front doorstep, simultaneously repulsing him and reminding him of the impossibility of normal relations with a love interest.

The audience is offered a glimmer of hope when Neville discovers and adopts a dog. In the dog, Neville has a companion again. He isn’t alone. That makes it all the more crushing when the dog dies, leaving Neville more broken than he was before. It’s the momentary gains that Neville experiences that make the losses so painful. Better to have loved and lost? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

The cumulative effect of all of these pressures makes Neville highly susceptible when he encounters Ruth, shattering his previous belief that he’s the last living human. Read no further in the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to know (and haven’t already guessed) what happens next.

With Ruth, we see Neville’s needs placing him in peril for the final time. His desire for human connection leaves the door open (quite literally) for Ruth’s betrayal. Neville is captured, imprisoned, and condemned to die. If those don’t sound like the actions of carnivourous monsters, you’ve caught on to the final twist of I Am Legend.

As it transpires, two strains of vampire have emerged: The one that torments Neville during the night and another that, as it turns out, is tormented by Neville during the day. Because Neville has made it his mission to find and kill vampires in the daylight, he has unknowingly become The Thing That Goes Bump in the Night himself.

In an inversion of the hierarchy I’ve been describing, Neville is now that thing that thwarts the efforts of an evolved, self-controlled population of living vampires to secure their own safety and well being. He’s their first boogeyman. Their first superstition. Their first legend.


Michael D. Amey

I’m back with yet another post on 1984.  In this post I’m focussing on a major recurring theme in dystopian fiction:  the power of sexual acts to liberate and enslave individuals. This theme is also evident, of course, in We, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.


Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens

1984 coverWhen we think of sex, many of us envision an activity that occurs fairly much the same way among people everywhere.  We generally do not imagine, unless we’re thinking very carefully about sex, that sex is somehow a culturally mediated activity.  Put more simply, we often think that sex is natural—stripped of culture and simply a response to biologic urges and hormones.  As various scholars have shown, however, this is a misconception.  In her essay, “The Traffic in Women:  Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin uses an analogy to question the idea that sex is devoid of cultural content:

Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained.  Every society has some form of organized economic activity.  Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained.  Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be. (538)

The point that Rubin is making is absolutely relevant to the depictions of sex that we have seen in 1984 and in We.  The sexual activities in both of these novels are sharply delineated into licit and illicit behavior, acceptable relationships and unacceptable relationships.  These divisions undoubtedly seem alien to many of you, and this partially because behind these divisions are not grounded on a simple distinction between the natural and the unnatural, but rather upon the will of society determining what citizens should “accept” as natural or unnatural.  In the case of these novels, the will of society is, in many respects, distinct from the will(s) of our own society.

But why, we might ask, do Zamyatin and Orwell spend time discussing sexual relationships, and why do the States in both of their novels place such a premium on controlling sexual behavior?  Part of the answer to this question can be found in another of Gayle Rubin’s essays, “Thinking Sex:  Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”.  She argues in the introduction to this essay that:

The time has come to think about sex.  To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation.  But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.  Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries.  They acquire immense symbolic weight.  Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity.  Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

            The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression.  As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity.  They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental.  In that sense, sex is always political.  But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized.  In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated. (4-5)

Dystopian fiction, by nature of its fundamental character, tends to depict historical periods when sexuality is contested and sexual codes are redrawn to enhance the state’s control over individuals.  The amount of control that the One State exercises in We, for example, is evidenced by the Lex Sexualis: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  This law functions on a two-fold level:  first, it serves as an express reminder to the citizens that they are commodities to be consumed both by each other and by the state, and secondly, it serves to remind them that in this absolute Communist society, the state owns everything, including bodies, reproduction and sexual enjoyment.

Lest we be too quick to criticize this control of sexuality in the One State, it might be wise to consider the control of sexuality in our own society.  First, while, in most states in the United States the traffic in sex is illegal, “sexiness” is a hot commodity that both sells all manner of goods and is itself sold in a wide array of forms.  The fact that sexuality and sexiness are marketed and consumed in our society is evidenced by pornography’s status as one of the largest online industries.  Perhaps the primary difference between us and the numbers of the One State is that while we and the citizens of the One State both agree, for the most part, that sex is a desirable commodity, the citizens of the One State, in accordance with their standards of equality, are unable to profit from the exchange of sexual favors.  By contrast, many Americans make a great deal of money from sexual activity.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that while many of the states legalize the sale of sexuality and sexiness in the form of pornography, most states have outlawed prostitution, thus denying, as it were, many women and some men the right to earn money by using and selling what is theirs—their bodies.  In a sense then, our government has determined who can profit from sex, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of sex workers, who work illegally.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, another effect of the Lex Sexualis is to end marriage and families.  This is desirable because it allows the state to create absolute bonds of loyalty with its citizenry.  No longer does a woman think about her husband, or a man think about his wife.  Instead they focus on the relationship with the state.  This substitution of the state for a loved one occurs in both We and 1984.  For example, as I noted in the previous post, the woman who works next to Winston is involved in “tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago” (42).  She can do this both because she has developed the capacity for doublethink and because her relationship to Oceania takes precedence over her relationship to her husband or any other individual.

The fact that the woman working next to Winston is single best suits the needs of the Party.  Her loyalty, however, is suspect because she may not have willingly chosen to be single.  By contrast, Comrade Ogilvy, represents the untainted devotion desired by the state because he “had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (47).  Yet surpassing even Ogilvy in his loyalty, is Winston’s estranged wife, Katharine, who has sex with Winston, but only as part of “our duty to the Party” (67).  Katharine, perhaps as a consequence of conditioning, perhaps through the will of doublethink, has invested the symbolism of sex, not with lust, certainly not with love, but with patriotism.  Her reconstruction of the meaning of sex is evidenced by how she experiences it:  “She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating, but submitting” (67).  This description of how she experiences sex significantly aligns, as we shall see, with the experiences of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to having sex with Katharine, Winston also has sex with an older prole prostitute and with Julia.  These sexual encounters are distinctly different in nature.  For Winston, the prostitute represents nothing more than simple sexual release—I choose not to use the word “satisfaction” because it scarcely seems satisfactory.  This encounter is not particularly dangerous either, for, as Orwell explains,

Tacitly the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution, as an outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed.  Mere debauchery did not matter very much, so long as it was furtive and joyless, and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class.  (65)

Furthermore, while the act of sleeping with a prostitute is certainly punishable in Oceania, it is generally not a capital offense.

Significantly, while debauchery is tolerated when it involves Proles, debauchery with Party members is punished much more severely.  Orwell goes on to clarify why the Party opposes relationships within the Party:

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control.  Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act.  Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it.…  The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party.  Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.…  The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it.  (65-66)

Later Orwell, notes that the “sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account” (133). The Party’s success in distorting sex is evidenced both in Katharine’s submission during sex and in Winston’s revulsion with the sexual experience he has with the prostitute.  This revulsion prevents Winston from regularly frequenting prostitutes.  As a consequence, his own sexual desires remain constantly thwarted.  This sexual repression is “turned… to account” by creating “sexual privation [that] induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (133).  Orwell illustrates the relationship between frustrated sexuality and the attitudes of citizens by describing a Party rally in sexual terms:  the mob’s mood is like a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax” (180).

While Winston’s sexual liaisons with the prostitute cannot be counted an act of rebellion—after all “the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution”—his relationship with Julia is, in his and her minds, an entirely different matter.  A number of differences seem to exist between the relationship Winston has with the prostitute and the one he has with Julia.  Unlike Winston’s low risk encounter with the prostitute, Julia’s and Winston’s liaison risks their freedom and their very lives.  This risk severs any ties they have to the Party and creates a situation where their loyalties, by necessity, are redirected towards each other.  For a comparable modern example, we might consider the relationships of homosexuals during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because homosexuality was illegal in America and most European countries, homosexuals found themselves, by the very nature of their desires and activities, outside the law and, to a certain extent, alienated from society. Given these facts, we should expect that homosexuals, like Winston and Julia, would formulate ties that largely ignored the claims of their societies.  That social commentators are aware of the subversive nature of sexuality becomes apparent when one examines modern conservative commentators, like Maggie Gallagher, who argue that homosexuality threatens society by undermining the institution of marriage.  Marriage (and having children), in other words, becomes a “duty to society” in a way that is not dissimilar to Katharine’s conception of sex as doing one’s duty for the Party.  This permits those in power to cast the offenders as sexual traitors.

Winston’s relationship with Julia also differs from this relationship with the prostitute in that it permits them together to create a reality separate from the Party.  As Orwell explains, “the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” (133).  By contrast, Winston’s furtive, and unsatisfactory sexual involvement with the prostitute merely confirms the control that the Party exercises over all aspects of life.

Winston’s sexual encounter with the prostitute also acts to dehumanize and degrade both the prostitute and Winston.  She, after all, is a shoddy, forbidden commodity for which he pays two dollars.  He is a desperate man who pays for something that has been Winston and Julialabeled perverted by his society.  By contrast, Orwell emphasizes the fact that Julia and Winston freely engage in sex.  To ensure that this is not a transaction, Winston specifically asks Julia if she enjoys sex, to which she responds, “I adore it” (126).  Her response stands in contrast to Katharine’s philosophy of sex as social duty and the prostitute’s philosophy of sex as commodity.  Julia is having sex in part simply because she enjoys sex.  This free exchange of sex helps humanize Julia and Winston and perhaps even ennobles them.

While their sexual encounter is a free one, it is not an uncontaminated one.  After all, as Orwell points out “you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays.  No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred” (126)  Beyond being about desire, then, their sexual activity becomes a denial of the Party’s power.  Winston’s revels in her sexuality because, “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire:  …was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126).  As Orwell explains, “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.  It was a blow struck against the Party.  It was a political act”  (126).  In light of the Party’s determined effort at either wiping out or subverting the sexuality of the citizens of Oceania, it is indeed difficult to interpret this act as anything other than an assault on the Party’s control.



Michael D. Amey

Welcome to my second post on Orwell’s 1984.  In this post I’m going to focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  These themes are essential aspects of a number of dystopian novels and movies, and are present in We, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, Feed and Jennifer Government, to name a few examples.

“Every Breathe You Take, Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break, Every Step You Take, I’ll Be Watching You”

(Lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” by the Police)

woman being watched advertisementMichel Foucault, the philosopher who provided us with the concept of the Panopticon, would have reveled in the abundant irony of a rock band called the Police singing the lyrics of “Every Breathe You Take”.  The song, apparently intended as a romantic gesture, chronicles the jealous, obsessive voyeurism of a jilted lover.  In a particularly revealing moment, the speaker in the song laments, “Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.

Implicit in the lyrics of this song is the relationship between an individual who is watched and the institution or individual doing the watching.  The ownership that the lovelorn singer claims is based on his ability to spy on the object of his love constantly, even as she does mundane things like breathe and walk.  This, in itself, however, is not enough to ensure his claim on her.  For him to own her, she must be aware of his vigilant gaze:  “oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.  In other words, she must see him seeing her for the power of the gaze to be operative.  A similar approach to this use of the gaze as means of control and ownership is suggested in the lyrics of the traditional Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  The addressee, in this case a child, not a woman, is told:

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Surely, if a child ever believed these lyrics, then he would assume that Santa had ownership over him in as much that nothing the child did would ever escape the gaze of Santa and all behavior could be subjected to rewards and punishments by Santa.  He would regulate his behavior to suit what he imagined Santa desired, and thus would, ironically NOT “be good for goodness sake”.  As with “Every Breathe You Take”, surveillance in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” depends for its success on the fact that the child is aware that he is being watched.  If the child is unaware of Santa’s all pervasive gaze and ability to dole out rewards and punishments, then Santa’s power ceases to function.

George Orwell’s Oceania functions on a similar premise.  Party members are subjected to constant visual and auditory scrutiny via telescreens, listening devices and the spying eyes of neighbors, friends and family.  Significantly, these instruments of scrutiny do not function independently of each other; rather, they are merely hundreds of eyes and ears working for the face of the Party, Big Brother.

For the most part, there is nothing covert in this surveillance.  Just as the lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would suggest, surveillance, by itself, is not enough.  Instead, the citizens are kept constantly aware of the fact that they’re being watched.  They are informed by posters that “BIG BROTHER ISUncle Sam WATCHING YOU”.  The “YOU” at the end of the sentence is imperative, because the citizen is left with no doubt that he or she has been personally sought out as the object of attention.   Furthermore, the fact that each citizen is being constantly inspected is driven home by the ubiquity of the image of Big Brother.  Orwell illustrates this by describing Winston looking at a coin:

He took a twenty-five-cent piece out of his pocket.  There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother.  Even from the coin the eyes pursued you.  On coins, on stamps on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrapping of a cigarette pack—everywhere.  Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you.  Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape.  (27)

These images serve as a constant reminder of the fact that every aspect of life is under continuous scrutiny.

In discussions that I have led with students in classes on the wide sweeping surveillance powers granted the United States government by the Patriot Act, most students have seemed unconcerned by this potential invasion of privacy.  They remind me that if I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to be afraid of.  Presumably it is only terrorists and evil-doers who need worry that the NSA might be eavesdropping.  Perhaps my students are right.  It is worth noting, though, that in Oceania, the citizens also, technically, have nothing to fear from the watchful eyes of Big Brother.  After all, Orwell, in discussing Winston’s use of a journal, notes that “This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws) ….” (6).  In theory, then, it is impossible for Winston to break the law.  Nevertheless, he is concerned because if he were “detected it was reasonably certain that [his use of the journal] would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp” (6).

Implicitly then, the abolition of the laws (in itself a paradoxical exercise of law) does not guarantee greater freedom for the citizens or the absence of crime and criminals.  Indeed, as Orwell makes clear when he describes show trials in Oceania, the absence of laws does not even prevent the exercise of a corrupt legal system.  Consequently, instead of reassuring the citizens that no crime can be committed because there are no laws to break, this “lawless” society creates the potential for anything and everything to be considered a crime.  The crime, however, which is fundamental to all crimes is Minority Reportthoughtcrime (19).  Some of you will remember from my earlier posts about We that in the One State freedom is believed to be root cause of all crime.  Orwell takes Zamyatin’s logic one step further by realizing that crime occurs because people think.  Machines are incapable of committing crimes specifically because they cannot think.  By contrast, all humans are, by the very fact that they are incapable of maintaining complete control of their thoughts, thoughtcriminals. This unfortunate flaw in human nature is revealed to Winston by the usually loyal Parsons.  He explains to Winston (for the benefit of the unseen watchers) that thoughtcrime is

insidious.  It can get a hold of you without your even knowing it.  Do you know how it got hold of me?  In my sleep!  Yes, that’s a fact.  There I was, working away, trying to do my bit—never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all.  And then I started talking in my sleep.  Do you know what they heard me saying?  […]  ’Down with Big Brother!’  Yes, I said that!  Said it over and over again, it seems.  (233)


The fact that Parsons, a man who diligently “tries to do his bit” is capable of thoughtcrime indicates that no one is innocent.

As I indicated earlier, part of the power of the surveillance in Oceania is linked to the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, incessant.  In the first few pages Orwell informs us that:

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.  Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, could be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.  There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any moment.  How often, or on what system, the Though Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.  It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.  But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.  (3)

Of course, what Orwell describes matches the operation of Foucault’s Panopticon where surveillance is “visible and unverifiable”.  The broader consequence of this unverifiable but visible surveillance is that,

he who is subject to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles, he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (Foucault 203)

In other words, “You had to live—did live from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3).

The guilt that rests on all citizens, even those, like Parsons, who truly strive to remain innocent, has its impact on ever aspect of how they lead their lives.  Early on, Orwell describes Winston moments before he takes the risky decision to write in his journal:  “He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen” (5).  The point that this description makes is that citizens like Winston “wear” expressions instead of having them.  This learned expression is a disguise meant to conceal the “illegal” activity going on in the mind of the citizen. This expression is, in particular, a means of keeping the one last possession available to the citizens of Oceania:  “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (27). Of course, the Party has taken steps to penetrate this last place of concealment.  Those watching are trained to spot any gesture or expression that might be indicative of thoughtcrime.  Thus, on a deeper level than Winston realizes, “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body” (102-103).  The body becomes the traitor of the mind.

The unblinking gaze of Big Brother also has an impact on the larger community.  This gaze creates conformity among members, as illustrated by the group activities and even by the enforced exercises.  In spite of the fact that these group activities are compulsory—though this is never explicitly stated—the activities also become genuine.  Orwell explains that the “horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a  part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.  Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary” (14).  What this suggests, is that a process is in Lynchingplace of control that is initially coercive, but then becomes less coercive as the individual enacts the role assigned to him or her.  Thus, while Winston may initially be acting because he is aware of the judgmental gaze of others and Big Brother, he eventually ceases to act and embodies, instead, the desired behavior.  His conformity is tied to the well documented concept of mob mentality, an unthinking mentality that the Party fosters through emotional events like Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate.

The importance of collectivism to the functioning of Oceania is further illustrated by the fact that:

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed.  It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.  There was a word for it in Newspeak:  ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity. (82)

It is worth noting that the expectation of constant communal activities in Oceania bears a striking resemblance to how cults operate.  Time alone allows people to form independent opinions that are more than mere reactions to the emotions and opinions of other people.  Such independent opinions are dangerous to the cohesion of most groups.

Ironically, for all of the communal activities that citizens of Oceania participate in, each of them remains separated from each other, from citizens of the past and from citizens in the future.  Parsons, for example, has a wife and children, but this does not mean that he has a family.  After all, it is his own daughter who turns him in for saying, “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep.  (We should pause here to consider one of the dilemmas that faces Parson….   Because he was asleep, he doesn’t know what he was saying or if he was even saying anything at all.  His daughter may have made up the whole story and reported him for the excitement of the experience and the approval she would receive from her peers.  At the same time, he can’t doubt her claim because to doubt her claim would be illustrate his own disloyalty to Big Brother.  As Parson tells Winston, “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” (233).

The fact that families do not function according to traditional expectations is further highlighted by Winston’s reflections on his family life:

Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.  (30)

Indeed, this failure of the family is represented by one of Winston’s colleagues:

He knew that in the cubicle next to him the little woman with sandy hair toiled day in, day out, simply at tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago. (42)

Replacing the traditional family structure is the relationship of the individual to the state.  For this reason, the Party wisely personifies itself as, appropriately enough, Big Brother.  Of course, although Big Brother is a term derived from a familial relationship, Big Brother is not a family member.  No one has a relationship with Big Brother, even though Winston believes, on the final page that Big Brother loves him and he loves Big Brother.

Winston’s reflections on tragedy highlight the fact that it is not merely the institution of the family that has broken down.  Love and friendship have also ceased to be meaningful.  The “friends” Winston has are clearly not friends; they barely deserve the term acquaintances.  Even his relationship with Julia, which is the most intimate relationship he has, is not one that ends his isolation.  While Julia cares for him, she does not understand him or share his desire to rebel for the sake of greater freedom.  The ultimate tragedy for these two characters is in the fact that having promised not to betray each other, they are unable to avoid the betrayal that their change in feelings for each other entails.

Lastly, we must note the irony involved in Winston’s greeting in his journal:

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:

            From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings! (28)


Winston, of course, cannot address the past both because the past is the past and because, in Oceania, the past doesn’t exist.  Furthermore, he can’t hope to address the future because the future will either be controlled by the Party, in which case Winston —as part of the undesired past—will be obliterated from history, or the future will be so different from Winston’s present that nobody will understand what he is describing.  Thus, he is cut off from both the past and the future and exists only in the terrible present.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books, 1991






Michael Amey

With this post I’m commencing a three part discussion of 1984.  This first post will briefly introduce you to George Orwell and to 1984, and will focus on the role of history in creating the present.  The concepts of epistemology, ideology and “Truth” will play a critical role in this first discussion.  The next post will focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  The final post on 1984 will ask us to examine the role of sexuality as an instrument of power and control.

The Man Who Knew Big Brother

OrwellEric Blair, better known to most of us as George Orwell, wrote books and essays, many of which were social and political commentaries.  His two best known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, exemplify these social and political themes.

Orwell’s prescient depiction of totalitarianism in 1984 arose out of the historical conditions surrounding his life, as well as from his own store of personal experiences and ideas.  Orwell emphasized the value of understanding this background in his essay, “Why I Write” by noting:

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”

Orwell was unquestionably shaped by the age in which he lived.  His earliest inspiration for the totalitarian regime represented by Big Brother may well have come as a consequence of serving with the Imperial Police Force in Burma and India.  As a member of the privileged English race, he witnessed first-hand the inhumanity of an oppressive regime and the injustice inherent in imperialism; themes which he touched upon in his novel, Burmese Days and in his essay, “A Hanging”.  His experiences working to expand and maintain imperialism, combined with the rise of totalitarianism in both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, provided him with a pessimistic view of authority.  He explained in “Why I Write” that,

First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

The real transformative moment, however, came for him, when, in 1936, he went to Spain to fight in the civil war against fascism.  That period in his life was the catalyst for his writing:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.  (“Why I Write”)


Indeed, in reflecting on his motives for writing in general, Orwell produced two that are specifically relevant to the shape of 1984:

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.  (“Why I Write)

1984 is very clearly a text created with a political purpose.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is keenly aware of the political nature of all acts, including, as I will discuss in the last post, the sexual act.  In this post, however, I will focus more on the combination of the historical impulse, the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” and the relationship of this impulse to politics.   

In describing the writing process, Orwell explains that,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.  (“Why I Write”)

In the case of 1984, the source of injustice that inspired Orwell was Stalin’s repressive Communist regime.  His critique of Stalinism was essential for two reasons.   First, while awareness of Stalin’s ruthless acts was infiltrating Western consciousness, many leftist intellectuals still either sympathized with or supported Stalinism.  As a leftist intellectual, Orwell saw the importance of separating the foundations of socialist idealism from the excesses of Stalinism. Secondly, in 1948, as Orwell was composing 1984, there was no reason to believe that the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, or, for that matter, that the war would remain cold.  Orwell’s novel helped explain in this uncertain time why it was important that Stalinism not succeed.  1984 remains, however, a valuable book because while it is rooted in the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, it provides a critique of power that is not limited to one historical point in time.


The Benefactor and Big Brother

As you read 1984, you may have started noticing similarities to We.  Orwell had read We and acknowledged his indebtedness to Zamyatin’s novel.  The following similarities are particularly worth noting:

  • At the beginning of 1984, Winston starts keeping a journal.  In We, D-503 keeps a journal.
  • Oceania, the nation in which Winston lives, is policed by the “Thought Police”.  In The One State, the police force are called the Guardians.  Both groups operate through surveillance and by gathering information from “concerned” citizens.
  • Oceania is governed by Big Brother, while The One State is governed by the Benefactor.  Both leaders are probably fictitious constructs meant to maintain the power structures of each society.  For a similar example, watch the role of Father in the movie Equilibrium.
  • The states in both novels carefully regulate and monitor sexual activity.  In 1984 citizens have to apply to a committee for permission to get married.  Sex is discouraged by the “Junior Anti-Sex League”.  The purpose of this control, in part, was “to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which [the Party] might not be able to control” (65).  In We, marriage has been outlawed for similar reasons, and the frequency of sexual activity is “scientifically determined”.
  • Both Winston and D-503 begin to actively resist their respective regimes in part because of the elicit affairs they have.
  • In 1984, the proles are predominantly excluded from the working of the Party.  In We, the Mephi, or those outside the Green Wall are excluded from The One State.
  • In 1984, Winston develops a deadly relationship with a government agent, O’Brien.  In We, D-503 develops a relationship with the Guardian, S.
  • In both states, control is extended to everyday activities.  Winston, for example, if forced, along with everyone else, to do calisthenics, while the number of time that D-503 chews his food is prescribed.
  • In 1984, Winston finds a place where he and Julia can meet in the Prole section of town.  This house, with its old furnishings, is like a museum of the past.  Similarly, D-503 meets with I-330 at the “Old House”, a museum from a previous time.
  • In We, D-503 comments on the absurdity of the human head and how it conceals ideas.  Likewise, Winston notes that “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (26).
  • Winston and D-503 are both eventually broken by the state and come to “love” their oppressors.

There are undoubted more similarities than these.  Feel free to post them as you find them!


History and the Present

A critical component of the Party’s power structure is its ability to control the present by continually changing the past.  Significantly, the present has no enduring quality.  As we move through time, each second of now slips into the past.  The Party’s control of the past extends, as Winston explains, to the immediate past:  “Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? …  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (155).  It is unsurprising then that Julia, Winston’s young lover, cannot remember the fact that a mere four years ago Oceania was at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia (154).  She, as a product of the Party, has been taught to forget the past and to engage in the “doublethink” that allows for two contradictory facts to both be true.

Furthermore, unlike the unreformed Winston, Julia sees no reason to worry about the fact that she can’t remember the past.  Her concerns are located in the present and in her immediate personal interests:  “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life.  Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her” (153).

Given that her memory does not extend past four years, we have to even question how extensively she rebels against the teachings of the Party that touch upon her own life.  After all, imagining that she was forcibly separated from Winston, four years later, would she remember that she had ever been with him?   Early in her relationship she tells Winston that she has had sex “[hundreds] of times—well, scores of times, anyway” (125).  Is her uncertainty about her sexual activities a consequence of the numerous times she has had sex, her desire to impress Winston with her rebellious behavior, or, possibly, her actual inability to remember her own past?  Significantly, Orwell tells us nothing tangible about Julia’s past.  We are left to imagine the nature of her sexual relationships.  Were they all acts of rebellion?  Has she known other men like Winston?  It would seem that Winston might want to know the answer to this last question if only to locate other potential subversives, but he does not probe her vague statement of promiscuity.

As for Julia’s disregard for the past, this disregard is the logical consequence of the Party’s control.  In Oceania, “the past not only changed, but changed continuously” (79).  Any attempt to follow the oscillating changes of the past would lead to insanity.  As Winston comes to realize,

In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.  By lack of understanding they remained sane.  (156)

Winston is, of course, partially wrong in suggesting that the Party has instituted an endless present.  The present, even more than the past, is unstable and open to reconstruction because it continually slides into the past.  Indeed, past, present and future are, from one perspective, concurrent events.  From this perspective, the Party Slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past” (35), is absolutely correct.  Orwell provides the basic outline by which this control is exercised:  “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (75).  This control of time, through the efficient erasure of past thoughts and the forgetting of that erasure, guarantees a form of control over not merely time but all reality, or as the Party calls it “Reality Control”.  The paradox of reality control is explained, in part, by Winston’s realization:  “If both the past and the external world exist only in the Mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” (80).

The possibility that the external world merely exists in the mind is one that cannot be completely ignored.  The philosopher Descartes realized that he could not trust any of his senses to correctly inform him about the external world.  Think of it this way—we usually take for granted that the things we see and feel are “real”.  Descartes, however, knew that he saw things in dreams, but he was sure that either the reality in what he called dreams or in what he waking must be false.  In his opinion, both the dream world and the waking world couldn’t mutually be real.  He also recognized that the use of drugs, say opium, could also change an individual’s perception of reality.  Simply put we receive conflicting messages from our senses.  Even when we are awake and not “hallucinating” our senses trick us into seeing things like mirages.  The problem was that while each of these states of reality appeared to be mutually exclusive, for a person undergoing a dream or a hallucination, the perceived reality seems as real or more real than what we typically consider reality.  Descartes also thought that it was possible that mathematics and logic, things which apparently don’t rely on senses but on reason, were tricks.  We assume, like Winston, that 2 + 2 = 4.  By contrast, Descartes points out that “We may think that mathematics is self-regulating and testable, but there might just be an invisible demon who continuously hypnotizes us into thinking that our mathematics is correct” (Robinson & Garratt, 46).  What this means is that essentially all of what we accept as “Truth” and “reality” is vulnerable and open to debate and negotiation.

There is a difference, of course, between Descartes’ dilemma and Orwell’s description of reality in 1984.  The primary difference is that where Descartes suspects his senses and believes that they could be inaccurate (they could also be, of course, entirely accurate), Winston knows for a certainty that the reality he lives in is a construct.  Descartes speculates that an “invisible demon” could be toying with his perceptions of logic and mathematics.  Winston, by contrast, knows that the Party is deliberately manipulating his logic.  He is aware that:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.  It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later:  the logic of their position demanded it.  Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.  The heresy of heresies was common sense. (80)

The suggestion that a control of the past also dictates a control of reality seems at first glance nonsensical.  How can the past control what we take to be real?  The only way to understand this is by returning to what we learned about Marxism in our last lecture.  Marx, as you will recall stated in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”  As I noted, Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.  If our society could be restructured without our awareness of it, and then that restructuring erased from our minds, what we would “see” in the world, would differ radically from what we now see.

And, of course, such restructuring of society actually do occur.  Michel Foucault notes, for example, that prior to the 19th century, the word and the concept “homosexual” did not exist.  Of course there were men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women prior to the 19th century, but these individuals were not seen as belonging to a different category than any other individual.  Their sexual practices did not define their identities.  Because the concept of homosexual didn’t exist, it follows that the concept of the heterosexual also did not exist prior to the 19th century.  In our own society, however, we have these terms and we tend to define people by these terms.  Not only do we define our contemporaries by their sexual preferences, we assign those labels posthumously to individuals of the past.  Thus, a favorite pastime of some supporters of homosexuality has been to identify and “out” famous people, like Leonardo da Vinci, as homosexuals.  The problem with this approach to history is that it takes our world view and applies it indiscriminately to people who did not possess our mental framework.

As a final note, I want to return us again to the idea of “Truth” being vulnerable.  Most of us probably assume that reality and the “Truth” are fixed entities—that reality is what is real and that the “Truth” is what is true.  While it is possible that these exist, as Descartes makes clear, being certain about these forms of knowledge is impossible.  Added to that, our favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault, points out that reality and “Truth” will always be highly contested areas because of the fact that they serve to create power.  He goes on to state:

There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’—it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political roles it plays. (132)

Winston is a phenomenal character precisely because he is aware of this battle.  Arguably, this makes him a far greater risk to the Party than Julia or, for that matter, most anyone else referenced in the novel.

Works Cited

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984: A Novel.

Orwell, George.  “Why I Write.”     Accessed 28 June 2017.

Foucault, Michel.  1980.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Robinson, Dave and Chris Garratt.  1999.  Introducing Descartes.  Cambridge:  Icon Books











Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.


So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.


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