The following is an example of coursework for the ELLA 4 AQA specification, double marked at an A* grade.
Take note of the structure and analysis.
Q. Compare the ways in which the aspect of Social Hierarchy is represented in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and poems by D.H. Lawrence
Both D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Atwood explore the concept and implications of social hierarchy in their texts. Lawrence uses a varying frequency of techniques in his poems, such as parody in ‘How Beastly the Bourgeois Is’, description in ‘After the Opera’, comedy in ‘Poverty’, and metaphors in all three. These techniques are used in order to attack the hierarchy, by criticising the middle and higher, non-working classes of an early 20th century England. Similarly, Atwood portrays largely negative attitudes towards the hierarchical system in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ through the use of techniques like metaphors, imagery, and creating pathos in Offred. Both writers use working class characters to express their views of their hierarchies. D.H. Lawrence uses the narrators of his poems. Atwood uses her protagonist, Offred, who lives as part of the lower class of the novel’s fascist dystopia - one that has reverted back to a strong, male dominated, class system (revolved around combating infertility). At the same time, the emotional capacities of the lower classes are also explored by the two writers.
Offred is a handmaid, a woman forced to work and have sex with her male owner because his wife is infertile, and so falls low in both the sexual and social hierarchy featured in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Offred’s story is used to represent the lives and views of the lower classes. Atwood’s novel begins with Offred’s room being described with simple, monosyllabic, concrete nouns: “chair”, “lamp”, “blank space”, which create an image of emptiness and loneliness. This description, coupled with a lack of abstract nouns and the addition of “they’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to” gives an immediate image of a cruel, physical world in which the protagonist lives. Tying a rope connotes suicide, suggesting that there have been people so oppressed and numb in the lower class, that they had lost the very will to live. A semantic field of blandness also adds to this idea, with lexical choices like “white”, “blank” and “taken out” being used. This all contributes to the idea that due to oppression, there is little emotion in the people of the lower classes.
In another episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred describes Ofglen, with the use of similes: “as if she’s voice-activated”, “as if she’s on little wheels” and “as if she’s on top of a music box” in order to make her seem mechanical, no longer human but robotic in her mannerisms. This reinforces the idea that the lower classes have - or at least act as though they have - lost their humanity and emotional capacity: they react in predictable and programmed ways. The use of the compound adjective ‘voice-activated’ and the concrete noun ‘wheels’ implies that Ofglen is comparable to a robot. This description of Ofglen is then used to exemplify what it is about the new hierarchical system that Offred hates. She goes on to state that “I resent this grace of hers” with “grace” being ironic because Offred resents Ofglen’s ability to effortlessly accept the rules of Gilead, rather than envying Ofglen’s grace because it is beautiful in itself. The comparison to a music box dancer is a parody of Ofglen, expressing that she dances prettily when asked to. This idea of complete subservience of the lower classes, particularly women, is seen throughout the novel in minor characters.
This idea in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, coincides with that of “After the Opera” by D.H. Lawrence, where he describes the upper class Opera goers as giving “lift looks of shocked and momentous emotion.” Here, the other end of the spectrum is shown from that of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The people high enough in the hierarchy to spend their time at leisure events like the opera, are shown to display a lot of emotion. The adjectives “momentous” and “shocked” are very strong and show exaggerated emotion, given the mundane situation of a proletariat man walking past a crowd of Opera goers. The use of alliteration in “lift looks” also adds to this effect, making the whole situation seem more playful and interesting than it really is. Lawrence suggests either that those who don’t live comfortably are already used to negative emotions, and as a result become numb, or that people who do live comfortably have so little excitement in their lives, that they find it in mundane situations.
Similarly to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, D.H Lawrence also uses short, monosyllabic sentences by the working class narrator of “After the Opera” to exemplify emotionlessness in the lower classes e.g. “Down the stairs”, “ladies”. Another similarity is the frequent usage of concrete nouns in the poem, giving the idea that the narrator is used to a physical world like Offred in the beginning of Atwood’s novel; the narrator takes note of only what his senses show him: “large eyes”, “stone stairs”, “looks.” Therefore, “After the Opera” explores the very mentality of the lower classes at the time, and shows that they would react only pragmatically in this situation. Being written in first person adds great interest to the poem, as it gives an insight as to the exact thought processes of a proletariat man. D.H. Lawrence uses this to express his negative opinions of the English class system, making his views more believable when coming from someone with first hand experience.
Likewise, In ‘How Beastly the Bourgeois Is’ Lawrence reinforces the idea seen in “After the Opera” that the non-working classes of the English hierarchy feel more emotion. However, this time Lawrence directly criticises the sincerity of it, claiming that it is the non-working class who have lost their emotional capacity from living a life of comfort. The use of the very powerful negative adjectives: “seething”, “wormy” and “hollow” in conjunction with “full” and in reference to “feelings” attacks the upper classes for expressing themselves too much and too falsely. “He’s all gone inside” also reinforces this idea, with it being a metaphor for the upper class losing all sincere emotions. The adverb “all” implies that the upper class are completely devoid of emotion. This idea contrasts with the lighthearted and full-of-emotion style (using rhyme “bourgeois is... species” and exclamations “wait!”) that the poem was written in (to imitate and parody the bourgeois), suggesting that all of the emotions that the bourgeois show are fake. This then implies that the lower end of the English hierarchy feel genuine emotion, and should take enjoyment from that fact.
Similarly, in ‘Poverty’, genuine emotional capacity is said to be seen in the lower classes. The narrator uses the comical (because of its randomness and simplicity) exophoric reference of “this pine-tree” to create a metaphor of people who grow up in tough conditions -“grows out of rock”- and make something of themselves defiantly, repeating “plumes forth, plumes forth”. The use of “It has a natural abundance” to describe the tree is Lawrence expressing that people who are born in harsh conditions are more genuine and sincere (‘natural’) in their emotions than upper class people. The repetition of the verb “plumes” connotes both nature and excitation, suggesting once again that the lower classes are more real and alive than those who are not.
A third episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ contrasts with the first two mentioned. Atwood shows that the capacity for emotion of the lower classes is no different from anyone else. Atwood uses more abstract nouns such as “kind of hunger” and “invisibility”. She also incorporates metaphors with “kind of hunger” being one for Offred’s sexual desires towards Nick. The reference to Shakespeare “I have no rose to toss, he has no lute”, with ‘rose’ symbolising romance, or in this case the lack of it, shows how Offred and other lower classes still have the same wants and desires that they used to have. However, they know that they cannot fulfil them “which I can’t indulge”. The verb “indulge” has a negative tone and is used to create further pathos for Offred, who realises that in order to survive she must fight any urges she has to please herself. This emphasises the idea that satisfaction and happiness must be looked at as a threat to survival in the lower ends of the hierarchy. All of this greatly contrasts the previous episodes: rather than an emotionless, physical world, Offred is now shown to live in one full of repressed desire, and emotion.
This evolution of the representation of emotional capacity in the lower social classes adds dynamic to Atwood’s novel. She reveals a gradual increase in Offred’s emotions, who gains hope, due to the changing situations and stimulus she’s finally been given. She starts to get excited and thinks of Luke and Moira in the past, and ponders about replacing them. However, the underlying idea of not wanting to change is still there “they cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke, or Luke for Nick.” The repetition of Luke and Nick here shows how the ideas are flitting about in Offred’s head. Atwood shows by this, how people recently enslaved in a regime are torn between their past and their present life.
Another theme explored by both writers is contempt towards the upper classes by the lower classes. It is seen in Atwood’s novel when Offred states “I refuse to say my.” This shows that she is rebelling against the notion that her Commander has given her a room, and the notion that she has someone who can do such a thing. Offred accepts that the Commander owns her womb and her body, but not her as a whole, and not her spirit. The stress on the personal possessive pronoun “my” with italics, emphasises the idea that this room was forced upon her and she detests this. The comparison made between Offred’s surroundings and a nunnery is also an example of her expressing her disdain for the system she has found herself in “time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors” with the determiner “few” emphasising the idea that there is a lack of many things in her life, even something as basic and previously taken for granted as a mirror. The reference to a nunnery is also ironic, given the sexual nature of Offred’s role in the house and the celibacy of a nun. The use of the adverb “once” in “as once” also shows that she remembers seemingly unimportant things about the past in an almost reminiscent way, creating further pathos for Offred’s character, who is shown to grasp at the memories she has from before she was enslaved.
Gender inequality to women is also seen in Aunt Lydia’s teaching in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, of “he made you [women] different.” This refers to the idea that women are completely responsible for the sexual acts of men, not the men themselves, because “God made them that way.” The use of God as a source of morality and authority shows how religion is being used as at least the pseudo-highest rank in the hierarchy of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. God is being used as a source of absolute authority by the ruling ranks of the hierarchy in the novel, despite the lax and sinful lives high officials like the Commander lead. This hypocrisy is used by Atwood to highlight how it is always the lower classes that are made to feel immoral and controlled, and the higher ones who use this to their benefit and don’t follow the rules themselves. The fact that God is referred to as male also reinforces male dominance and patriarchy within the social system.
D.H Lawrence also explores this idea that the lower classes dislike the upper classes in his poems. The use of the short sentences “and I smile” and “which pleases me” in “After The Opera” is used to show the contempt that lower classes have for higher ones, and the pleasure taken from their supposed disgust at seeing the lower classes and how they live. The repetition of “smile” (instead of speaking) encourages the idea that the narrator has nothing to say to the non working class because he knows it would be futile to speak out. Furthermore, D.H. Lawrence shows that when the lower classes smile, it has two implications for the upper classes. The one that the higher class understand is that it is a sign of politeness and respect. The other, more clandestine meaning, is that the lower class is actually mocking the upper class, showing them a sign of insincerity. The simile used of “ladies” being “like birds” and the adverb “anxiously” in “peer anxiously forth” implies that the bourgeois ladies are not very intelligent, and concern themselves more with making themselves look nice, than anything else. The use of “as if for a boat to carry them out of the wreckage” adds further insult to the ladies, implying that they are helpless and await for someone else to save them. These negative impressions of the women of the upper class shows contempt for them from the lower classes. It also makes reference to the fact that even at the higher ends of the British class system, there is still great inequality, because women are still subordinate to men, much like in “The Handmaid’s Tale."
Like in “After the Opera”, contempt is also shown in the poem “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is” with the imperative “let him [a bourgeoisie] meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another man’s need”. This similarly portrays the idea that the higher classes in a society are only happy and emotional because they don’t have real worries or “needs” that aren’t being fulfilled; the lower classes dislike this. The repetition of “let him” gives the impression of contempt for the upper classes by the author. Being written largely in the third person emphasises that the narrator is speaking for all of the people who are of the working class, adding to the idea that the bourgeois are isolated and disliked by others. The comparison of the bourgeois to a “mushroom” and the adjectival lexical choices of “wormy”, “hollow”, and “sickening” work together to create a very negative image of the bourgeois. The extended metaphor in “what a pity they can’t all be kicked over” creates the parody that the bourgeois are like an undesirable weed or “mushroom” in society. The use of the abstract noun “pity” shows that the narrator hates the bourgeois so much that he’d prefer that they simply were not there. The verb choice “kicked over” is a powerful and aggressive one, and further emphasises contempt. The additional usage of the verb “melt” of the bourgeois weeds - in conjunction with the desire for it to happen with the adjective “swiftly” - implies that if the bourgeois were to disappear, no negative consequence would occur, and that society would be better without them.
Similarly to the other two D.H Lawrence poems but to a lesser extent, “Poverty” also shows contempt for the upper, richer classes with the narrator stating that “I do not want to be rich”. The use of such a short declarative consisting of only monosyllabic words shows just how sure the narrator is.The idea that the narrator does not want to be rich implies that there is something wrong in being so, showing negative emotions. The use of the verb participle “imagined” in “imagined themselves rich” shows the narrator implying that being rich is not about having money, but about other, more spiritual things. This is made clear with the following seemingly taboo statement about the venerated Saint Francis. He is shockingly described with the adjectives “spoilt” and “rich”. This is an attempt at irony, with the implication being that some of the seemingly poor people are richer than most because they have more of something less materialistic (e.g. love, kindness, compassion, God’s love).
Resentment is also seen later on in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ but is expressed in a different way than in D.H Lawrence’s poems or in other sections of the Novel. Contempt is seen from the Handmaid’s towards their aunts, with Offred saying “I corrected her in my head” because she is too scared to speak out, but still seeks to diminish the respectability of her unwelcome superiors.This is reinforced when Offred reveals to the reader that she thinks negatively about her mistress, saying “Serena Joy, what a stupid name”, using the adjective “stupid” to belittle. Offred insisting that the name ‘Serena Joy’ is “like something you’d put in your hair” adds to the idea that the lower classes are bitter about how the higher classes treat them, and will make attempts to ridicule them when they get the opportunity. This ties in with the idea that the Handmaid’s were forced to become the property of their owners, being renamed after their male master’s name (of Fred = Offred).
In the final extract of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, resentment is also seen. By this, Atwood indicates that the lower classes do not learn to forgive and forget what the upper classes do to them, the hatred remains constant, perhaps even grows. The use of sarcasm and parody in Offred’s prayers “what we prayed for was emptiness” shows that Offred does not care for what she is being forced to do. The use of “with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies” shows bathos, starting off with the expected and ending up with blunt and bitter comments “self denial” “semen”. This shows bitterness and resentment towards the upper classes. Atwood also includes the juxtaposition of Janine getting “carried away with this” to create humour and further bathos, with the idea that some people become so broken by their previous life or the oppression of the new system, that they start to believe and feel ridiculous ideas such as the fake prayer that Offred creates. Atwood may have done this to concede that although some people will no doubt buy into the system, they are a minority, and it is only the vulnerable and susceptible ones who do so.
To conclude, both writers portray the upper end of the relevant hierarchical systems in the texts in a negative way, and the lower end with pity and understanding. “The Handmaid’s Tale” focuses on oppression and pathos of the lower classes, whilst D.H Lawrence turns his attention to the negative aspects of being in the upper classes. Both writers portray the upper classes as having something missing in them, feeling too much emotion over mundane things. Moreover, the lower classes are consistently portrayed as holding contempt for the higher ones. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Atwood explores the concept that the apparent emotionlessness of the lower classes is only there because it easier that way for them to survive. Atwood expresses that in reality, the lower classes feel and long for things just as much as anyone else. D.H Lawrence also expresses the idea that the lower classes may feel less than the upper, but it is only because their feelings are more genuine and sincere than that of the higher classes.
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DK (author) from London on July 01, 2012:
Thank you very much, she really is special :) x
diplorging from Serbia on June 30, 2012:
This is beautiful and rich text about one of my dearest stories ever. I really apriciate what you did here, because for me Margareth Atwood is one of the greatest living writer.