“Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.” – Leo Tolstoy
top Urban Outfitters dress Forever 21 boots TopShop UK
I’ve started off 2014 with a bang with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. When I was reading the last hundred pages of the book, I frequently closed it and put it down and buried my face in my hands and said, “I can’t take it. The pressure is too much.” It’s frightening at times but unlike 1984 (my guidepost for all things dystopian), the frightening aspects are not tied to the plot exactly, but rather, the fear lies in the elements of the world itself: Atwood has created a world in which women are truly second-class citizens, in which they are valued (or not valued) for the ways in which they are used sexually by men.
There are the Wives, capital “W”, who are revered. There are the Daughters, clad all in white and kept completely separate from the world. There are the Unwomen, those who cannot produce children and who are shipped off to the Colonies to perform dangerous and menial tasks. And then there are the Handmaids, dressed all in red, like our protagonist, Offred.
Our setting is Gilead, a new nation instated after the President and Congress have been annihilated, after the Constitution is suspended, and after a theocracy has been established. The birth rate has plummeted and the Handmaids are those women who have been assigned to copulate with the high-ranking Commanders, to have the children the Wives cannot, and they only have three chances (three cycles of Commanders) to birth a child before they are deemed Unwomen and shipped off to Colonial hell. These women don’t even retain their names; Offred is called such because she is the handmaid “of Fred.” This is a world where a woman’s worth is tied to her purity and/or fertility, and she has no identity independent of her assigned Man.
The present narrative of Gilead is punctuated by Offred’s nostalgic recollections of a normal 1980s American existence. She fought with her feminist activist mother, debated with her outrageous best friend Moira, conducted an affair with a married man and when he divorced and married her, Offred can remember her five-year-old daughter, who was taken from her. She remembers being placed in the Red Center, where other future Handmaids were taught to think of themselves as empty vessels to be filled with babies. They were taught a strict Christian ideology, taught to be pure, that sex is not to be enjoyed, and that rape is their fault. Stripped of all natural human rights, of their previous lives and loved ones, controlled by fear, Offred’s tale is a haunting one full of truths of what would happen if contemporary abuses against women become not only the norm, but the law.
Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (127)
As a dystopian tale, the novel is lacking in several ways. The voice of the speaker, whose real name is never revealed, feels distant and somewhat unrelatable. The world she builds is also riddled with holes and feels allegorical. I tend to think these features are deliberate, however. I feel like Atwood used the dystopia trope to highlight more important issues, and her undeveloped world may be due to the narrative method: Offred, as a sheltered Handmaid, doesn’t know what is actually going on in Gilead. We see what she sees. We know only what she knows.
The Handmaid’s Tale feels more like a collection of all the ways women can be abused/controlled/exploited than a novel with a tight plot and exciting characters. It’s a cautionary tale more than anything else, but in this way it seriously delivers. I judge a dystopian tale by the terror it instills in me and the amount of despair it manages to elicit in the reader (I like depressing, soul-shattering reads, apparently). In the first respect, The Handmaid’s Tale receives top marks; in the second, thankfully, it sort of falls flat. Offred’s fate is left uncertain but there’s nothing like that one-two punch at the end of 1984 where the reader realizes that there is no escaping the strong arm of the government. I feel like an ending like that is powerful for a reason: it is much more effective in ramming the message down the reader’s throat that this world is possible, terrible, and must be actively warded against.
A Commander on the status of women in Gilead:
This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook? (219-220)
Atwood, M. (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.
The thing about historical fiction is that often it’s more fiction than historical. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, a faux autobiographical novel narrated by Helen of Troy, who almost definitely didn’t actually exist. Margaret George is well known for her pseudo autobiographies: The Autobiography of Henry VIII was a bestseller, and her Memoirs of Cleopatra was a favorite of mine in high school. But by the time I read Helen of Troy, I felt too skeptical to truly accept Helen of Troy as a woman with twenty-first century motives and desires. Sure, it’s nice to read about her as a real person and not as a trophy wife or a shameful woman (a la The Iliad and literally every interpretation of her since antiquity) but I came away from reading the book feeling as if no light had been shed on the what Helen of Troy represents, only what she would have been like if Sparta were a city in contemporary America.
I won’t deny that the narrative and characterization are refreshing in terms of the immortal Helen of Troy: she’s an intelligent young lady who manages to take the reins in her seemingly predetermined princess’s life. When the time comes to select a husband, Helen asserts her independence and requests that she be allowed to choose the man she will marry, a departure from the canonical account and the historical Spartan tradition of a parent-arranged marriage. In her marriage to Menelaus, she cannot find happiness because he fails to please her sexually, a very modern notion. Helen also hates her beauty and wishes it away, deeming it an unnecessary burden upon her freedom and happiness. Most importantly, the decision to leave Troy with Paris is entirely hers; though the narrative incorporates Aphrodite cursing Helen with insatiable sexual desire for Paris, the goddess of love does not force Helen’s hand. Rather, Helen debates and despairs and ultimately decides her course of action.
What we’re left with is a portrayal of Helen of Troy as smart, capable, compassionate, and most importantly, a sympathetic character readers are meant to understand as a normal woman, albeit the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen of Troy’s first-person narration relates the events of the Trojan War in their entirety and manages to make clear her motives, desires, frustrations, and regrets, as well as the way she relates to and understands her beauty. What emerges is a complex, tangible Helen that perhaps does too much explaining. Because readers may be more inclined to assume her guilt, George goes to great lengths to mitigate Helen’s blame and emphasize her humanity. She’s an apologist in moments throughout the novel, cursing her beauty and her decisions, to the point where it becomes exhausting and makes Helen seem a bit whiny. George does well with responding to a historical tradition that deprives Helen of a voice and turns her into an ideal or an archetype. However, George’s Helen is modern one whose treatment of the “problematic” nature of beauty represents a contemporary society in which the significance of beauty takes a backseat to intelligence and competence.
George wants to say: it’s okay that Helen was so dangerous and beautiful, because she was smart and independent, too. But what if she wasn’t? What does Helen’s dangerous beauty mean, really? Margaret Atwood thinks she has the answers.
If you haven’t read the poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” literally stop everything you’re doing and read it. I’ll wait 😉 It’ll change ya life.
In “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Atwood creates a modern-day Helen with the same parentage and fearsome beauty her ancient counterpart possessed, but instead of a queen of Sparta she is an exotic dancer. Atwood’s Helen comes closest to highlighting the nature of beauty: that it is perceived as dangerous and therefore must be controlled or mitigated. This Helen is unabashed by her profession as a countertop-dancer, even though she is aware that using her sex appeal is disgusting to most women. Those women tell her she “should be ashamed” of herself, that she should “get some self-respect and a day job.”
This Helen knows she is being exploited by using her beauty, but she is also aware that denying her beauty is also exploitation. Atwood’s Helen believes that working as a cashier “selling gloves” is more demeaning than being a stripper, because at least as a dancer, she sells something powerful and “nebulous”—desire. Either way she is oppressed, so she’ll “take the money” anyway. Helen in this form is hyper-aware of her power over men and that the desire she arouses inspires just as much loathing: “Such hatred leaps in them, my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary hopeless love.” Most importantly, she understands that everyone who gazes upon her wishes to control her, or else define her so that they may diminish her power. Helen purrs, “the rest of them would like to watch me/and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/as in a clock factory or abattoir./Crush out the mystery./Wall me up alive/in my own body./They’d like to see through me.”
Yet she defies every effort to capture or cage her. At the close of the poem Helen declares her divinity: “Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!/Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,/I hover six inches in the air/in my blazing swan-egg of light./You think I’m not a goddess?/Try me./This is a torch song./Touch me and you’ll burn.”
In the context of contemporary feminism, Helen is both fascinating and problematic. Third-wave feminism differs from its previous manifestations because it acknowledges, and in some cases embraces, the idea that beauty is powerful. Whether it should be used, or some would say abused, remains a controversial question. Verifying the power of female beauty is problematic because some perceive Helen’s seductive power as less congenial than the violent method of taking control her sister, Clytemnestra, exhibited by killing her philandering and murdering husband. Control through “femininity” treads dangerous ground by making a man’s gaze necessary to a woman’s power, and by dismissing her other strengths like intellect or self-dependence.
In this social environment, Helen of Troy has been abused. It is too easy to dismiss her as the self-hating woman, or exonerate her on the grounds of divine intervention in order to fit her into a neat, easily-understood package. Attempts in antiquity and recently have tried and failed to define her mystique, reducing Helen either to a face without a brain or a brain without a face. In Margaret George’s case, she tries to discount the power of Helen’s beauty by creating a character with agency who desperately wishes to look normal. Only in Atwood’s poem do readers see a complex analysis of precisely what makes Helen of Troy so seductive, complex, powerful, and ultimately immortal.
A few months ago, I got it into my head that I wanted a flapper birthday. Or, more specifically, a Gatsby-esque birthday, complete with cloches, bottomless champagne, and an attentive Leonardo DiCaprio. I told my sister my great idea, telling her that everyone can wear cute hairbands and glittery skirts with fringe and bob their hair (extreme, but still) and she says, “Um, isn’t that a little weird? Like, for all of us to go out dressed like flappers like it’s Halloween?”
And so, with her judgmental reaction, my dreams were crushed. But it had gotten me thinking about the outfit I wanted to wear on my birthday, and the shoes. In the Twenties, and even until the Forties, designer shoes were custom-made, and the heels were specially ordered by style. These heels were made from celluloid to create a marbled look and came in all colors, jewel-tone and pastel alike. Oh, and they were also bedazzled to the extreme. The amount of detail on these heels are so phenomenal that particular ones are featured in fashion-related museum exhibitions and carefully preserved.
I wanted them.
Here are some examples:
I started with the heel:
I found these for $25 at my local Easy Pickins (Modcloth had them for $40 + shipping!) and then I ordered two sample-size swatches of fabric from a fabric website. They were 3 x 5″ swatches, which was the perfect size for the back of the shoe.
Then, I ordered a beaded appliqué piece from Etsy that I tore apart to reveal only the jeweled parts, along with some blue rhinestones from a craft store. I also picked up white paint.
Glued it on with simple fabric glue.
Lovely! Now the heel…
I used white paint with a little shimmer in it to duplicate that shiny, celluloid effect. It’s not perfect, but I like the way it came out:
I love when literature and fashion make friends; for example, this blouse from Modcloth named after the main character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth–the “Lily Bart Blouse.” I read The House of Mirth in high school, but I think I’m definitely due for a re-read. In the meantime, I’ll wear pretty things:
I have to admit: this post is entirely inspired by Frozen, my new favorite movie (I’m a sucker for Pixar movies and pretty girls). The Disney film reminded me of one of my favorite books when I was a child, Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre. The story of Frozen and The Two Princesses of Bamarre are similar: two sisters, heirs to the throne–close friends but dissimilar in temperament. Meryl, the older, is “a concentration of focused energy, brave” while her younger sister Addie is “afraid of almost everything–from monsters to strangers to spiders.” Their kingdom of Bamarre is a land filled with dangers like dragons and gryphons; while Addie longs only for peace and tranquility, it is Meryl who itches for adventure. She wants to leave the palace’s walls and fight to save her land. She wants adventure for the sake of adventure, to prove her worth and her bravery.
Enter the Gray Death, a bubonic plague-like disease that haunts the denizens of Bamarre. It is a quick-acting disease and utterly incurable. Meryl has pledged from a young age that she will find the cure, but it is Meryl, not Addie, who contracts the terminal illness. Terrified for her sister and for herself, Addie finds the bravery within herself to set off on the quest Meryl always said she would take: the quest for the cure. With her ailing sister at home whose life is dwindling quickly, Addie doesn’t have time for fear, and must muster her courage in her search for the cure.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre is an interesting exploration of two kinds of bravery: Meryl’s bravery that seems on display (though no less genuine) and Addie’s bravery, driven by duty and a strong love for her sister. It’s the difference between slaying a sleeping dragon for the sake of it and defending your family against that same dragon’s attack. Sometimes the measure of bravery is in the details of the act, not the act itself. When extreme circumstances arose, Addie’s courage surpassed Meryl’s bravado (albeit her magnanimous bravado). While Meryl has mettle (ha) she also wants glory and honor; Addie just wants to save her sister and her people.
The dynamic between the two sisters and the way this novel explores female power and emotion reminds me of Frozen. There are also aesthetic similarities: Meryl, the fair and stronger, older sister, reminds me of the ice-blonde Elsa, powerful yet conflicted. And freckled Addie reminds me of the quirky and naive Anna, who finds herself in similar extreme circumstances, having to save her sister not only from external enemies but also from herself.
The character of Elsa was most interesting to me for several reasons. Born with the ability to create ice and snow from her touch, Elsa has had to hide her power her entire life to protect those around her. Her father taught her to “conceal it, don’t feel it,” a mantra she has held her entire life. When her powers finally bubble over, Elsa cannot hide her true self anymore and she flees into a mountain, and the song that accompanies is a declaration of independence.
She sings, “be the good girl you always have to be” before declaring that “that perfect girl is gone.” Before, she was buttoned up to the neck with her hair carefully twined into a modest knot; after she lets loose her powers and lets go of her fear, she transforms into a woman who explores her sexuality. She lets her hair down and creates a beautiful, sexy dress for herself–and this is most important–away from the male gaze. Elsa’s predicament–always having to hide her true self and her powers–is an allegory for constraints put on women. Either good girl or bad girl, there is always a right and wrong for women, but away from society, Elsa is free to be powerful and sexy. “No right, no wrong for me,” she sings. “I’m free.” She’s free to be herself and explore her power.
I have to commend Frozen for consciously debunking major fairy-tale tropes. Though not perfect, Frozen mocks several oft-used Disney concepts such as true love’s kiss and love at first sight. Though not earth-shattering, it’s subtly progressive (by Disney standards) and it’s lovely to know that young children will grow up admiring women such as Elsa and Anna, who break the molds. They manage to be strong yet feminine, a departure even from such recent Disney princesses as Merida, an obvious tomboy. It is possible to be feminine, beautiful, powerful, and independent. Princess stories are like that, too: beautiful yet powerful to youngsters, and if I’m any example, the good ones resound for many years to come.
Love these boots so much! Beware of dancing, however. Pointy toes are v. sharp.
top Garbage shoes Jeffrey Campbell for Nasty Gal purse Charming Charlie shorts Forever 21 lace cover thrifted
Many, many books were read this year. Here’s the list–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Only 28 books this year: such a disappointment. In my defense, I did begin a blog this year, a huge goal for me. Thanks all for visiting, commenting, and following. I promise more books and clothes in the near future. Happy New Year!
This book will always have a special place in my heart (and my shelf). I’ve already stated my appreciation for good, solid YA literature before and this one takes the cake for sophisticated, interesting literature that does not treat adolescents like juvenile idiots. I read it when I was fourteen and it quickly became one of my favorite books (granted, I was 14, but still). A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is intellectual and empowering to young girls, as well as frightening, sexy, and full of difficult truths that any teen, or indeed, any person, can appreciate. This rich novel combines sexuality, power, feminism, Victoriana, and teenage growing pains with the utmost elegance.
Gemma Doyle is a sixteen-year-old girl living in India with her family in 1895. This is a time when Queen Victoria was the Empress of India, when India (and most of the world) was filled to the brim with English colonists, when the British Empire was at the peak of its colonial dominance. Gemma is a somewhat spoiled, insecure young woman who wants desperately to be a fine lady in London, and to not be festering in sweltering colonial India. Impatient with her mother and petulant to the extreme, Gemma spends her sixteenth birthday witnessing–in a trance-induced vision–a horrifying, supernatural event: a dark spirit stalking her mother and Mrs. Doyle’s desperate act of suicide in order to escape the creature.
Traumatized by her mother’s death, Gemma is shipped off to London like she always wanted, but she is no longer the girl she was. Not only is she grieving over her mother’s death, but she is also terrified of the vision she had, and the visions she continues to have. She thinks she’s hallucinating when she has visions of a little girl speaking to her. Afraid she’s going mad, Gemma reluctantly enters Spence Academy, a ladies’ finishing school, as “a ghost of a girl, one who nods and smiles but who isn’t really here.” In a world of prim, proper ladies who are expected to be highly marriageable, Gemma feels like nothing more than damaged goods.
Enter the ladies of Spence Academy, three in particular: Felicity Worthington, the daughter of an admiral and the ultimate “bad girl” who sneaks off in the middle of the night to have love affairs with handsome gypsies; her best friend Pippa Cross, the most beautiful girl in school, but only a merchant’s daughter with the pressure of an advantageous marriage on her young shoulders; and Ann Bradshaw, a plain scholarship student bullied by her wealthy peers. Together with Gemma, they explore their female power in a male-dominated world such as we twenty-first century women have never known.
They also explore Gemma’s power to communicate with another world, the world of realms and dreams, a secret that her mother never told her. The four girls escape to that world to find their freedom and to test their power. All of them have something to escape from, and all of them realize the intoxication and danger of their newfound power.
There are moments in the narrative that speak volumes of the pressures and expectations placed upon young women in our era; the Victorian setting is a brilliant allegory for our own male-dominated world. One particularly emotional scene consists of the four girls telling ghost stories, until Felicity’s emotion overcomes her:
Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one…One was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of other. Bad blood. Big dreams…Their sin was that they believed. Believed they could be different. Special. They believed they could change what they were–damaged, unloved…They would be alive, adored, needed. Necessary. But it wasn’t true…So life took them, led them, and they went along, you see? They faded before their own eyes, till they were nothing more than living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be. What can’t be.
Felicity calls that the scariest story “you’ve ever heard” and she’s right. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a legitimately scary, sophisticated and historical YA novel that doesn’t treat young adults like, for lack of a more appropriate term, children. I’d say this really is a YA novel for all ages. It was a novel that, when I read it at fourteen, introduced me to many of the subjects I still gravitate toward today: history, interesting female characters, fate vs. free will, feminism, and a touch of the supernatural. This book was highly influential on me as a teen and remains to be so.
Bonus: there are two fabulous sequels, Rebel Angels, which focuses more on fate versus free will, and The Sweet Far Thing, which is heartbreaking and interesting in the way it interprets evil. The author, Libba Bray, lives close by in Brooklyn, and I’ve always wanted to go to a signing of hers. She has a new series out now, The Diviners, so hopefully I’ll get my chance to meet her during that book tour. Maybe I’ll review that one next…another supernatural historical tale, something Bray excels at.
Bray, L. (2005) A Great and Terrible Beauty. New York, NY: Random House Delacorte Press.