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In the two books Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dweller’s, the protagonists are very different in character. However, both of these women lost their identity due to an outside influence. In each of the books we see the nature of the lost identity, the circumstances which led to this lost identity and the consequences which occurred as a result of this lost identity.
In the book The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood our main character (Offred) has had her whole world stolen away by the government of Gilead. This new society is sexually repressed, and is founded by religious extremists. Women are only used to produce children, and have no rights at all in the new world of Gilead.
In the book The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence our main character Stacey MacAindra has been thrown into a life of responsibility. She has an uncommunicative husband who means well, but shows her no love. And four children who she feels are being ruined by her every action. She feels that life has much more to offer than the tediousness of every day routine.
The nature of Offred’s lost identity is very drastic. Before the new religious group of Gilead took over the world she was a very normal every day woman. She did what was expected of her time and continued to do so after the take over. She had a husband and a daughter who she loved very much. But the new society which she lives in love is not permitted. “ If I thought that this would happen again I would die. But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere'; . Offred also had the choice of free will before her civilization changed. But then slowly women began to lose all of their rights and were no longer allowed to have jobs or even to use money,
“Sorry, he said. This number is not valid.';
“That’s ridiculous, I said. It must be, I’ve got thousands in my account.';
“It’s not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it’s not valid,';(p.164).
“In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from'; (p.24). Social class was not a racial matter before the take over; and each individual was treated equally.
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In The Fire Dwellers, the nature of the protagonist’s lost identity was very gradual. Stacey MacAindra was a very free-spirited girl who lived her life to it’s fullest; before her marriage to Mac. So had no boundaries or rules to bide by. She never respected her mother’s wishes; and commonly disobeyed them:
Stacey with tomato-colored mouth, regarded by mother more sorrow than anger. You are certainly not going to a public dance hall, dear. You wouldn’t want to be the sort of girl that people wouldn’t respect, would you? It a dance, Mother, for heaven’s sake, not an orgy.
But once she was married she became a very obedient wife. When she was young she loved to be held closely by a man. Not necessarily in a sexual manner, but even just to be dancing closely was a wonder to her, “Stacey Cameron in her yellow dress with pleats all around the full skirt. Knowing by instinct how to move, loving the boy’s closeness, whoever he was'; (p.124). But because of the oath of marriage she was not able to do this anymore. Stacey Cameron went from an outgoing flirt, to Stacey MacAindra the mother of four children. As a child and teenager, Stacey loved children and was very creative. She often let her thoughts carry her to a far off land, where she was in complete control. However, after her children were born; Stacey’s patience and creativity quickly diminished. She let her self get very worn down, and was too proud to ask her husband for help, “If only I could get away, by myself, for about three weeks. Joke. Laugh now. The only time I can ever get away is when all the kids are in bed. And this period of rationed time is rapidly diminishing'; (p.159). Her entire life seemed to fall apart before her eyes; with her not even noticing.
The circumstances which led to the lost identity of Offred happened very abruptly. The first sign of change in her society was when her Constitution was suspended. It was said that it would only be temporary, but that was not the truth. People had no idea what to do; and looked anywhere for some kind of guidance. Eventually newspapers and television became very censored, for what was said to be security reasons. Then came the roadblocks, and Identipasses which were greatly approved by society, “The road blocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious that you couldn’t be too careful';(p.163). No one tried to fight the changes because they did not understand what was occurring, “There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction'; (p.163). There were rumors that new elections were to take place, for the new Constitution. However, this would take a very long process to prepare for. Streets were cleaned up, and prostitution disappeared, “They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual'; (p.163). Then finally one day everything changed. Woman were no longer allowed to hold jobs, or even buy groceries. People were shipped off to a place called the Colonies, and others went elsewhere. Things happened so quickly that no one even saw it coming.
The circumstances which led to Stacey’s lost of identity were basically the formation of her family. She was married at the young age of twenty-three, and had so much to learn about life. She thought that at the time this was right thing to do. However, she had only known Mac for six months before he asked her to marry him, “Stacey went home for supper with Julie, to talk, and one of Buckle’s friends was there. Clifford MacAindra. Six months later she thought how fortunate, to have her life settled once and for all, so ideally, at twenty-three';(p.53). She soon was a stay home mother of four children, and became very lonely. Mac was a man very caught up in his job, and rarely had time to help with the children, “ By seven in the evening, Mac is closeted in his study, as he has been every evening this week'; (p.74). Stress because of children and marriage began to severely eat away at Stacey’s character. She slowly began to be very self conscious of her appearance and felt a lack of love from her family. She felt as though her whole life was falling apart in front of her eyes.
The consequences of the lost identity in The Handmaid’s Tale, were not as severe as one would have expected. Offred was a very reasonable woman who easily adapted to the changes. Her greatest loss was that of love. The results of this lack of love were several affairs throughout the entire story. Affairs were strictly prohibited in the Gileadian society; however, they were very hard to resist as well. Offred would try to convince herself that these affairs were not about love, simply about a feeling of being wanted:
Some days I was rational. I did not put it, to myself, in terms of love. I said, I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settlers’ wives thought, and woman who survived wars, if they still had a man. Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations. (p.255)
Her adaptations to the changes around her, were simply to keep her safe. If you were caught rebelling against the guardians or Eyes as they were called, you would be put to death; or sent to the colonies where you would surely die. However, she did steal from her commander every once in while. This was done to keep herself sane, and to give herself a feeling of power, “I like this. I am doing something, on my own'; (p.92). The power that her master has over her eventually leads her to hate the world she lives in. She even feels the need to either kill her masters, or herself at times; although she knows that she won’t. However, this is a whole new side of Offred that is never seen before:
I could hide behind the door, wait until my mistress comes, hobbling along the hall, bearing whatever sentence, penance punishment, jump out at her, knock her down, kick her sharply and accurately in the head. To put her out of her misery, and myself as well. (p.274)
She was pushed too far, and given a difficult job to carry out. And in return for this, she was treated as an insignificant person. She lost her feeling of being a human being, and became a thing that produced children at the whim of others.
The consequences of Stacey’s lost identity drove her into a massive depressive state. She got no love from her husband and therefore, had to look elsewhere for it. She had an affair with a twenty-three year old man just to make herself feel wanted, “ He liked it. He loved it. Oh my God, it was marvelous. I’ve got to see him again'; (p.203). Stacey never saw that Mac really did love her, and only worked so hard to ensure that the family would be all right. She became very lonely as a result of this, and very self absorbed. All that she would think about was herself and how her every action was ruining her children’s lives. She even goes so far as to call herself a “Kid-ruiner'; (p.29). Her depression and loneliness finally lead her to almost be afraid of outside events; things that are not common in her household, and every day events. She waited to be told what to do with her life, knowing that things would never change, “Stacey, waiting to be told what life holds and withholds, the inalterable soul movements, stately as orchestral or bowel'; (p.176). Her life became so tedious that to change it in the least bit would have been drastic.
In conclusion, these two books had main character’s that were forced into a loss of identity by an outside influence. The initial changes may have varied, but they both shared in similar consequences. The deprivation of their identities, caused them both to lose contact with themselves; in meaning, contact with their former identity. And therefore, their initial being is lost forever.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland-Bantam Inc, 1985
Laurence, Margaret. The Fire Dwellers. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969