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Remembering history is harder than it looks.

2009 March 22
by Melanie

I must admit, at first I was a bit skeptical of being able to tie my major (archaeology) into any of the things we’ve been discussing lately. I know we’ve moved in from that somewhat, but it was just frustrating the living daylights out of me. Having finished “The Handmaid’s Tale,” though, I think I finally found something which I can tie in. During our discussion of Metropolis, I thought of the recurring themes in archaeology of the disconnect between workers and elite, and the loss of information on entire classes of people. The head instructs the hands to build these great monuments, but the hands have no idea what they’re actually building. They are being employed as mindless drones without any knowledge of the intended outcome of their work. The hands are also not given any means of representing themselves. When history looks back on the city, the heads will be remembered because they created the monuments and the texts and the things which will be passed on to future generations, but the hands, who have no means of representing themselves, will essentially be forgotten. As you can imagine, this happens with relative frequency in archaeology.

I was incredibly pleased to find these themes were present in “The Handmaid’s Tale” as well. It is implied that the Commanders and the Guardians are the only ones who know what is really going on in Gilead. The Handmaids are employed to reproduce, which is only a small segment of the duties to the state. They know nothing of the higher motives and pursuits of those on power, but are still enlisted to help the mission. They are also largely unnoticed. During the birthing process, the Wives gather and congratulate themselves, adopting the baby right away as if there was never a Handmaid involved. When Offred is given the photo of her daughter, she is surprised that Polaroid cameras still exist and comments that the Handmaids will be invisible in the photographic history of Gilead. Commanders and Wives and children will be remembered, as are ancient kings, philosophers, and scribes. But the Handmaids and the Marthas, the average citizens, have no means of representing themselves in history. If they wished, the rulers of Gilead could pretend they never existed, because there is no historical documentation of them. When you read about the Ancient Near East, you don’t read about the man transporting pots to sell or the woman who grinds wheat all day long. You hear about the elite, who know how and are allowed to read and write. The historical record is woefully incomplete. Without “The Handmaid’s Tale,” what would Gilead look like to us?

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