January 16, 2004
Although “The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” occur during different time periods, the two societies have many similarities, which are criticized in the novels. The high-ranking officers in “The Wars” exploit the soldiers, as the government officials in “The Handmaid’s Tale” exploit women and men who do not follow the ideals of the Gileadean society. The families of the soldiers in “The Wars” and all underprivileged citizens in “The Handmaid’s Tale” often remain ignorant to the occurrences within their own societies. The ideals and morals of modern society are violated in both novels. Despite taking place in different time periods, similar societal aspects are criticized in “The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
Citizens in “The Wars and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale” are severely disadvantaged by those in power, be it the high-ranking officers in “The Wars” or the unprivileged individuals in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. In “The Wars”, Soldiers are often put in situations that jeopardize their lives, but better the cause of the government. One such incidence occurs when Robert Ross and his fellow soldiers are told by Captain Leather to put gun beds into a crater close to the German lines. Robert “wanted to say the forward positions were crazy…he wanted to say that the guns would sink in the mud. But he didn’t say anything.” (Findley 117) Robert did not have the prerogative to dispute Captain Leather’s decision, and therefore had to put himself and other soldiers in danger because Leather thought it strategically valuable. After being put into compromising positions by the government, soldiers are forced to take matters into their own hands to save themselves. Robert and his fellow soldiers face a chlorine gas attack, and Robert finds out his men do not have gas masks. “Robert turned and shouted hoarsely to the men below him. Put your masks on!” Bates then replies, “We can’t sir… They sent us up so quickly that none of us was issued masks.” (Findley 123) Because of this failure on the part of the government, Robert is forced to take matters into his own hands, and orders his men to urinate on their handkerchiefs and breathe through the saturated material so they can survive the attack. Soldiers who ignore the orders given to them by their superiors can be killed for their disobedience. Robert and another soldier named Devil decide, against Captain Leather’s orders, to release some horses from their pen to save their lives. Leather catches Leather and Ross disobeying him and orders them to stop. “But Devlin went on driving as many horses through [the gate] as he could until, inevitably, Captain Leather shot him.” (Findley 177) Like the soldiers in “The Wars”, citizens of the Gileadean society in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are put into situations that are beneficial to the government, but endanger their own lives. One example of this is the sending of the “unwomen” and other non-valuable citizens to clean up toxic waste in the Colonies. “In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up…the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum…before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much or give you much protection, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway, they’re mostly people they want to get rid of.” (Atwood 312-13) Citizens of the Gileadean society have to find their own way of overcoming the oppression placed on them by the government. The formation of the “Mayday” organization is one example. When the black van comes to retrieve Offred from the Commander’s home, Nick whispers to her, “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them” (Atwood 366) It is through this organization that Offred is rescued from the Gileadean society. Similarly to “The Wars”, individuals who act against the wishes of the Gileadean government are put to death. The bodies of those who are killed have their bodies put on display for the rest of society to see. Offred looks at the Wall, the place where the dead men are hung, on her daily walk. “These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that want they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest.’(Atwood 42) Both the soldiers in “The Wars” and the citizens in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, are taken advantage of and endangered by those who wield the power within their respective societies.
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Another way ordinary citizens are put at a disadvantage in the two novels is by the lack of facts they obtain concerning what is happening in their societies. In “The Wars”, young men are made to think that doing to war would offer them the opportunity of glory, even in death. “Death is romantic…Someone will hold my hand and I won’t really suffer pain because I’ve suffered that already and survived… the hero sighs his way to death while linen handkerchiefs are held against his wounds. His wounds are poems.” (Findley 49) This romantic image of death is shown to be far from the truth later in the novel. While posted overseas, Robert sees bodies in the mud all around him. “He saw that the whole field was filled with floating shapes. The only sounds were the sounds of feeding and of wings.” (Findley 82) Soldiers are made to think that the war will be over quickly. “Then he said to his departing troops: ‘you will be home before the leaves have fallen from these trees!’ And now the leaves had fallen twice” (Findley 47-8) Ceremonies are used to make citizens feel that the soldiers are losing their lives for a worthwhile cause, taking attention away from the lack of facts surrounding the war. Church services, when soldiers are present, are “militant and more than likely blood-thirsty” (Findley 52) Mrs. Ross recognizes the ridiculousness of this glorification of war. “She gestured back to the sermon in progress. ‘I do not understand. I don’t. I won’t. I can’t… What does it mean- to kill you children? Kill them and then… go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?’ ” (Findley 54) Most members of the Gileadean are not aware of what is happening in their society, save their own narrow worlds. When Offred is permitted to watch a small section of a newscast she thinks, “…who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked… They only show us victories, never defeats.” (Atwood 101-2) Knowledge is seen as dangerous to the handmaids and any other unprivileged individuals. The Gileadean society in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, like “The Wars” uses a great deal of ceremony in their society to support the actions of the government. To make the Wives feel in control of the process of reproduction, certain measures are taken during copulation between the Commander and his handmaid. “My arms are raised; she holds both my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus the product… The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.” (Atwood 116) During childbirth, the Wife to whom the pregnant handmaid belongs goes through the motions of giving birth. “A small thin woman, she lies on the floor, in a white cotton nightgown… they massage her tiny belly, just as if she’s really about to give birth herself.” (Atwood 145) Citizens in “The Wars” and in “The Handmaid’s Tale” not only take part in ceremonies, which are designed to make them feel satisfied with the society in which they live, but are lied to by the government.
Perhaps the most poignant criticism of the societies in these two novels is the violation of the principals and mores of modern society. In “The Wars”, death and injury becomes common place, and stopping to help a fellow soldier is not always permitted. “That was the rule. No one went back- even for a dying comrade. Only someone wounded could stay with another wounded man… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded.” (Findley 118) More difficult to accept that this apathetic view of death is the enthusiasm that some of the soldiers in “The Wars” felt for the war and the destruction it caused. After being rained on with shells, having a close brush with death, “a bright young man with popping eyes turned to Robert and gushed at him: ‘Isn’t it marvellous!’ ” Privacy is nearly impossible for ordinary soldiers. While on the boat, going to England the men “were cramped into spaces meant to hold a quarter of their number… The make shift latrines and showers were virtually open forums where privacy was unheard of… Up in the first class accommodations, the officers were somewhat better off.” (Findley 56-7) This also shows another disadvantage soldiers face that their superiors do not. Sexual abuse is seemingly common and goes unpunished in the novel. Four men rape Robert while his is in a changing stall at Asile Desolé. “His assailants, who he’d thought were crazies, had been his fellow soldiers. Maybe even his brother officers. He’d never know.” (Findley 169) Many aspects of the society in “The Handmaid’s Tale” also contrast modern societal values. Dead bodies are put on display for all to see. When on their daily walk Offred and Ofglen, “stop, together as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. It doesn’t matter if we look. We’re supposed to look: this is what they are there for, hanging on the Wall. Sometimes they’ll be there for days, until there’s a new batch, so as many people as possible will have the chance to see them.” (Atwood 40) Death does not have much shock value to individuals in the Gileadean society, as they have been exposed to it frequently. The Handmaids take part in the execution of a man who has performed crimes against society. “There is a surge forward, like a crowd at a rock concert in the former time… Now there are sounds, gasps, a low noise like growling, yells… he’s obscured by arms, fist, feet. A high scream comes from somewhere, like a horse in terror.” (Atwood 349) These women, who are not violent in every day life, are so desensitized to death that they are able to vent their anger through murder. Rape is common with the Gileadean society, although it is not recognized as such. Handmaids are required to copulate with their Commander, if the choose not to, they will be sent to the Colonies. With citizens being desensitized to death, enjoying killing and destruction, and the acceptance of sexual exploitation, the societies in “The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” transgress the morals of contemporary society.
“The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” take place over dissimilar time spans, there are many societal parallels that are criticized in both novels. Soldiers are exploited by their superiors in “The Wars”, just as the unprivileged citizens in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are used solely to benefit the government. Ignorance to the true motivations and actions of the government are evident in both novels. Social mores and values of present-day society are infracted in both “The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Regardless of occurring over different time periods, there are several analogous aspects in the two societies represented in “The Wars” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which are criticized.