A Comparative Analysis of the Regulation of Information in The Handmaid’s Tale and Where the Crawdads Sing
by Olivia Morreale
Nominated by Ani Bezirdzhyan for English 124: Writing & Literature:
“Into the Middle of Things: Reading Non-Linearly”
Olivia’s essay opens with a captivating introduction on the ways in which texts can theorize their own censorship. She presents the stakes of her argument with clarity and purpose, drawing her reader into a complex comparative analysis between two disparate novels: The Handmaid’s Tale and Where the Crawdads Sing. The intricate layers of her writing unfold gracefully onto the page as she carefully guides her audience through the development of her argument. No stone is left unturned, no passage is left to speak for itself. Olivia’s vigilant close readings add texture and strength to her central claims while her fluid transitions soften the edges of her capacious analysis. Seamlessly tightening the various threads of her argument, Olivia weaves together a compelling discussion on the ways in which power and subversion derive strength from the peripheries of education. As a reader, you finish this essay with a renewed understanding of the vital importance of agency in the absence of access.
- Ani Bezirdzhyan
“Your Education is Your Power”: A Comparative Analysis of the Regulation of Information in The Handmaid’s Tale and Where the Crawdads Sing
In the modern-day United States, texts like The Handmaid’s Tale are censored from many public high school curriculums. Its futuristic ideas of religious dominance and female subordination are not tolerated, evidenced as novels of similar genre have also been removed from public education. The government’s motion to repeal access to texts of this nature parallels themes discussed in The Handmaid’s Tale and Where the Crawdads Sing. In an analysis of power structures, the regulation of education disempowers those of low status across both societies of the stories. This paper will identify the ways in which Offred and Kya respond to the censorship of academia in their environments and why their behaviors represent their respective tenacity. The lens of Offred’s limited rebellion in response to the erasure of academia in Gilead allows readers to understand the grit Kya has that allows her to succeed in spite of the oppressive structural inequalities she faces in Barkley Cove. Through the presentation of structural oppression as lacking access to information in The Handmaid’s Tale, readers understand that Kya utilizes traditionally impractical modes of education to reclaim her agency, and thus, acts as the antithesis of both Gilead and Barkley Cove’s moral ethics and methods of achievement.
The dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale is told through the narrative of Offred, who documents the erasure of education through her observations of the public’s dynamic and through a relationship with her commander. While walking through the barren town to acquire groceries, she remarks on the absence of what used to be: “Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and the university is closed” (Atwood 23). Offred’s response to a visible censorship of academia represents her weakness. A short sentence structure reveals a certain bluntness to her tone; through this choice of language, it seems as though Offred has accepted the circumstances. In fact, she passively reminisces on the past, without considering the necessary action required to revert the State to its previous functioning. While there are still doctors, as they are imperative to sustaining the physical health of Gilead’s residents, lawyers’ and professors’ occupations became banned. Given that the government wants complete control, it can be deduced that authoritative figures fear lawyers as they may infringe on the dictatorship and professors as they may weaponize the population through the power of education.
The vacancy of university buildings and law firms illustrates an apocalyptic society: one that can function on the power, or knowledge/authority, of those who lead Gilead because the citizen body is suffering through a public deficit of knowledge and information. This environment is explored through Offred’s relationship with the Commander and a particular scene in which he taunts Offred with a glimpse of old-world academic paraphernalia. After developing an unsanctioned relationship with the Commander, he gives her a Vogue magazine. While reading it, she thinks “I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, and that he found pleasure in seeing me do it” (Atwood 157). Offred feels “naughty” while reading the text, which explores her emotions toward gaining some sense of power within her limited society. She feels out of place because of her status as a handmaid and that she is to be punished for her behavior, displaying how she has become ingrained in the government’s teachings and powerless as a result. Although Kya shares similar limitations to Offred’s experience in regard to status and access to education, readers understand the ways in which Kya regains her agency and overcomes her limitations through resilience and tenacity.
The fact that Offred has embodied the doctrine of Gilead and consequently does not rebel against her limited access to education is contrasted by the story Where The Crawdads Sing in which narrator Kya overcomes social isolation and restricted access to resources. When the government mandates Kya to begin school at the age of seven, she is ostracized by her classmates for her spelling of dog as “G-o-d” (Owens 28). Following this, she “sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak” (29). As a result of Barkley Cove’s structures of power and class, her classmates attempt to restrict Kya’s comfort in the classroom by discriminating against her. Kya compares her experiences to the marsh, which she analyzes and observes in great detail. She uses this coping mechanism to remain focused in class until the end of the day, which displays a heightened awareness of herself and her surroundings. In addition, Kya does not retort to her classmates’ discriminatory behaviors and acts passively so as to not create additional drama. While some may believe that Kya is just submissive in nature, it becomes clear through this lens that her coping skills demonstrate emotional intelligence.
The idea that Kya is resilient and mature is further reinforced by her experiences on the bus coming home from school. In contrast to her peers’ inability to think for themselves and actively consider how Kya’s geographical location works towards her disadvantage, Kya is able to apply deductive reasoning and problem-solving skills to the situation. They say to her, “‘Where ya been, marsh hen? Where’s yo’ hat, swamp rat?’” (Owens 30). Understanding that the teachers at school do not gossip to students about Kya, it can be concluded that her peers reiterate what is said by their parents, thus displaying weak critical thinking. Returning home from school, Kya asks herself, “Why put maself up for being laughed at?”, further showing her emotional intelligence: she actively recognizes the pain inflicted upon her because of her status and takes a subsequent action to prevent it from happening in the future (Owens 30). These insights into Kya’s early experiences allude to her reclamation of education that happens in her adolescence and adulthood, which contrasts Offred’s reality in Gilead. Despite the amount of power Offred may assume, she is intellectually immobile because she does not find ways to rebel against the structure of her society. Through an understanding of structural oppression in The Handmaid's Tale as being denied access to opportunities that nourish and sustain personal growth, readers identify the limitations Kya must overcome so that she can become a productive member of society. Through this lens, readers understand that Kya is able to assume unconventional modes of power and develop her knowledge in the process of doing so.
Kya has agency because of self-sustainability and independence, which makes her more effective in acquiring knowledge as compared to Offred’s attempts to gain power through her observational skills and thought processes. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is seen as powerful because is able to protect herself; she learns through others to retain her anger and control her thoughts, eliminating opportunities for her to cause disruption and subsequent punishment. At the beginning of the novel, Offred speaks of how she wants to believe that she is in charge of her destiny. When considering the daunting reality that the State may remain under the government of Gilead for the rest of her life, she says, “I would like to believe this a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it… If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending” (Atwood 39). By changing tenses in a repeating sentence structure, specifically looking at the progression of “would” to “need” to “believe”, Offred displays how she is using her mental fortitude to convince herself of a false reality as a means of manifesting hope. She is grounded in the idea that there “will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it” (39). In comparison to other handmaids, Offred’s ability to cope and deal with the unchangeable is significantly better than those who commit suicide or become insane.
Furthermore, Offred associates herself so heavily with the other handmaids during Janine’s delivery that she speaks from the perspective of all the handmaids, which serves as supporting evidence of her observational skills and consequent power in Gilead. Atwood writes, “we can feel it like a heavy stone moving down, pulled down inside us, we think we will burst. We grip each other’s hands, we are no longer single” (Atwood 135). Offred understands the other handmaids’ emotions and behaviors so much so that she is able to identify with them. These modes of reclamation are effective in keeping Offred stable in her position as a handmaid. At this point, it has become clear that Offred is only able to be powerful through passivity. In this, Atwood conveys to readers that Offred’s understanding of the physical limitations of her environment is a way in which she maintains herself. While Offred understands her environment in the same way as Kya does, she lacks certain qualities that help her to succeed. Therefore, Offred is seen as stagnant in comparison to the scope of Kya’s rebellion.
In addition to having the same observational skills Offred has, Kya maintains a relationship with the marsh and uses its landscape to further her education, which represents her ability to utilize her resources and displays her analytical thinking and pragmatism. Following her dad’s departure from the marsh, Kya steps onto a nail. Without adult advice and education to know how to care for herself, she submerges her foot into the mud, which helps “the head-pain seep away like water into the sand” (Owens 34). Because she has observed the creatures of the marsh using its natural elements, she understands the setting’s functions. As Kya is isolated from connection, she respects the marsh for its healing properties, and in honor, “[lays] her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh [becomes] her mother” (34). Considering that this event also follows her first and final day at school, it can be inferred that Kya longs for a support system. At this moment, she is not only experiencing the physical pain of the nail in her skin, but is also learning the social repercussions of her physical location and class: Kya suffers mental pain and needs a source of solace to help her through the discrimination she experiences at school. She identifies the marsh as her educator from this point on in the novel, making various connections between nature and her life in a myriad of different circumstances.
Most notably, Kya relates her relationship with Chase to a female firefly, which allows us to understand her use of the environment as a way to reclaim her agency. She thinks of fireflies when considering Chase “[because females] draw in strange males with dishonest signals” (Owens 274). By parallelling the dynamic of insects to her physical and sexual abuse, Kya relates the night with Chase to her experience in society. Understanding that Chase manipulates Kya into submission throughout their relationship so that he can ascertain sexual pleasure, the narrator relays a sense of disappointment in herself when she asserts, “female insects… know how to deal with their lovers” (274). She shames herself by comparing her experiences to that of female flies and has a disparaging tone toward the fact that she did not see the rape coming. In this remark, she alludes to the fact that she mimics the behaviors of insects and creatures so as to protect herself, ultimately displaying her innovative modes of problem-solving.
Kya’s use of her environment is greater than Offred’s; however, a close inspection of Offred’s relationship with her commander shows how she somewhat rebels against the standards of Gilead’s society, which is important to explore. The handmaid’s manipulation of the Commander during one of their secret meetings illustrates her as deviant and begins a conversation about what it means to be powerful. Following various private conversations with him, the Commander asks her “to kiss [him]” (Atwood 139). Similar to the way that Kya uses the resources available to her in the marsh, Offred wants to use the amenities in the house. Prior to responding to the Commander’s wish, she “[thinks] about how [she] could take the back of the toilet apart… [she] could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study” (140). An underlying motive becomes revealed in her detailed plan to inflict pain upon the Commander. Considering that she cannot become emotionally attached to him because of the suffering he causes her, she makes use of the opportunity to meet with him and subsequently uses their intimacy as a means of rebellion.
Although she may not be able to cause him physical harm, she displays an aptitude for emotional manipulation. “[Thinking] about [how the] blood [would come] out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands” if she were to murder the Commander, Offred conveys how she uses these meetings as a means of schadenfreude (Atwood 140). She taunts him with the prospect of intimately having her, which gives her a sense of an emotional hierarchy. In fact, she says that the gratification he would get from killing the Commander would be “sexual”, which makes a reference to the fact that causing him pain gives her an abundance of pleasure similar to what people experience in sexual intercourse. When readers learn that he “was so sad” upon receiving an improper kiss, it becomes clear that Offred has gleaned some control in their relationship, which gives her a purpose beyond being the person with whom the Commander has sex. Following a close read of the novel, this was one of the only scenes in which Offred acts on her desire to regain her agency. In comparison, the plethora of examples from Where the Crawdads Sings demonstrates Kya’s determination to be educated, and thus, powerful.
While Offred is integrated in Gilead’s society and absorbed in societal structures, Kya is not active in Barkley Cove, which allows her to live in the periphery and creates more opportunities for rebellion. Offred is limited by the extent of her rebellions in Gilead’s society because of the legal restrictions on female conduct, and Kya is able to fully defy the traditionality of her town’s culture. Because she is regarded as “marsh trash”, the public does not pay attention to her behaviors. Kya is unlimited by the scope of her landscape, which allows her to pursue an informal education that leads to the publication of many well-respected books. Following Tate’s teachings, Kya “could read anything now… and once you can read anything you can learn everything. It was up to her” (Owens 131). In the context of her situation, the only way for her to progress is through atypical schooling. She finds power in the fact that “nobody’s come close to filling their brains… We’re all like giraffes not using their necks to reach the higher leaves” (131). Due to the fact that she can read, she is not bound to anyone else and can exist and learn in marsh without supervision or guidance. In this sense, Kya rebels against Barkley Cove’s social construction of what it means to be “civilized”. Because her publications are widely received by scientists across the United States, she redefines the idea that where one comes from does not define their success, and in doing so, reworks ideas about power and status, both in the context of Barkley Cove and Gilead.
Through descriptions of the dystopian nature of Gilead’s society, The Handmaid’s Tale gives readers insight into the ways Kya establishes herself in Barkley Cove. In Kya and Offred’s stories, readers understand that restricted access to academia disadvantages marginalized parties in both societies. Kya’s story posits that living on the edges of society helps her gain agency and a critical perspective that rebels against the institutional structures of Barkley Cove. More generally, both narrators’ experiences make a statement about the necessity of education: that it is not to be tampered with, that people cannot be denied access to academia, and that it can change the course of one’s life.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale, Suntup Editions, 1985, pp. 23-140.
Delia, Owens. Where the Crawdads Sing, Putnam, 2018, pp. 28-274.