Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Handmaid’s Tale

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A sense of entrapment pervades both ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Explore the theme of entrapment in these two texts, making careful comparisons between them and commenting particularly on the narrative strategy of each text. In many works originating from periods of time in which repression in society was apparent, the freedom to express such individuality in itself becomes the focus. It can be said that the theme of entrapment is explored in both of these novels and that it is a pervasive image throughout.

There is a really complex relationship between narrator and narrative in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Margaret Atwood has written the novel in the First person narrative form, seeing everything exclusively through the eyes of her chosen narrative character, Offred. Although written in the First person, it reads as an interior monologue and the tantalising element of this novel is that our questions are only answered bit by bit; certain information is withheld to lure us on into the story. The First person in the dystopian novel tells us directly her feelings and about her situation and part of the novel’s power comes from that.

In ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, Thomas Hardy uses an omniscient narrator, but Hardy is an intrusive narrator upon his own narration, to voice his own opinion or reflect upon life in general. The omniscient narrator provides us with information that Tess herself does not have access to. Consequently, frequently in the novel the narrator of Tess will focus on an event in her life to tell us directly there will be future consequences for her, which reinforces inevitability as an entrapping force. The world created in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is classed as dystopian because the utopian ideals have gone wrong.

It is a dystopian society in which characters lead dehumanised lives because a utopian ideal has fallen apart or gone afoul of its original intent. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, the readers are presented with a nightmarish vision of an imminent dystopia and follows the protagonists’ struggle against repressive, totalitarian regimes. The regimes believe they are inventing a better world far from the irreligious and immoral world that Offred can remember. Atwood is conveying the unnatural suppression of individualism.

There is no chance to break free of the hierarchical boundaries and obedience to the regime is the only way of survival. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ falls squarely within the twentieth century tradition of anti-utopian or dystopian. Novels of this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but instead are terrifying or restrictive. Atwood’s, like Hardy’s novels are heavily influenced by the socio-political context in which they were written. Atwood wrote ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in 1986, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in USA and the premiership of Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

The 1980s saw a right-wing fundamentalist religious backlash against the liberating movements of the previous decades, especially the Feminist movement. Atwood’s novels offer a strongly feminist vision of dystopia and she is keen to make her dystopia believable by basing events on ‘something that has already happened in history’. Thomas Hardy was considered a fatalist. Fatalism is a view of life, which insists that all action everywhere is controlled by the nature of things or by a power superior to things.

It grants the existence of Fate, a great impersonal, primitive force, existing from all eternity, absolutely independent of human will. Due to his fatalistic outlook of life, Hardy presents the character of Tess as having a variety of forces working against her efforts to control her destiny. Tess is a victim of a terrible hostile world in which all creatures are trapped within a cruel structure of determinism. Throughout the novel, Hardy invokes several discrete yet interrelated forms of determinism to make his protagonists fate seem inevitable.

Tess is trapped both physically and emotionally in a deterministic universe, a universe in which the characters do not have any real choice or control over events, events that constitute an inexorable march towards some inevitable tragic conclusions. In most of Hardy’s works, characterisation is juxtaposed with a capricious fate. Hardy is often seen as a pessimist, about humanity’s place in the scene of things, God or Fate. In ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, fate always reigns supreme, controlling the destinies of characters. Fate and a sense of inevitability soon become the dominant themes of the novel.

Tess seems to be under the control of an external force that conspires against her and we therefore are forced to return to the supposition that she is never totally free to act and that her life is predestined. “He watched her pretty and unconscious munching through the skeins of smoke that pervaded the tent”. In Chapter 5, Hardy uses an omniscient narrator, which provides us with information that Tess does not have access to, to signal in this case that Alec will play in her destiny. Fate approaches Tess in a great variety of forms. Fate is present through chance and coincidence, which are apparent throughout.

Smoke and haze are a pervasive image in the novel and foreshadows Tess’s later experiences and difficulties, which reinforce inevitability as an entrapping force conspiring against her. The symbols of fog and smoke work effectively and metaphorically in the novel, which help contribute to the pervasive sense of fatalism. What makes this frightening structure so much worse is that the characters caught up in it are unconscious of the parts they play in their own story. Tess is unconscious of Alec watching her in this situation and this unconsciousness is vital and it is deliberately emphasized and articulated by the narrative voice: Thus the thing had begun.

Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man… and not the right and desired one in all respects” Tess is trapped in this deterministic universe because the ability to govern one’s own life and to be able to make choices based on judgements and beliefs is not possible in a universe such as this. It seems impossible for the characters to recognise when it is the right time to do something. It is as if that behind these wrong paths is the sense of how things could have been.

Tess only might have only asked why she was doomed to figure in the distorted version of her life, for the question itself is rendered inappropriate in the fact of a universe, which twists order into chaos of wrong meanings. Thus the forces that conspire against Tess go far beyond mere events in which she gets involved and makes wrong decisions. In addition, the narration is everywhere buttressed by words such as, ‘doomed’ and ‘destined’ and this extensive use of foreshadowing is typical, especially in the earlier phases of the novel, which reinforce inevitability as an entrapping force for Tess.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, like other major works by Hardy, although technically a nineteenth century work, anticipates the twentieth century in regard to the nature and treatment of its subject matter. His works are not only a reflection of his personality but also the contemporary Victorian period. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ deals with several significant contemporary issues for Hardy, including the struggles of religious belief that occurred in his lifetime. Thomas Hardy’s novel is a traditional realist genre of a tragedy. This genre generates some of the entrapment giving us sense that Tess is doomed from the beginning.

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