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Looking at The Character of The Trapped Protagonist in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid Tale and Sarah Kane's Play 4:48

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In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Sarah Kane’s 4:48 psychosis, both protagonists are trapped in way in which they cannot be heard, so instead monologue internally in the form of the writings they lead as opposed to simply addressing an audience. Throughout this analysis, the protagonist of 4:48 psychosis will be referred to as ‘Protagonist’ and using she/her pronouns.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is a Handmaid, which is a legally enforced concubine to the Commander. The Commander’s Wife is unable to bear child, but as Offred has had an unnamed daughter she is fertile, and is forced into a service of having sex with the Commander in order to have a child by him. Repopulation seems to be important to this dystopian regime so Offred’s life is heavily regulated, firstly to protect her from harm, secondly to keep her submissive to the regime. As a character, Offred is nostalgic, often ‘pausing’ the narrative to talk about her childhood and life before. There is little signification of the change between the past and the present of the narrative, perhaps to reflect a confusion Offred feels towards the regime, but nowhere in the narrative does Offred explicitly question the regime, making this interpretation unlikely to have been the intended interpretation. Alternatively, it reflects how roughly put-together the narrative is, due to the narrative being a transcript of Offred’s life in Gilead found on some tapes. Here, a freedom is achieved from Offred’s boredom into her past.

Offred is bored, leading a mostly empty life of sitting in her room waiting for a ceremony or her daily chores. This boredom could be what leads to her nostalgic ‘habits’; she has nothing better to do. She stretches out simple things like searching her room because she “wanted to make it last”. She revels in small pleasures, like gossiping to and eavesdropping on the Marthas, or using butter to try to keep her skin soft. She also has a dark, dry humour, much like Protagonist. However, Protagonist had a much more blunt and morbidly sarcastic humour, describing it herself as “gallows humour… from the newly-dug grave.” Both women achieve a freedom from repetitive ways of living with humorous remarks to themselves to avoid boredom and make aspects of their lives more entertaining.

In 4:48 psychosis, Protagonist speaks to a therapist on multiple occasions, takes drugs and suffers the side effects, and partakes in destructive behaviours such as alcoholism and self-harm. The narrative is very vague, with no stage directions, indication of who is speaking or even character names, leaving the entire play completely open to interpretation. As the writer, Kane, committed suicide in between the publication and first production of 4:48 psychosis, it is commonly interpreted as Kane’s suicide, despite her family and friends arguing that it shouldn’t be and critics arguing that assuming the play to be a suicide note leaves the reader overlooking Kane’s lyricism. Protagonist suffers from an unnamed mental disorder, predominantly suggested to be depression by the drugs they take; “sertraline… lofepramine… citalopram… venlafaxine… seroxat”. The play is choppy and disorganised much like The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps to reflect how abstract and scattered Protagonist’s mind is, caused by either the disorder or by the range of drugs they are on. This also reflects how disorganised the human conscience is, as the conscience often struggles to remain focused on one thought, especially when under the influence of drugs.

The Gilead regime in The Handmaid’s Tale is enforced by the Eyes. Offred and her walking companion Ofglen, as the Handmaids are not allowed out alone, see someone attacked and arrested by the Eyes, bundling the arrested man into the back of a black van like a kidnapping. When the Eyes go to arrest Oglen for being a part of the Mayday movement, Ofglen hangs herself to escape them. At the end, Offred is arrested by the Eyes’ black van, but whether this is the Eyes or the Mayday movement is left open to interpretation. The regime is also enforced by the Handmaids being re-socialised in the Rachel and Leah Institute, nicknamed the Red Centre, by the Aunts. They are kept in line mostly by the cattle prods slung on the Aunts’ hips, giving a direct comparison of women to cattle. The Aunts also use psychological punishments, Aunt Lydia’s favourite victim seeming to be Janine, who she encourages the other Handmaid’s to chant that Janine’s rape was “Her fault, her fault… Teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson,” and won’t allow her to use the bathroom until she soils herself in front of the other Handmaids. Moira, a lesbian feminist friend of Offred’s from the time before, receives the main physical punishment presented; after her first escape attempt, her feet are whipped until she cannot stand. After this re-socialisation, the Handmaids are often presented with death in order to scare them into keep them in line, as “a reminder to [them]” (said by the second Ofglen). There are bodies hanging from the Wall in public view, with signs around their necks to show what their crime was, there are live hangings at the Prayvaganza in which the viewers are made to pull on a rope to show their support of the regime and of killing deviants of the regime, and the Handmaids are encouraged to beat a man to death being told he is a rapist. This regular violence is used in order to scare the public out of disobeying the regime, stripping them of their freedom. This fear is what stops Offred from speaking, leaving her with only her internal monologue to express her thoughts with.

The nature of imprisonment is very obvious and explicit in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in 4:48 psychosis the nature of imprisonment is much more abstract. Protagonist’s imprisonment is not physical, and some would argue is entirely mental. Protagonist understands she has a mental disorder, but her imprisonment is that she cannot get help. She feels that the doctors don’t generally help, just “write it down… [and] attempt a sympathetic murmur”. She is “deadlocked by that smooth psychiatric voice of reason which tells [her] there is an objective reality in which [her] body and mind are one.” This leaves her with a freedom to express her monologue externally, but this is useless. She also has a resentment towards using drugs to ‘balance out’ chemicals in her brain to cure her depression, referring to it as “[shutting] down the higher functions of [her] brain” and “chemical cures for congenital anguish”. It could be argued that Protagonist’s escape, her own consciousness, is also her own entrapment.

This entrapment has been in place from birth, Protagonist describing it as “congenital anguish”, congenital being defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an adjective meaning “existing from birth”. Contextually, depression has been proven to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, not simply ‘feeling down’ as is commonly believed. This brings up the question as to whether there really is a ‘cure’ for, and by extension a ‘freedom’ from, the disorder. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred has memories of the change into the Gilead regime, beginning with her losing her job and her virtual money being frozen and passed to her husband. She attempts to escape but is captured and given a ‘choice’; to be sent to the Red Centre or be sent to the Colonies to clean up nuclear waste. The government tries to argue that the Handmaids have made the choice to be Handmaids, but most readers and critics would argue that this choice is too narrow to be considered a ‘choice’, as very few people would choose to be quite literally worked to death in the Colonies. The only character of interest in the Colonies is Offred’s mother, and it is never mentioned if the mother was given a choice in the matter, but as she was a feminist, and a radical one at that, the reader is left to assume that she was labelled an Un-woman and shipped to the Colonies without a choice. There does not appear to be much chance for physical freedom from Gilead, leading Offred to exercise the only power she has, the power to think, in her constant internal monologue.

Offred’s speech in The Handmaid’s Tale is very restricted, and she is only allowed to use a few select phrases when greeting the people she is allowed to talk to. The few times she speaks freely are all in illegal situations; in the Commander’s office, to the first Ofglen during their walks, and to Moira in the bathroom. She is comfortable in speaking to Moira despite the illegality of it, probably due to the history they share. At first she is afraid to speak to Ofglen and Commander, due to a fear of the repercussions. However, as she gets to know Commander she loses her fear, and is able to behave more comfortably around him and speak to him flatly, flippantly, especially after she finds out about one of the Offreds before her committing suicide. She demands “to know… whatever there is to know”, but this is not included in the novel, leaving the question as to whether this was Offred leaving it out, Professor Pieixoto cutting it out, or the Commander didn’t tell her. If it was Offred, questions are raised as to whether she does have freedom in her internal monologue to express whatever she wants to. If it was Professor Pieixoto, then Offred’s freedom of internal monologue has been stripped from her after the collapse of Gilead as she is now being censored by someone with access to her monologue. 4:48 psychosis is almost the flipside of this; Protagonist is free, even encouraged to speak, but is not listened to. She mentions that doctors “ask the questions, put words in [her] mouth”. There is an entire scene of someone, suggested to be her therapist, asking her if cutting herself relieved tension, repeating the question even after she answers “No”, then says “Lots of people [cut]. It relieves tension.” clearly showing they hadn’t listened to her at all. The therapist later tells Protagonist “No ifs or buts” to which Protagonist retorts “I didn’t say if or but, I said no.” showing not only a lack of listening, but also of the therapist twisting the Protagonist’s words; the presented doctor is no different from the mentioned doctors. She has the freedom to speak, but as this is useless she retreats into internal monologue.

The Handmaid’s Tale is written in the first person perspective, with Offred often explicitly breaking the narrative, making it very self-conscious. More than once she says she “Would like to believe this is a story [she’s] telling” “it’s… a story [she’s] telling in her head” and once refers to the reader as You, comparing a story to a letter to You as “you don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” This, especially when paired with the choppiness, jumping through time, and breaks and gaps in the narrative makes the narrative read almost like a stream of consciousness, jumping between thoughts and memories without any apparent reasoning. The play 4:48 psychosis could be read almost like Protagonist’s soliloquy, broken by scenes of Protagonist speaking to the doctor. In this interpretation, the play could be presented as self-conscious. However, in most interpretations, it is not viewed as self-conscious as Protagonist never mentions being aware of the transcribing or even the openness of her character; it is more like the reader has been transported into Protagonist’s mind than Protagonist having emptied her mind onto paper for the reader. In both texts, the work is read like reading someone’s mind, making it explicitly internal, but as the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines monologue as a soliloquy or “a long speech monopolizing conversation”, it can be argued that only The Handmaid’s Tale is a monologue, as 4:48 psychosis is broken up with conversations to her therapist(s).

Whether ‘freedom’ is achieved in the literary works or not is very open to interpretation, especially when considering the vague endings of both works. As Professor Pieixoto is transcribed to say in the Historical Notes of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no way of knowing for sure what happened to Offred after the tapes end, a large destruction of data in the early Gilead period causing Pieixoto and his partner difficulty in tracking down who Offred and the other characters supposedly were. One interpretation is that Offred was “smuggled across the border of Gilead, into… Canada, and [made] her way thence to England”. Others may interpret it as she is actually arrested by the Eyes because of her connections to the Mayday movement. If following the more optimistic former interpretation, Offred is then the only character to achieve her freedom. Moira is the only other character to really try, twice. However, this only ends with her being admitted to Jezebel’s, a brothel for Commanders and other high-class men. The only other presented escape is suicide, which is committed by the first Ofglen and one of the former Offreds, both by hanging themselves. Offred says that “there were incidents” in the early Gilead period, suggested to be multiple suicides of Handmaids, leading to measures being taken to ensure the Handmaid’s cannot hurt themselves, including removing all glass from their rooms, forbidding them from using razors or knives, and taking down light fixtures. Atwood’s use of Professor Pieixoto at the end of her novel raises questions as to the reliability of Offred as a narrator, as Pieixoto mentioned he had to guess which order the tapes were meant to be in and there may have been mistakes due to her accent, and he may have made other changes to the transcription, stripping Offred of her freedom by censoring and/or changing the monologue she has produced. In 4:48 psychosis, the obvious ‘freedom’ would be finding a cure to the protagonist’s disorder, but as already clarified there may not truly be a ‘cure’, and if there is there is no mention of the protagonist taking it, therefore it can be argued that not only does the protagonist not achieve freedom, there is no freedom to be achieved. Morbidly, the ending line “please open the curtains” may be interpreted as the protagonist’s death, the opening of the curtains being a metaphor for death perhaps linked to the convention of seeing a light when dying. There are very few other interpretations, aside from a plea for help left hanging, for lack of a better phrase, without a clear intended recipient. It has also been interpreted by more religious readers as a cry for the return of Christ as was written in Advent. But the general consensus seems to be, as eschewed by Kane’s own suicide as the interpretation may be, that the line “please open the curtains” pertains to the death, and most morbid possible freedom, of Protagonist.

The only place the protagonists can safely express themselves is in the safety of their own heads, using an internal monologue, but there are issues with this, such as the protagonist of 4:48 psychosis perhaps being trapped in their own head by their depression, and Offred still feeling the need to censor herself and use pseudonyms throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Freedom is difficult to achieve in both writings, and whether or not they achieve this freedom is up to the interpretation of the readers. The internal monologue is prevalent, but could be argued to be a linguistic device in telling the story, and it can be called in to question whether there is an alternate way to tell the stories. However, 4:48 psychosis is commonly interpreted as Sarah Kane’s own experience and view of mental illness, and Margaret Atwood’s use of first person narrative and monologue makes Offred seem more ‘real’, gives the book a stronger sense of verisimilitude, and writing the story in third person would be too impersonal and would not have the same “This is a letter to You; help me” impact on the reader.

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Looking at the Character of the Trapped Protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid Tale and Sarah Kane’s Play 4:48. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/looking-at-the-character-of-the-trapped-protagonist-in-margaret-atwoods-the-handmaid-tale-and-sarah-kanes-play-448/
“Looking at the Character of the Trapped Protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid Tale and Sarah Kane’s Play 4:48.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/looking-at-the-character-of-the-trapped-protagonist-in-margaret-atwoods-the-handmaid-tale-and-sarah-kanes-play-448/
Looking at the Character of the Trapped Protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid Tale and Sarah Kane’s Play 4:48. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/looking-at-the-character-of-the-trapped-protagonist-in-margaret-atwoods-the-handmaid-tale-and-sarah-kanes-play-448/> [Accessed 19 Oct. 2021].
Looking at the Character of the Trapped Protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid Tale and Sarah Kane’s Play 4:48 [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Mar 12 [cited 2021 Oct 19]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/looking-at-the-character-of-the-trapped-protagonist-in-margaret-atwoods-the-handmaid-tale-and-sarah-kanes-play-448/
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