A Warranted Distrust

What does the novel suggest about seeking truth even if it may lead to discomfort?

The world of Never Let Me Go is one that is riddled with mystery, deception, and broken lines of communication. Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the other residents of Hailsham constantly waver between seeking out knowledge about their future and being unsettled by what little innelt6formation they can find. Through the experiences of the characters in which they seek out truth, the novel argues that social injustice is a consequence of willful ignorance. We can see this problem in our own lives as we choose to ignore difficult social problems for the sake of our own comfort.

One of the ways willful ignorance is propagated amongst the students of Hailsham and the Cottages is through the perpetuation of rumors. These rumors not only spread false information, they distract from the cruelties and injustices Kathy and her friends experience. The harm stemming from these rumors is evident in the scene in which Ruth tells Chrissie and Rodney that it is possible for two Hailsham students to qualify for an exemption from the normal donation process if they can prove they are “they [are] properly in love.” This rumor is harmful in two interconnected ways. First, it spreads misinformation which distracts from the ethical problems surrounding the use of clones for organ donations. These rumors the surround Hailsham blur the lines between what is truth and what is lies. Second, this misinformation ultimately turns the Hailsham students against each other, forcing the student aggression away from the perpetrators, the faculty and adults of Hailsham and the Cottages,  and toward other students. For example, Ruth claims that Tommy did not know of the possibility of the deferral program because “he isn’t like a real Hailsham student. He was left out of everything and people were always laughing at him.” These acts of aggression are prevalent throughout the characters’ relationships and breed distrust between students rather than a warranted distrust of authority.

These acts of aggression and misdirection in the novel are a trying to prove a point to us that is becoming increasingly relevant to our daily lives: We must actively and continuously work against those trying to distract us from injustice. Rather than submit to lies and deception, we must question those in positions of authority in order to protect the marginalized.

A Caricature of Present Reality

“Finally, he tells me it’s time for me to go home. Those are the words he uses: go home. He means to my room. He asks me if I will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street. I say yes. We open his study door, just a crack, and listen for the noises in the hall.” (Atwood 139)

This passage depicts the tense moments as Offred leaves the Commander’s study after a night of scrabble, a forbidden act, but within the context of a larger narrative, the passage depicts central themes of the novel. Atwood uses imagery and syntax to bring to mind the dangers and struggles of womanhood, both in the novel and in the present reality.  

First, the passage consists of a metaphor  equating Offred’s room to her house and the stairway as a dark alley. The comparison illustrates a central theme of the novel, the subjection of women  because the right to own a home and the freedom to travel at night are liberties  that many readers of the book, such as women, are not necessarily granted. Atwood is paralleling the tensions and struggles Offred faces to the sexism and lack of sexual freedom faced by women of real life society.

The first textual evidence of implementation of this metaphor is when the Commander tell Offred to “go home.” The use of italics in the passage marks the short command as the most important and central part of the passage (syntax). The italicized command highlights the power assumed by the Commander because he sees no need to ask her and forcefully tells her what to do. The command also points to fact that Offred does not actually own anything in her life. Not only does she not own her own room, she does not own her own body because the Commander has assumed this responsibility with his demand.

When Offred describes the Commander speaking of the stairway as if were a dark street, she is implying that he is speaking of the stairway as if it were a dangerous space. In our past and current narratives, dark alleys are depicted as spaces where violence occurs, often towards women (e.g. back alley abortions, rape, etc.). In the passage, the dark stairway represents the dangers of Offred’s society and her own womanhood. By comparing the stairway to a dark street, Atwood relates the dangers of being a woman walking alone in a dark alley. For both Offred and women in our society, walking down a dark street alone poses a serious threat for simply being a woman.


A dark street (Image via Flickr)

Finally, rather than opening the door freely, the Commander opens it “just a crack.” This careful action represents how women must watch their every movement when dealing their sexuality and sexual health. Offred is not able to step freely into the outside world, the stairway, after she makes her own choice regarding her sexuality, kissing the Commander, out of fear of punishment from her government and society. This experience is easily relatable to women in real life modern society. The present reality for women, even in highly developed societies is one rooted in fear. If a woman wished to take responsibility for her health (e.g. abortion, birth control, etc.), she may fear judgment from family, friends, partners, or even the medical professionals on which she depends. Through use of metaphor that compares the Commander’s house to a pre-war neighborhood, this passage argues that the atrocities being committed are merely caricatures of the real society of the reader.

Diderot’s Anatomie: What Do We Know About Our Health?

The archive our project covers is Diderot’s Anatomie, one part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie written between 1751 and 1772 in France. Diderot’s Anatomie represents a turning point in health literacy among the common French. Rather than being written in Latin, the language of the well-educated and wealthy, Anatomie was written in French, the language of the common people. Before Anatomie, the common person did not have access to knowledge about their own health.


Image from Anatomie (http://artflux.uchicago.edu)

We will open up our archive by placing within the context of history, documenting the public’s awareness of health before, during, and after Anatomie was published. We have chosen to place Anatomie in the context of history because of the precedent set by Encyclopédie in common access to knowledge. For our research, we will primarily books and articles that describe the public’s awareness of health from various eras in history. When researching for information relating to modern public health literacy, we will likely turn to websites such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic website. Such sources provide insight into how drastically health literacy has changed since the Enlightenment. Whereas knowledge was once scarce, the average American now has virtually unlimited amounts of information through which to sift. Our project will explore the implications of a universal access to health knowledge and its relationship with historical documents such as Encyclopédia.


Image from Anatomie (http://artflux.uchicago.edu)

To honor Diderot’s step toward commonplace public health literacy, my group’s project will revolve around the idea of accessible knowledge to all. In order to emulate Diderot’s impact, we have chosen to create a website that will document history and news relevant to the public’s access to health knowledge. We decided that a website would best represent the goal of accessibility because of the integration of the internet into our everyday lives. Whereas the common people of 18th century France shared the French language, many of today’s “common people” have access to the resources the internet provides. Furthermore, our targeted audience for our website will be high school and college students in an academic setting as a resource for research and general interest. The structure of our project as a website will be especially impactful for this audience because of technology’s integration into to everyday lives of today’s young adults. Our audience will benefit from being placed within the context of history, as an active part of the public’s evolving health literacy.


Viability Versus Values

In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I would support a defensive strategy to protect the citizens rather than an offensive strategy. An offensive strategy disregards the infrastructure, resources, capabilities of low-income countries, which hold a majority of the world’s population. An offensive strategy does not take into consideration the realities of living in a post-apocalyptic. Rather, an offensive strategy places value on pre-war ideals such as political power and land ownership. Ultimately, a defensive strategy is the most ethically, politically, and tactically sound position to take due to its consideration of the difficulties of a post-apocalyptic world.

Tactically, a defensive strategy accounts both for the eventual elimination of zombies and the availability of the dwindling resources of an apocalyptic situation. Though it may initially seem as if a defensive strategy may be neglecting the job of working toward returning society to a pre-war state, but this ignores the biology of organisms. Stated within the novel, “all we had to do was stay safe while our enemy rotted away” (Brooks 265). Acting defensively would decrease the rate of new cases of the virus and over time the zombies would eventually deteriorate. Additionally, the resources of the survivors such as weaponry, food, and military personnel would not be spread around a large land area as they would be in an offensive campaign.


Image via peacefulanarchism.com

The more interesting dilemmas of choosing between an offensive and defensive strategy are their ethical and political implications and their impact on the country’s ability to rebuild infrastructure and government. Politically, taking an offensive strategy only takes into account pre-war society and its values. For example, offensive strategy takes on the task of regaining land back from the enemy, the zombies. Though larger land availability would provide greater access to resources, desire for land partly originates from the social status brought about by owning large swaths of land. This is exemplified within the novel as the United States is the only country to support an offensive strategy. Driven by emotion, the US president states, “[the living dead] robbed us of our confidence as the planet’s dominant life form”(Brooks 266). As the greatest world power before the war, it is natural that the US would desire to return to the pre-war level of global power. The choice to be offensive and continue to seek power is also ethically questionable. Defensive strategy is centered around prioritizing the survivors of the war rather than land acquisition.

How one deals with a threat as large as a zombie apocalypse is dependent on how one defines the conflict and the opponents. The characters in the novel must determine whether or not to treat the apocalypse as a war or as a pandemic. In the most technical senses of the term, the zombie war is a pandemic, a disease prevalent throughout the global. Despite this, realistically, the zombie war is just that – a war. Though the zombies may not hail from a specific nation, they do represent disease itself. Treating the pandemic as a war allows survivors to fight against the zombies without being influenced by the idea of fighting sick people rather than violent enemies.
A defensive strategy is a superior route in dealing with a zombie because of its consideration of resource availability, political conflict, and ethical viability. Though wealthy countries, such as the United States, may want to take the offensive route, such countries are too focused on pre-war values to despite such values having no standing in a post-apocalyptic society.

“We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was only following orders.’” (Brook 83)

In this passage, Zhuganova describes the horrific incarnation of democracy she experiences after joining a riot on her military base. This passage reflects novel’s attempt to define freedom and argues that true freedom is not the ability to make choices. Rather, it is the freedom from responsibility and the consequences that result from such responsibility. “True freedom” is a key phrase used by Zhuganova within the passage. The use of true freedom implies that there is a freedom that is not truly free. Because Zhuganova essentially defines true freedom as lack of responsibility, her “false freedom” can be described as the ability to make choices and take responsibility.

The characterization of Zhuganova and her use of conversational language emphasizes her struggle with freedom in the passage. The conversational tone adds to Zhuganova’s humanity, allowing her sympathy from the reader. In the last line, she uses the phrase “God help us” to emphasize her willingness to “relinquish [her] freedom.” This choice of words highlights her inability to truly be free while choosing her own actions. Even when she is trying to free herself from responsibility, she must call out for assistance from an entity who can truly execute free will.

Zhuganova’s experience is just one of the many unintended consequences of the zombie war and her characterization within the passage and the circumstances in which she contributes to the death of one of her fellow soldiers contributes to the passage’s argument. Despite her experience being the result of the desire for freedom and the willingness take responsibility, it can be argued that, as a part of the mob, she did not have freedom. Her participation in “mob mentality” further supports her argument of not truly having freedom when being burdened by responsibility.


A Walk Through Health History

Before visiting the archive, I had envisioned it as a something nearly identical to a library, but with a more quaint atmosphere. Having never visited an archive before, I assumed one would walk in and be greeted by rows of shelves of medical journals, encyclopedias, and manuals and be able to pick out whatever book suited one’s research or interest. After visiting the archive, I could clearly see how my preconceived notions of McGovern Historical Center were incorrect. The archive stands as a place of passion and progress. No one is meandering through the warehouse-like shelves. Rather, people are there to research to better contribute to the field of public health.

The kinds of people who would regularly frequent the archive never crossed my mind before the visit, but it became fairly obvious as in walked a group of college freshman (mostly). To the employees of the archive, we were an odd sight be been seen walking through the door, our presence being worthy of photo documentation throughout our visit. Rather than the usual visitors, researcher, professors, historians, etc., I imagine that our visit presented a new insight into the future of academic interest in the medical field, a future which is faced with the challenges such as global warming and upcoming infectious diseases of the newest global health era.

Despite all of this, our interactions with the materials themselves were the most impactful part of our visit. Flipping freely through materials whose lives spanned decades, we given the opportunity to have a unique glimpse into our relationship with the history of public health how it has impacted modern medicine. Personally, this glimpse was most compelling as I gravitated toward the wood-handled surgical equipment. It is easy to imagine technological progress as an abstract concept, but the unsterile wooden handles of the tools provided a concrete example of how public health has evolved.


Overall, I am reminded of our first assignment: defining public health. The archive encompasses what we all realized as we shared our own personal perspective on the definition of public health, each different from the next. The archive was no different. Every book, journal, and manual has a unique grasp on the evolving and vast field of public health. All of the encounters and experience of this trip combined, it is easy to see the bigger picture of the McGovern Historical Center: To provide those of us with a passion for health, literature, and history an avenue to explore that passion.

Defining Public Health

Public health is the status of physical or mental well being within a community. From a physical health perspective, public health can be affected by events in the physical environment such as global warming and traffic safety or through communicable and noncommunicable diseases such as Ebola and cancer, respectively. Depending on the size and location of the community, citizens may have different expectations of public health outreach from outside forces. Larger, richer communities with a strong central government, such as those in the United States may expect their governments to take responsibility for the health of the public within the nation. In the United States, it is expected that government put heavy regulations on immigration, food standards, traffic laws, hospital safety, etc. as an effort to protect public wellbeing. Smaller, less developed nations may not be able to rely on a central government to be able to fund large scale public health efforts and, therefore, rely on primitive technologies and volunteer labor. Between nations, public health can begin to be defined as global health which can further be complicated by interacting governments and increasing globalization.

Public health is not only important because of its immediate physical and mental impact on the members of a community, but also because of its effects on the productivity, happiness, and demographics of a community which is crucial to the overall well being. Governments may take interests in the health of its citizens because of its effects on the productivity of a community and their trust of a government. For example, when children in less developed nations are able to live beyond childhood years due to disease prevention and into the age at which they can begin to work, their efforts in the workforce stimulates the workforce, creating a stronger economy and instilling a sense of trust in government intervention.

A recent a well-known instance of the importance of public health is the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Due to the lack of resources in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, small communities were not able to provide proper care for victims of the Ebola and could not halt its spread. The resulting severity of the virus caused not only public health crises in the affected communities, but also in communities wealthier countries that are hubs of globalization such as the United States. Unlike affected nations, US citizens turned to their government to protect them from the distant outbreak. Such an event exemplifies the importance of both small scale actions such as improving disinfectant techniques in rural villages and large scale actions such as new immigration restrictions to prevent the spread of illness and disease.