Art and Humanity

In Never Let Me Go, art serves as the symbol for “true” humanity and as a mechanism to inspire and persuade the masses. Throughout the novel, readers are gradually shown how art is considered crucial to the development of humans, particularly for love. For example, Tommy says, “She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your sou.” (130). Tommy hypothesizes that art serves as proof for authorities that the love between two people is real. Tommy here reveals a fundamental theme of the novel; creativity and the ability to imagine and create is what ultimately characterizes humans as themselves, and art serves as a mechanism of displaying this creativity.

Readers can see this concept particularly in the evolution of Tommy’s drawing. He moves from drawing out childish elephants to saying, “If you make them tiny, and you have to because the pages are only about this big, then everything changes. It’s like they come to life by themselves.” (187). Tommy has the idea that drawing things smaller is what makes them “come to life,” a phenomenon showing his ability to think on the next level. Rather than drawing on the most basic dimension, Tommy now expresses his desire to Kathy to create material that was previously unknown. Here, we see Tommy thinking for himself and trying to express himself originally. It’s not simply the ability to create, but rather the ability to imagine that differentiates him from others at Hailsham.

Image result for love art

In fact, the ability to create is what can particularly inspire and move the masses. Miss Emily explains, “That was why we collected your art. We selected the best of it and put on special exhibitions…’There, look!’ we could say. ‘Look at this art! How dare you claim these children are anything less than fully human?’” (230). Evident in this statement is the idea that even the simple concept of art entails a special ability to create, and this ability, according to Miss Emily, is what characterizes people as human. The fact that Hailsham students were engaging in art was enough to convince others that they were human.

However, Tommy’s art shows us the dichotomy in Miss Emily and Hailsham’s version of art and his idea. Hailsham simply uses the “idea” of art and this ability to create as a propaganda measure for proving “humanness.” What Tommy does instead—try to imagine and create and see art as a metaphor for love—is far more representative of humanness than the idea that Miss Emily and Hailsham propagandize. Thus, art in the novel serves as the line dividing “real” humanness from the fake one and shows readers how the ability to imagine, not simply draw, is what characterizes humans as themselves.

Human Relationships Surpassing Degredation

“I pull her to the ground and roll on top of her to cover her, shield her. Quiet, I say again, my face is wet, sweat or tears, I feel calm and floating, as if I’m no longer in my body; close to my eyes there’s a leaf, red, turned early, I can see every bright vein. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” (Atwood 75)

The world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a soulless, authoritarian, and apocalyptic setting for the novel, where women are marginalized and transformed by society into reproductive tools in order to combat infertility. However, the novel still highlights moments where humanity is still able to rise above all of the negative situations and degradation of the world.

In this particular passage of the novel, the handmaid, Offred, is in a dream where she and her child are escaping a pursuer through a forest. As the pursuer gains ground, Offred eventually resorts to protecting her child from danger. The act of “pull[ing] her to the ground” (75) resembles a fall of humans from the original honor and nobility associated with being human. The subsequent actions of “roll[ing] on top of her to cover her, shield her” (75) represent the tendencies for humans to hide from their failures and seek protection, instead of facing them directly. In addition, Offred’s silencing of the child depicts the loss of voice of women, who are stripped away from their identity and marginalized in their society. We as readers are also not able to tell if Offred’s face is wet from “sweat or tears,” (75) but are able to conclude that the world Offred lives in is one of distress, which is pictured by sweat, and sadness, which is depicted by tears.

Yet despite these dire circumstances, Offred feels “calm and floating, as if [she’s] no longer in [her] body.” (75) The reader is taken aback and shocked, because Offred manages to find tranquility in such a stressful situation. Since she also feels “floating,” (75) it can be argued that she feels transcendent above her situation due to this out-of-body experience. This lends support to genuine human virtues and relationships that are able to rise above the rest of the world as society continues to take a downward turn.

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Red leaves, albeit closer to death, show vitality in the presence of death. Photo from: http://earthsky.org/earth/why-do-tree-leaves-turn-red-in-fall

In this novel, there is also a substantial amount of plant imagery. In this case, the leaf is a metaphor for Offred’s relationship with her child, which is one of the few hallmarks of humanity left in the degraded society. The fact that the leaf is “turned early” (75) has a dubious meaning, as it can either signify vitality or forewarn death since it prematurely changed colors. However in this case, Offred notices the “bright vein[s]” (75) and remarks that “it’s the most beautiful thing [she’s] ever seen.” (75) The veins lend further support to the leaf as a picture of Offred’s relationship with her child, as it is both alive and beautiful in midst of so much chaos and so many inhumane acts. Even if the leaf is dying prematurely, the beauty of its life is still made known.

Ethiopia woman calms hungry child

The love relationship between a mother and a child is rare in the society Offred lives in. Photo from: http://www.kairosphotos.com/blog/ethiopian-mother-and-child/

This passage has a very calming tone, in contrast to the preceding paragraph, which is marked by diction and syntax that create a violent, nervous, and chaotic tone. Thus, we see a contrast between Offred’s distress in her situation, and then suddenly having an out-of-body experience that brings tranquility and alertness to her. Offred’s out-of-body experience also reveal that she no longer feels confined to her body, which is defined and used by the society in the novel. Through all of this, the passage is able to show that Offred may be the last stronghold of human virtues and integrity in her world, as she bears the memories of the previous society that fostered such loving relationships and uprightness.

Citations:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York: Anchor, 1986. Print.

Norrland, Jörgen. Autumn Picture from Sweden… Earth Sky

Jeffrey, Paul. Ethiopian mother and child. Global Lens

“Shhh…baby. I won’t let them get you.”

The windows broke, the windows in the front next to the door. The lights got black. Grown-ups got scared. They screamed.

[Her voice returns to her mother’s.] ‘Shhhh . . . baby. I won’t let them get you.’ [Her hands go from her hair to her face, gently stroking her forehead and cheeks. Sharon gives Kelner a questioning look. Kelner nods. Sharon’s voice suddenly simulates the sound of something large breaking, a deep phlegm-filled rumble from the bottom of her throat.]’They’re coming in! Shoot ’em, shoot ’em!’ [She makes the sound of gunfire then…] ‘I won’t let them get you, I won’t let them get you.’ (Brooks 75)

As an audience that has never been in a war, the war scene is perhaps difficult to “experience”, second-hand. Sure, there are plenty of images and videos to supplement our surface-level visualization of war. However, the emotional engagement, or lack thereof, in war is difficult to sympathize with, much less a zombie war.

The psychological effect that Max Brooks paints through Sharon is pivotal in the readers’ understanding of the threatening situation. Brooks effectively conveys the stupefied state of Sharon as she encounters the zombies, and absorbs the scene. Further, the juxtaposition between the hectic and dire zombie war ground and the emotional composure of Sharon’s mother helps to highlight the perseverance of love and human connection. In effect, Brooks presents an overarching theme of disease outbreak simultaneously breaking and strengthening human-to-human bonds (as mentioned in class while discussing Wald’s Contagious).

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Oil Painting by Milano titled Afghan Girl. Though not Afghani, Sharon had red hair and green eyes. The artwork accurately reflects Sharon’s petrified eyes, absorbing the scene of the zombie attack.

To characterize Sharon in her stupefied state, Brooks uses word choice that underscores Sharon’s perceptiveness, but with detached tone. For example, instead of saying, “The lights turned off”, Sharon says, “The lights got black” (Brooks 75). This suggests that Sharon was perceiving the situations, and that all her senses were apt, but that she was too disoriented to process her observations. A similar way of communication is seen in the paragraph preceding the passage in which Sharon says, “They [, the zombies] came bigger” instead of “They came nearer” (75). Not only that, throughout the passage, Sharon excludes her own feelings and emotions about the zombie attack. She mentions that the “Grown-ups got scared. They screamed” but does not once say that she was scared or worried. Perhaps the entire situation was too overwhelming for Sharon to process her own emotions towards the situation. Humans, at high levels of stress, tend to shut off our emotive responses. Through the seemingly apathetic recollection of the attack, however, the readers nonetheless see Sharon’s emotional vulnerability. She constantly strokes herself, as her mother had, displaying her desperate seek for consolation. Such repeated motions throughout the passage highlight Sharon’s lasting trauma from the zombie attack. Through Sharon’s stupefied and distraught characterization, Brooks ultimately places the readers in the victims’ shoes—helping the readers to empathize with the psychological effect of the zombie attack.

While the spoken dialogue of Sharon functions to display the psychological effects of war, her animate retelling of the attack helps to build tension in the experience. In particular, Brook’s use of syntax in the beginning of the passage underscores this fact. The sentences get shorter and shorter as the zombie attack climaxes. The shorter sentences have an effect of ‘short-breathed-ness’ while reading, highlighting the urgency and fear embedded in the scene. Alarming and repeated phrases of “Shoot ‘em! Shoot ‘em!” add such sense of urgency (75). Another phrase numerously repeated throughout passage, however, is “I won’t let ‘em get you”. The contrasting phrases of the panicky “Shoot ‘em!” and the determined “I won’t let ‘em get you” serve to highlight the perseverance of love, even in the face of a zombie war (75). The juxtaposition between the threat and the composure underlying “I won’t let ‘em get you” enhances the idea of tenacity in a mother.

While discussing Wald’s Contagious, it was interesting to note that disease outbreak can separate people, wanting to avoid contact with the infected, but also conjoin people, a communion created by the desire to escape the illness, together. This passage is an example of how, in the face of fear and threat, such sense of communion and common desire to flee can spring from a disease outbreak. In other parts of the book however, Brooks also presents the selfishness of individuals at the face of disease. Because of disease, people would flee to desolate lands such as Alaska or Antarctica. Because of the disease outbreak, people would take advantage of the widespread fear and reap financial benefits. In such ways, disease propagates both human connections and betrayal and isolation.

Artwork:

Milano. Afghan Girl. N.d. Web Gallery. N.p.