The Wall

June 20, 2013

I have to apologize for the lacuna in my posting history. I’ve had a lot of stuff going on, but Changeling Earth will be back soon. Although I haven’t been posting, I have been doing some reading in the meantime. Most notably, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As an adult, I’ve become a great fan of dystopian literature, and this book is sometimes mentioned, along with We, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, as one of the pillars of the genre.

I have to agree that it is a very important work, and it presents a really novel type of dystopia. It deals with gender issues in a much more sophisticated way that most dystopian narratives, with a strong female narrator who provides a counterpoint to the male-dominated hierarchy of the setting, the Republic of Gilead. In some ways, the structure of the book follows the standard outline for dystopian novels, but there are also some major differences. For example, the story remains much more at the domestic level than, say, Brave New World.

Early in the book, the narrator visits the Wall, where the bodies of the regime’s enemies are on display. It’s described this way:

The Wall is hundreds of years old too; or over a hundred, at least. Like the sidewalks, it’s red brick, and must once have been plain but handsome. Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.

It seems like a pretty generic structure. The thing is: I know this wall.

What is it about this passage that works so effectively? I don’t see anything about the description of the wall that I can point to explicitly that identifies this location. The only thing even vaguely specific is the red brick sidewalk. As I was first reading, I wasn’t even thinking of the locations as being real places. Yet this paragraph brought me up short, because I instantly knew that the dead men were dangling from the wall of Harvard Yard.

And I was right. It’s clear from later descriptions that this is indeed the wall of Harvard Yard. How did Atwood manage to convey that unique place with such a sparse description, much of which is devoted to how the wall has changed from what it was? I don’t know, but somehow she did. (Of course, this description wouldn’t have been effective for somebody who hadn’t spent many hours around Harvard Square. I had to know that wall to be able to recognize it.) Frankly, I am amazed. I only wish I could write something so effective.