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.

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2 Responses to “The Wall”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    As someone who walks by that wall at least once a week, I must say that there isn’t anything in that description that would make me think of Harvard Yard and only Harvard Yard. I don’t doubt that it *is* the wall, but there is a wealth of unique features she could have mentioned, and those simply aren’t there. I don’t think this is an example of particularly effective description by the author, I think it is serendipitous recognition on your part.

    I haven’t read The Handmaiden’s Tale, but I did recently read Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. That one is about as acclaimed as Handmaiden, though it isn’t dystopian; I basically flipped a coin when deciding which of the two to read. And Assassin is good, certainly, although I don’t think its length is justified by where it ends up. How was the pacing of Handmaiden?

    • Buzz Says:

      Maybe it was just a lucky guess on my part. As I say, there’s nothing I can put a finger on that really identifies the wall of Harvard Yard in that passage. Only the brick sidewalks are in any way distinctive, and I don’t think there’s anything earlier in the novel that hints at its Cambridge setting. But I don’t know why the correct wall would pop up in my mind, either. It’s not like the wall of Harvard Yard is something that is deeply ingrained in my memory. I never really did anything on the Harvard campus except walk around, maybe a dozen times over eight years. Mostly the wall is just familiar to me as something I could see across the street as I walked down Mass. Ave.

      As to the pacing of the book, it is rather slow, but I took that to be intentional. The tedium of the handmaid’s life is an important theme of the story. I liked it, overall, and it was definitely worth reading.


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