Even after I grow old, I’m confident I’ll never forget my daily walks through Harvard’s campus.
But with each day that passed during my freshman year, I must admit I’d grow less and less appreciative of my physical surroundings. Like any other college student, I’d easily let the day’s worries, hopes, and fears consume me, preventing me from slowing down and deliberately breathing in the crisp New England air or stopping to appreciate the painstakingly slow retreat of a seemingly never-ending Boston winter.
So admittedly, it took me a while to realize Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set at Harvard—or, rather, the bleak vestiges of Harvard—after a terrifying purge culminates in a post-American nation where women are dehumanized, stripped of basic civil liberties, and relegated to being pawns of an oppressive, theocratic state known as the Republic of Gilead.
Not once in the body of her novel does Atwood mention Harvard by name. But throughout, she appears to eerily allude to Memorial Hall, a place which “used to be where the undergraduates ate, in the earlier days of the university,” Tercentenary Theatre, a lawn made up of “paths once used by students, past buildings that were once lecture halls and dormitories,” and Widener Library, whose “white steps going up are still the same, the main entrance is unaltered.”
To any reader familiar with Harvard’s campus, Atwood’s descriptions are haunting, conjuring bleak and persistent images of psychological suffocation in a place that once was a pillar of intellectual freedom. But her chilling physical descriptions of Harvard’s remains pale in comparison to the emotional associations her writing meticulously evokes.
Whether it’s nonchalantly alluding to the now-forgotten Civil War—both the great test of American democracy which Memorial Hall commemorates and the very subject of a class to which I devoted a whole semester—or wistfully remembering Harvard’s annual spring commencement festivities, Atwood paints vivid and familiar images that are painfully real, at once evoking among readers a combination of nostalgia, outrage, and mind-numbing dread.
In the dystopian world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Kennedy School of Government no longer symbolizes a breeding ground for civic leadership but is relegated to a venue for child marriages formerly bearing the name of “some dead president they shot.” Likewise, Widener’s iconic “Death and Victory” mural is no longer inspiring homage to those who risked their lives in the First World War but is reduced to a lackluster painting with an ambiguous message “in honor of some war or other.” Most harrowingly, Atwood transforms Harvard’s iconic Johnston Gate into the site of menacing gallows where dissidents are brutally hanged with bags over their heads, known as “the Wall.”
To anyone remotely appreciative of the power afforded by education, let alone someone familiar with Harvard’s campus, this is wholly and indubitably terrifying. But perhaps this timeless emotional robbery is exactly what makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” so effective: It’s a ruthless desecration of the familiar.
For the many of us who take Harvard’s academic eminence for granted, Atwood ruthlessly invokes and distorts a familiar idea in a manner that is at once jarring and unforgettable. And in many ways, when used carefully, this reinterpretation of familiar places, names, and concepts has the potential to serve as a wake-up call.
But the skillful employment of the familiar spans beyond just literature; in fact, when used carefully, it bears the potential to entirely alter the trajectory of conversations, to imbue dialogue with a renewed momentum, a fresh potential to convince. When we fortify our words with familiar allusions, we tap into the very heart and soul of the human experience: one framed by indefatigable memories.
In grounding far-fetched ideas in something real and tangible, we’re able to have a more far-reaching impact in our conversations, sparking profound emotion in others that would otherwise remain hidden in the shadows. When we call upon intimate memories and dare to reinterpret them in provocative, fresh ways, we prompt others to open their minds to an array of possibilities they once may have deemed outrageous.
To invoke and distort the familiar, whether in conversation or writing, is to allow for the synthesis of intimate connections among readers, listeners, and challengers that is easily overlooked when constructing seemingly alternate realities. It is to evoke a wellspring of emotion in others that runs the gamut from nostalgia to remorse. And it is to awaken powerful feelings that have been taught to lie dormant with every day that passes.
Had Atwood forgone familiarity, instead opting to construct a distant universe or situate the Republic of Gilead in the remains of a place unknown, “The Handmaid’s Tale” would be devoid of its striking realism. But because the novel dares to juxtapose a beacon of free thought and intellectual exploration with the desolate aftermath of its ruin, it taps into a well of emotion that hinges on deeply personal memories. In doing so, it strikes a chord with readers who would otherwise perceive its plotline to be far-fetched.
By reinterpreting the familiar, Harvard’s self-proclaimed quest for truth becomes a perpetual battle to silence its very exposure. Meanwhile, the vibrant freedoms accompanying the pursuit of knowledge and fulfillment are reduced to the sheer promulgation of tyranny and lies.
Through the chilling brushstrokes of a novelist’s pen, veritas becomes mendacium. Déjà vu becomes jamais vu. The familiar once again becomes unfamiliar.
Reconceptualizing the familiar is to speak to people in a language they can understand before teaching them new a dialect. It is to meet people where they are before pushing them to take on new a challenge. Above all, it is to open their minds to possibilities never before considered, realities never before conceived.
Meena Venkataramanan ’21, a Crimson News editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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