Reflection is a useful tool in literature. It provides the reader with an analysis of the facts and is able to incorporate new information from out of the time frame of the literary piece. It is not, however, a necessary aspect, and the success with which it is used varies greatly. The combination of reflection and action in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale is more skillfully used than in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as demonstrated to the reader by examination of its application.

Reflection is an integral part of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is inherent to the structure, as seen by inspecting the organization of chapters. Chapters are sorted into sections which alternate, one describing a single large event and the smaller occurences surrounding it, and the other in which the narrator reflects on said events. This also ties into the writing structure of the novel; it is written as a stream of consciousness. The narrator’s thoughts are put on the page in order of which comes first. Thus reflection is not solely limited to the sections devoted to it, and the narrator, Offred, intersperses thought throughout the events of the novel. An excellent example of this is when she is participating in the ceremony. She tries to define the events in terms of familiar words; she labels the intercourse that the commander is having with her, and consequently examines those labels. In this way we are able see the character of the narrator more in depth, and thus it helps the reader sympathize with the her more. In addition to this it reveals a little more of the past. When Offred examines what the commander is doing as rape, she concludes that it is not so because she ’signed up for this’. Thus the reader now knows that she had some options when becoming a handmaid, albeit not too many, and none too pretty.

Reflection in the form of flashbacks also plays a vital role in the novel. As Offred reflects on the present she draws corollaries to the past, and in turn the setting and characters are further developed. In this way Moira, her best friend, is slowly revealed to us. Her actions in Offred’s past, both before the institution of the Republic, and during their internment at the red center, are shown to us, which set’s us up for the section titled Jezebels. Also the setting of the Republic and how it came to power are revealed to us in this manner. An action in the present triggers her reflection upon a similar action in the past, and bit by bit the past is revealed to us. So reflection in this novel ties directly to plot elements and actions, and in turn is used to develop the characters and the story. In that sense it is skillfully used.

Reflection is not always necessary, or overt, as demonstrated by Of Mice and Men. Here the novel is written mostly as dialogue, which in turn does not allow for much leeway with reflection. All reflection has to take place in a conversation or in what little narrative commentary there is. In turn the combination with events is less significant than in The Handmaid’s Tale. It is however present and used well on several occasions. The most striking of these is in the end, when the reader is given a glimpse of the workings of Lenny’s mind. After he has killed Curley’s wife and gotten himself and his companion George in trouble, the novel presents him talking to a figment of his psyche. The figment, a large talking rabbit, chastises him for his actions, which helps develop sympathy in the reader. The reader is shown how mentally incapacitated Lenny truly is, which in turn fuels the social commentary of Steinbeck behind the novel. The reader sees how society reacts to someone, obviously in need of help, with violence, and in turn criticizes it. This form of reflection, reflection by halluciation, is only used only once though.

Another form of reflection and one to which the style of the novel is more conducive is reflection in conversation. Examples of this are George’s conversations with Slim. In one of these George describes his relationship with Lenny after the first day of work, when Lenny’s high capacity for labor is revealed. Slim comments on the rarity of George’s and Lenny’s relationship in this field of work, and in turn George reflects on the past, revealing more of the duos relationship. Similarly George’s feelings at the end of the novel were revealed through a conversation with Slim. This linked directly to his having to kill Lenny, which demonstration the correlation of action and thought in this novel. Also this type of reflection is used to reveal the aspirations of George and Lenny. When they talk about their plans for a farm all their own, it shows reflection on the future. The reflection in this novel is quite readily joined to action as conversations are often the result of an event. And even though the style of the text doesn’t lend itself to reflective passages, contemplation is still used or shown in a less direct manner, and in turn can help develop the feelings of the characters. Still because the reflection isn’t as clear, its usefulness is diminished, and aspects of the plot are more difficult to show with it.

Clearly reflection is used more directly in The Handmaid’s Tale than in Of Mice and Men, and as such its effects are far more prevalent and in turn useful. And though reflection in both texts is bound to action, the nature of a stream of consciousness gives more freedom to the thinker when pondering over present actions, and in turn allows more in depth and immediate reflection over those actions. Therefore it is clear that reflection is better used in The Handmaid’s Tale, because it is more thoroughly interwound with the plot and structure, and is used more often with greater success.


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