Eyes and Seeing

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The representation of eyes and seeing is explored throughout literature. However, this notion is particularly expressed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus as both texts use the human eye as a focal point to convey male dominance.

Whereas, in the The Handmaid’s Tale, women are restricted by the wings that frame their faces and controlled by their lack of vision, in Nights at the Circus, Fevvers is governed by the belief that her only role is to please the male spectator.

Trapped within a never-ending performance, women experience a constant feeling of being watched as they exhibit their femininity.

As the individual learns to survey their own actions, vision becomes internalised. This transition shows conveys how the human eye creates a world of male fantasies whereby women are trapped in the cage of male scrutiny. The male vision is mastered as women begin to survey their own bodies.

However, as both texts attempt to weaken the male gaze, the force of vision is challenged. Offred diminishes the strength of the human eye as she questions what power a look can have if it cannot touch. Whereas, Fevvers takes control of her own performance and thus tries to undermine the male view of femininity. In this glimmer of control, Fevvers reflects Judith Butler’s theory of performativity: “Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications” (185).

As women are continuously surveyed the power remains firmly in the hands of the observer, and in both texts, that figure of authority is always male.

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