Vocabulary Oppression

The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale rules with words. The theocracy takes words and twists them to their own meanings so that it can justify the oppression that takes place. In the passage, the word “freedom” is mutated into a frightening, highly-structured ideal.

Aunt Lydia’s (as well as all the other Aunts’) constant insistences that the Handmaids are free and happy are sign enough that what they are saying is false. By constantly stating that Gilead is good, Gilead saved women from oppression, the Aunts themselves are oppressing the women (but especially the Handmaids) out of the freedom to feel unhappy. Aunt Lydia’s statement of “freedom to and freedom from” then takes on another meaning: Women now have the “freedom from” unhappiness. This is also illustrated at the end of the chapter when Offred and Ofglen encounter the Japanese tourists. When asked if the Handmaids are happy, Offred feels as if she has to answer yes because, “I have to say something. What else can I say?” (29.) For most modern readers, the word “freedom” connotes endless choices; however, Offred implies that the freedom offered by Gilead leaves no room for interpretation. No one in this society has a choice, not even the men. Everyone has their own place and their own function for the sake of Gileaden’s twisted freedom.

This idea that one word can be forcibly evolved to suit an agenda is chilling. The passage is the fast way for Atwood to show the terrifying power that Gilead holds – not over people’s bodies and places in society, but also their minds.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Vocabulary Oppression

  1. looloo14

    I think is interesting that you pointed out the oppression women like Offred face in the form of even language. Not only is speaking the only form of literacy they are allowed; the society has mutated words like “freedom” to mean what they want it to mean. Another example of the Gilead society changing certain words is the handmaid’s names. “Offred” is a name given to the protagonist of the story once she becomes a handmaid. This changing of name seems to represent the lack of freedom that a life in Gilead entails. The name means “of Fred”, which implies that the commander, Fred, owns her. She is not her own person who can make her own decisions; she is property of the commander.

  2. smboehm

    I agree completely with your statement of the mutation of the word freedom. It’s interesting to see how the women figures in the novel are being told what to believe when it comes to their own freedom. When considering the concept of freedom, it is one that’s hard to define, yet I think anyone can agree that the freedom being demonstrated through the rights of these women is anything but free. The women, although now released from their past lives as being targeted by males, they now have to succumb to their desires. These desires can range from simple tasks to sexual acts—clearly these women are anything but free.

  3. Samantha Cooke

    The government of Gilead, as you said, does use words to its own twisted end. In today’s dictionary, there is a distinction between “freedom” and “freedom from”. The latter, according to the New Oxford Dictionary, is “the state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing)”. Gilead has blurred the line between the two, so that when Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids they are free, they are, but in the context of Gilead’s freedom. Indeed, one of Gilead’s most important (though never stated) freedoms from is the freedom from thought. The ritualistic brainwashing the women experience at the “Red” Center and later, during their Ceremonies, in addition to the withholding of education for the women, reinforces this freedom, and allows them to become content with their situation, allowing them freedom from unhappiness, as you said.

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