Language in The Handmaid’s Tale

My original plan for my final essay was to include both The Tempest and The Handmaid’s Tale in an argument about the power of language to control a population. However, I have decided to eliminate the latter from my argument because I was having a hard time connecting the two novels. I would still like to discuss language as a control factor in The Handmaid’s Tale on this blog:

In Margaret Attwood’s novel, Offred faces oppression in almost everything she does. She belongs to a society that uses women like her for one purpose: to reproduce. There is a strict limit to what a handmaid can talk about to the other handmaids. The approved phrases are, for instance, “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the Lord open” (19). These accepted greetings are related to fertility; they are a constant reminder to handmaids that their only value is to reproduce. There are harsh penalties to anyone who sways from these rules, as there are “eyes” watching the people of Gilead who have the power to make any non-adherent disappear. This psychologically affects Offred and other handmaids because they are too scared to stray from the rules knowing that there are such high consequences. Offred is also conditioned to have a low self worth because she is not allowed to contribute anything of worth to society except her fertility. In this, language is the ultimate form of control.

The new order of government instills a new vocabulary which works to define the roles of women. Women who perform domestic responsibilities are called “Marthas,” the women who are married to the men of the household (or the “Commanders”) are known as “Wives” and the women who are supposed to birth the commander’s babies are called “Handmaids.” This not only imposes a strict gender bias on society, where the men are the commanders of the women, it strips the women of any sort of identity to their previous lives. The simplicity of giving women titles is society’s way of imposing different roles onto each woman. Their personal culture and identity is destroyed with this, as their personal selves are broken to fit the mold of what society has labeled them to be.


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