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.
Freedom can be defined in many different ways, and used for many different things. In our society, and the society that Offred used to be a part of, we have “freedom to”, freedom to do what we want with our time, money, and bodies. The Republic of Gilead, however, is a society based on “freedom from”, freedom from fear, choice, and control. This is what Aunt Lydia was referring to with the passage “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24), and this is the central idea in the first half of this novel.
Offred’s narration of her life shows that she is now part of a society where she has very little freedom, but those adjusting her try to make it seem beneficial that she has freedom from control over her own body and actions, as well as freedom from thought. Offred describes how she “used to think of (her) body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… one with me” (Atwood 72) but now she feels as if her body isn’t even hers. This shows how even the very basic freedom to control one’s own body has turned into a “freedom from”. She subjects to this control that is telling her this is right, thus turning herself into an object. She thinks back throughout this narration on her previous life, before The Republic of Gilead, when she had freedom to do with herself whatever she wished. As a young adult, she might have been promiscuous according to some standards, but she had the “freedom to”. I feel like Atwood’s message is everyone, especially women, should appreciate the freedoms we have over ourselves, because it can be too easy to turn the “freedom to” into the “freedom from”.
“Freedom from” in “A Handmaid’s Tale” is just a nice way of saying “under control.” Aunt Lydia was just trying to get the girls complacent by saying that instead of “freedom to,” they had “freedom from”: freedom from all the things that before they actually had freedom to do. As Offred remembers in her past life; “I think about laundromats. What I wore to them . . . what I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.” (Atwood 24) Now she has no control. In the past, these women had the freedom to do certain things, and these things granted came with such danger as there is danger for everyone—such as going certain places at night alone, motorists who are really criminals pretending to be stranded, etc.—but at least the women had a choice in the matter as far as what they could do, where they could go. Now they are being controlled and liberated (according to Aunt Lydia) from those things they did before. This new government of the Republic of Gilead obviously decided that they knew what was best for people and assigned living “slots” that people could fit into (men and women). The Aunts were really trying to brainwash the girls into thinking that this new way of life was actually better than the life they had before. In some ways the life women had before could be debated as to whether or not it was really good in some aspects, but so could the life of all men, women, and children be considered not good in some aspects. Unfortunately in the Republic of Gilead, the new option for women wasn’t really an option at all, and it wasn’t better but worse.