Tag Archives: Handmaid

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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Understanding “Why” Does Not Make it Right

There were various ways in which A Handmaid’s Tale could have been closed. However, the current choice of ending is interesting, because not only does Professor Pieixoto discuss the recovering process of the tapes from which the tale was extracted, he also defends the Gileadean ideology by showing agreement and understanding of why Gilead society practiced the way they did. In fact, there is not much concession as Professor Pieixoto insists on the audience understanding why this society was indeed reasonable in their laws and had the intentions of protecting women and their “biological destinies” (204) while giving men the unshakeable power of control.

For the first half of his speech, Professor Pieixoto does well in maintaining a certain level of objectivity when he presents information on the recovery and restoration of the cassette tapes found in the army locker. However, his subjectivity in the way he later states that Gilead’s “genius was synthesis” (281), makes me a bit weary of the information he is choosing to share with the audience. Usually “genius” and “synthesis” have very positive connotations, but when they are used in the context of Gilead society, I find it difficult to convince myself that – despite Gilead’s so-called innovativeness – the “synthesis” they were trying to achieve was ever truly attained. Because of this bias, the credibility of the Professor diminishes greatly; I become much more suspicious of his intentions and his message.

This subtle tone of Gileadean support changes very little, because towards the end of his speech, when presenting possible outcomes of Offred’s escape, he suggests that by leaving into the “outside world” (285) Offred is also leaving her “protected existence” (285). The fact that he uses “outside world” to describe life outside of Gilead strikes me as odd, as though he is admitting to the isolation and lack of freedom Gilead has in relation to all other places on earth. Further, suggesting that women were more “protected” in Gilead makes me curious about his idea of “protection” and if, to him, this means having to exchange an individual’s freedom to have it. I would expect a professor willing to speak on the topic of Gilead to also have certain ideas of what is ethical and unethical, especially in terms of whether the application of ethics is only relevant to one gender or to both.

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“Freedom from”: A Supposed Luxury

In the first half of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, freedom is largely the issue of focus. This 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 given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24), suggests that freedom from such things as control and decisions is more of a luxury than Offred may think. This lack of control and decision-making is constantly shown in the first half of the book through simple, everyday occurrences such as what the individuals wear. What makes this passage so important is the way Aunt Lydia presents “freedom to and freedom from”. This differentiation presents a great contrast between Red Center and society outside of it.

This direct comparison of “freedom to and from from” is shown when Offred and Ofglen encounter Japanese tourists of Westernized society (that Aunt Lydia would refer to as “anarchy”), the society to which Offred once belonged. At one point, Offred is “mesmerized by the women’s feet” (Atwood 30) and continues to fantasize about what wearing open-toed shoes with polished toe nails felt like. She delves so deeply into this thought that she even says that “I can feel her shoes, on my own feet”. Something that is so simple, to people who have the freedom to paint their toe nails and wear open-toed shoes, is a daydream to an individual who has “freedom from” having to go through the complications of choosing a color and finding a way to paint their nails.

When Aunt Lydia says “don’t underrate it”, she is trying to convince Offred that giving all control to the Commanders of the Red Center is more liberating than having the ability to do whatever she pleases. She makes it seem that the freedom to do something was found only in the days of anarchy and chaos, implying that a place of stability and order provides an environment that requires no thought from the individual besides completing the task assigned to them.

This is main struggle for the first half of the book; despite every attempt by women of the house to show Offred that the “freedom from” is more valuable than the “freedom to”, quite often she still finds herself thinking about the way her life used to be and how badly she wants to return to it, flaws and all.

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