Tag Archives: Offred

Fight for Survival in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale”

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred along with all the other women can be seen fighting for survival. Their “fight” can be seen as doing as they’re told and maintaining their roles and/or titles because if they disobey or become rebellious, their life could be at stake. Offred’s fight was once I found the strongest. Day in and day out, she played her role as a handmaid to the Commander and did as she was told–to lie on her back when ordered to. She knew what was happening to her was not right but knew if she were to fight against it, her life would be at stake. Longing to survive and not die at the hands of the Commander or the Republic of Gilead, she did as told and played her part well. Her strength to keep on pushing is what inspired me. Although she was not in the best situation, she made the best of it. Throughout the novel, I looked at her as somewhat of a heroine. She saved her own self, if that makes any sense. She did what she was instructed to do in order to get by. There are many women who would’ve probably given up or tapped out if they were in her shoes. But she tried to think of what her Aunt Lydia had told her, “Don’t underrate your freedom.” For she is “freer” than women once were with her type of freedom. The fact she held on to the end as she planned her escape is what amazed me. She was her own heroine by saving her own life and making it out of captivity alive. Her fight for survival shows us how strong women can really be even in the toughest situation. Atwood’s description of Offred shows her strength and determination as a woman.

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Language as a Tool to Oppress a Population

It was Jamaica Kincaid, in her essay A Small Place, who considered the problem of language and how it has the ability to control a society. She says the problem is that, “the language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view” (32). Changing one’s language can have the effect of removing one’s identity as a culture, giving false meaning to certain words, and ultimately leading to oppression. I plan on looking at Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and how the only language he knows is that of his oppressor, Prospero. Caliban is treated like a slave by Prospero and often uses foul language to express his unhappiness for his situation. He realizes that the only language he knows comes from Prospero; as a result Caliban becomes stubborn to improve his level of knowledge and does not progress intellectually.  The main character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, faces oppression in almost everything she does. She is taught to consider her situation as a “freedom.” Also, Offred loses her real name; this last connection to her previous life vanishes as she is referred to as “of Fred,” the man whom she is sexually associated with.

To further investigate:

  1. What is the reasoning behind oppressing people? In the case of The Tempest and The Handmaid’s Tale, why are Caliban and Offred controlled in such a way?
  2. What are the psychological implications of the word control Caliban and Offred face? How do they react?
  3. Are there any instances in the novels where there are positive outcomes of a controlled language?

I chose this topic because the idea that the society one lives on can influence or even have complete control over the language of the people interests me. I never really considered it as a problem until I read A Small Place.

 

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So . . . what happened to Offred?

The “Historical Notes” section at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” does no more to clarify the fate of the heroine than the actual ending of the book does.  At the conclusion of Dr. Pieixoto’s seminar, there are still several questions left open, including what is to me the most important question:  what happened to Offred? 

I would like to know after reading her story, who was Offred?  What was her real name?  What became of her?  This we do not find out after reading the Historical Notes.  As Dr. Pieixoto simply says regarding Offred’s personal history, “We do not know.”  (311)

Dr. Pieixoto’s speech covers the historical background surrounding Offred’s tale, but to me it did not really advance the story at all.  We get some ideas of how the Republic of Gilead started, where it occurred, as well as some more personal details like who Offred’s Commander could have possibly been.  But to me, after the historical notes section is finished,  there are more questions are raised than answered.  Take for example the part where Dr. Pieixoto mentions the two possible men who could have been Offred’s Commander.  He says that neither of these men “was married to a woman who was or ever had been known either as ‘Pam’ or as “Serena Joy.’ ” (Atwood 309)  He goes on further to say that the referencing of the Commander’s wife to be named Serena Joy appears to be a “malicious invention.” (309)   In this book, we’re supposed to be reading a historical account, so if Offred invented Serena Joy’s role as the Commander’s wife, then about what else can we be sure she is telling the ‘truth’? 

Perhaps Atwood did not want Offred’s fate to be the focus of the story.  Perhaps she meant for us to take away deeper ideas, such as what humankind is capable of doing to each other.  Personally, I would rather have found out that in the end there was some happiness or redemption for Offred after reading so much about her.  It would have given an idea of hope, something the Historical Notes do not provide us concerning Offred’s fate. 

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“Are there any questions?”

The historical notes section of The Handmaid’s Tale serves a very important purpose because it gives context to the story and answers some questions, while also asking more. The way that Offred’s account of her life ends on tape does not satisfy the reader, and so the historical notes give you that little bit more that the reader desperately wants.

Professor Pieixoto’s keynote address gives us more information about the larger society of the Republic of Gilead and the way it functioned, information that Offred would not know. We find out the larger context in which Offred and the rest of the people of Gilead lived, such as all of the civil wars and the theology and reasoning of many of the rules of the government. We also learn more details about the Underground Femaleroad and the large amount of resistance that Gilead faced. This information gives us a whole new set of circumstances in which to read Offred’s story.

We also find out answers to some questions in the historical notes, such as the fact that Nick must have been part of the Mayday group and orchestrated Offred’s escape because Offred’s tapes were found in a safe house of the Underground Femaleroad. We also most likely learn the Commander’s real identity, as well as his role in and contributions to the Republic of Gilead. Most importantly, we learn that the Republic is no longer a reality and is now something just to be studied. This brings the story to an absolute close because this society is no longer a threat to women and their freedom.

However much resolve the historical notes and Pieixoto’s address gives us, there are still questions that remain. We never learn Offred’s identity or her ultimate fate, along with those closest to her that she spoke so much about in her tapes. The fact that the address ends with Pieixoto saying “Are there any questions?” (Atwood 311) is represents how there are many more questions, but we do not get to learn the answers, for he stops the story there.

 

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Appreciating Freedom

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”.

 

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The Meaning of Freedom in The Handmaid’s Tale

When looking at this passage, it’s interesting to consider the concept of freedom and how it plays out and is considered in the rest of the novel. Aunt Lydia claiming that Offred is “given freedom from” is an odd ideal when thought of it in the standards of her society. So far in the novel, Offred is restricted in many ways, making it hard for the reader to see her life as anything but free. Perhaps this type of “freedom to” that Aunt Lydia is talking about refers to the freedom for women to protect themselves from danger and question male figures. Offred describes a time in her past life when women could “keep the locks on and keep going” (Atwood 25). In her past life, she had control—“freedom to” control perhaps; however, now Aunt Lydia claims that she has “freedom from” the life of the past. The classification of her current life as freedom is difficult to understand for the reader because her life seems for confined than ever. Although she doesn’t have to worry about being attacked by men, she is merely a servant in the Republic of Gilead. The current controlled way of life that Offred faces may be considered freedom from worry by some people, but when read in present day, I thought that her current state was completely away from a state of freedom. This passage gives an opening to the rest of the novel in that it shows the oppressive viewpoints of the other women in the republic who are trying to make the best of their current situation, as it is the only option they are left with.

 

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Aunt Lydia Highlights a Tradeoff

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, seems so far to be a novel about a protagonist (Offred) who is restricted in almost all aspects of her life. She must censor her speech, wear clothing that hinders her movement and line of sight, eat only what food she is given, and speak only to a handful of people. This is why Aunt Lydia’s statement is so interesting: “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). It seems as though the “freedom to” during the days of anarchy refers to Offred’s freedom to do anything she wanted; she didn’t have to worry about any of the previously mentioned restrictions. Now, in the days of post-anarchy, Offred has the freedom from certain things. For instance, Offred reflects on the differences between her previous life and her life now as a handmaid. Perhaps she now has the freedom from having to be concerned for her safety. She reflects, “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles” (Atwood 24). Now, Offred is free from the burden of being careful around the opposite sex. She has no concern with her own safety in this respect. Aunt Lydia’s statement seems to suggest the differences between Offred’s current and previous lives. There is a tradeoff, however unwanted it might be, between what she was free to do in her past life and being protected in her current life.

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