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Over the course of history many governments, political figures, religious groups, and other organizations have used language to influence the population of every geographical area. Understanding that language and how it can be used to not only influence decisions from simple choices like what to have for dinner to life changing choices such as who is to be president can aid in understanding major social structures such as economical, religious, education, and political classes. Understanding how the same language can be used to remove basic constitutional rights while convincing the general population that it is best for them or will keep them safe can prevent this from happening in “real life”. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale religious, political, and legal language was used to change a relatively normal society, similar to one in any town or city in the U.S., into a patriarchal, puritan, socialist society where fertility was a commodity, women were little more than slaves, rich men ran everything, and poor men fought the battles.
One of the most fundamental uses of language is communication. If an individual cannot communicate he or she is lost in a dark, dismal place where nothing makes sense. In fact, some would argue that true language is what separates humans from the rest of the animals. Thinkers such as Blake and Lacan went a step further and argues that language not only gives us the ability to think, but also the ability to create (Wiggins). Every man, woman, and child views the world around him or her through a special sort of filter called perception. The trick is to filter through those perceptions and find the true meaning behind the language chosen. This is just what deconstructionists do. They sift through language in literature and look at the original meaning of the words, the changes in usage over time, and the perception created by the context the words are used in (Tompkins, Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1955-present)). In short, they study the changes in denotation and connotation in written language and use their findings to analyze literature and find the deeper meaning.
People use language to communicate their perceptions about the world around them. In a way this is a form of creation because what one person perceives will not be the same as what the next person perceives. Writers are the ultimate creators, according to Blake and Lacan, because they use language not only to demonstrate their perceptions of the existing world around them but also to create new worlds within the existing world (Wiggins). If this concept is true of writers, think for a moment about those people who are the ultimate writers. These are the people who use language to change our perceptions about the world around us. These are the advertisers, the politicians, the lawyers, the minsters or priests – the people who can make us believe up is down and black is white. What could on charismatic leader of any kind do with a few well-chosen words? Well, Hitler started a world war, O.J. Simpson walked, Abraham Lincoln freed slaves – the list goes on. The point is that people will live or die on the basis of a few well-chosen words.
In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this is just what was done. Language was used to convince a fairly large population that small losses of freedoms they had always lived with were good things in light of civil unrest so that when the large losses were put into place they did not really question it. It was subtly and brilliantly done over a period of time so that initial outrage at one loss faded and, when that loss became the accepted norm, another was put into place. Once the major reforms were put into place, language was used to control the population, for the most part, to convince them that the new society was the right society, to convince them that it was the safest and most natural way to live.
The most noticeable change in this society was that people became commodities. For some reason changes in the environment in Gilead (Atwood’s name for the society in question) it became more and more difficult to conceive, and birth defects in the offspring of those who could conceive became more prevalent. And so any one who could have a normal, healthy child became valuable. While it might appear that this would affect the women more than the men (women actually conceive and carry, after all), this was not so. Men were just as obligated to participate in the attempt to conceive as women. Fertility was the real commodity, it just happened that fertility lay in people.
For women fertility meant becoming property in the truest sense of the word. A fertile woman was rented out to families who could afford her, but could not have children themselves. That woman was used to conceive, carry, and nurse a child to a certain point. Once the child was perceived to be healthy it was passed on to the wealthy couple to raise as their own and the woman went to another couple to do it again. Language played an important part in convinced these women that it was their obligation to go along and accept this as a norm. Ironically, it was a cross between biblical language and political language that was used to do this. “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs” (Atwood) was a misquote from a biblical reference and from something that Karl Marx said in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” It was used to stress what was a socialist point of view that each person should give to the entire society according to, in this case, her ability. This was a socialist point of view in that Marx, who borrowed it from a French socialist Louis Jean Joseph Charles Blanc, believed that ability was the true commodity and people should use their abilities to benefit all of society rather than only benefit themselves (Marx). However, it was also biblical. The actual quote from the bible reads, “everyone according to his ability” Acts 11:29. It was in reference to a group of people who were beleaguered that Jesus’ disciples gave aid to, according to what they were able to give. Again, this concept references giving what you can to those who need it. And so, language is used to create a class of people who are commodities, just as slaves were in our own history.
Of course, the same language could also have been used to influence the class structure of those who could not conceive. Gilead had a military government system. The leaders were the upper class, those who could afford to be educated. The lower class or uneducated became foot soldiers. Of course, these were only the men. Women did not lead anything but the other women in their household. If ability is used to designate place in society, then it only makes sense that those who are the most educated have positions of power. This is historically comparable to military service from the beginning. Upper class, those with money, could purchase a rank in any given military in early history of military service. Even in modern military history there is a form of classism. Those who are wealthy can go to college or university and enter military service as officers – without the years of “foot soldiering.” Those who are not wealthy or who cannot go to college for whatever reason enter at the low ranks and are at higher risk. Indeed, as one upper-middle class woman pointed out “People like us don’t have children in the military,” (Daly). Language is used here to position the men according to their rank in society. The men in power, the ones Atwood mentions, were “commanders” and the foot soldiers were “angels” and “Guardians of the Faith”. Angels are the soldiers, Guardians are the police and menial labor. Of course some lower class men went into domestic service – Nick, who took care of the commander’s car and drove him is one example- and some became spies for the government called “eyes,” but for the most part all the reader sees is the military hierarchy of commanders, guardians, and angels.
Women in Gilead were reduced to one of five classes, all but on of which are not permitted to read or write. Aunts are the only women in this society permitted to read or write because they have to give reports and educate the rest of society as to their place in it (Atwood). They are the teachers, the educators, the ones who are responsible for reeducating those who must be made to conform to the new society norms. Upper-class women are simply wives, they are married to the commanders. Lower class women who have husbands are called “econowives” who have to do everything in the household (Atwood). Women who are lower class, but not married become “Marthas.” Marthas work in the commanders’ households. They are the domestics, the maids and cooks. Their name derives from the name of the sister of Lazarus who served Jesus (The Holy Bible ESV) implying that such service to the commanders and their wives is akin to serving Jesus. The fertile women are called “handmaids” (Atwood) in a biblical reference to the women who wash the feet of the servants of the Lord (The Holy Bible ESV). These women are not really upper or lower class, but a class of their own. They get respect because they provide children to the upper class families, yet they have no rights. They are even stripped of their names and called by a name that reflects who they are in service to, such as “Offred” who was the handmaid belonging to Fred’s household (Atwood).
Of course, in any social structure there are those that protest the changes. Usually these are the disenfranchised, the people who do not fit into the social structure as neatly as we would like them to. In Gilead, as in all societies, these were the people who fell outside what was considered the norm. These people were given a general name – not one that described them as a person, but one that made them less than a person so that it was easier for the leaders to remove them from the rest of society. “Unwomen” (Atwood) are women who are not able to bear children, but are not in domestic service or are not wives of any class. They are protestors, subversives who will not go along with the new society. These women are gathered up and shipped to a place called the colonies which reads like a similar situation to Australia when it was used as a prison. Women who are fertile, but who are subversive or undesirable due to sexual orientation are sent to a government run brothel used by the upper class men for entertainment. Men who are subversive, who were doctors that performed abortions, or who are homosexual are executed and hung from a wall for everyone to see.
In looking at the language used to maintain the status quo once it was established, one becomes curious about how it actually did become established. . A political rule that I once heard in a sociology class is that a person is smart, people are stupid. Politically, this is even truer when the word “terrorism” is put into play. In chapter 28 of Attwood’s novel, Islamic fanatics are blamed for the destruction of the government. Once the government is down, then removal of rights ‘for your own safety” (Atwood) becomes easily accepted. Terrorist and terrorism are two words that hold a lot of political power. For example, the presidential debates that aided in George W. Bush’s reelection were primarily about how the government planned on keeping citizens safe from terrorism at home. If a leader wants a policy to be accepted almost immediately all he or she has to do is tie it to terrorism, and it’s hardly looked at or questioned.
Of course other words are used in the establishment of this new regime that make it even easier for people to accept. Of those words, one stands out. That word is “temporary.” All of the measures that are taken are initially billed as “temporary” so that people believe the rights which are removed will be reestablished once everything is settled and they are safe. “Temporary is a good word and can be used to get a lot of things to slide under the radar that may be unethical or even unconstitutional,” according to a local politician who did not wish to be named (Anonymous).
Perception is everything when it comes to language – whether it is used to inform, entertain, or persuade. In studying the language in The Handmaid’s Tale and how it was used to establish a society where babies are a commodity and money and gender determines social class, it can be argued that manipulation of language leads to manipulation of people. This is true in all aspects of society, but more so in the political aspect where men and woman in power can change the perception of the meaning of language so that basic beliefs, values, and feelings of well-being are changed in large groups of people. Language and perception of the meanings behind language is the true key to the hearts and minds of people, thus, language becomes the key in controlling or managing society as a whole – not just in Atwood’s dystopian society, but in all societies.
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