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Since the beginning of history, language has been the most important means of communication and development amongst humans. Because of language’s enormous significance, manipulating it to control a large group of people is extremely effective. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood creates Gilead, an imaginary futuristic regime involving the complete stripping of freedom from women. Even though the new government employs armies of spies and guards to enforce its laws, the real power lies in the government’s control of language. Atwood subtly incorporates the theme of language into every aspect of the story, demonstrating not only the influence it has over groups of people but also how its absence affects the main character’s sanity.
The novel begins with Offred, the main character and narrator, sitting in her stark, empty room at the Commander’s house. Once a successful working mother, Offred is now merely a tool for reproduction. Like all other unmarried or lesbian women in the country, Offred must exchange her real name for the generic possessive title indicating which commander she services (‘Offred’ meaning ‘Of Fred’). With the loss of their real names, the women automatically begin to lose touch with their former lives and find locating friends and family nearly impossible. The government takes a major step with this law toward its ultimate goal of ridding women of individual identities and indicating their insignificance to men.
In addition to mourning the death of her name, Offred aches for the abundance of reading material and conversation once so readily available. She spends most of her time sitting in her blank room where the only written word is the word “faith” embroidered on a cushion. The only times she can leave her room are to service the Commander and to go on her daily shopping outing with another handmaid, Ofglen. In anticipation of the handmaids’ encounters with each other, the government teaches them acceptable conversation and forbids any deviation from it. Offred recounts a typical conversation during her walk with Ofglen:
‘The war is going well, I hear,’ she says.
‘Praise be,’ I reply.
‘We’ve been sent good weather.’
‘Which I receive with joy’ (19).
By limiting conversations to such meaningless remarks and pitting the two women against each other as spies, the government prevents the leaking of secrets and the formation of friendships or alliances. The elimination of casual conversation and relationships from the women’s lives serves the government well; the women crave human interaction so much that they are willing participants in the various sex, killing, and religious ceremonies that they would never have participated in previously.
The most important – and perhaps most disturbing – practice in Gilead is the Ceremony, when handmaids must visit their Commanders’ rooms and have sex with them in attempts to get pregnant. At the beginning of Offred’s experience as a handmaid, she plays with language in her mind to distract herself from the strange man on top of her: “Household. That is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81). Offred’s thoughts demonstrate her desperation to maintain some type of sanity; she struggles not to let her mental capabilities dwindle. After Offred lives with the Commander for some time, he secretly invites her to his room on a non-Ceremony night. Not knowing what to expect, Offred is shocked when the Commander asks her to play Scrabble with him. The word game is like a sensory overload for her:
“Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it…What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them in my mouth. They would taste of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious” (139).
The Commander takes full advantage of the power he holds over Offred through language. He turns her on by providing her with forbidden treasures like Scrabble and fashion magazines, while at the same time enticing her to continue to risk her life by returning to his room at night. Eventually he begins exploiting her sexually, even dressing her up and taking her to a whorehouse one night. The Commander’s manipulation of Offred through reading materials represents yet another way in which the government controls women’s thoughts and actions through language.
In a society so accustomed to the freedom of speech, Atwood’s futuristic view of civilization comes as a shock. She deftly constructs a terrifying regime grounded in the beliefs of different groups and political parties of our time and brings one of our most cherished freedoms under threat. Although critics most often discuss the novel as an attack on the religious right, it is equally a warning of the power language holds. Atwood effectively illustrates the extent to which the absence of names, speech, and the written word can affect one’s mental health and control an entire society.
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