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In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the autocratic state of Gilead oppresses women in its theocratic system, using them as conscripted childbearers for wealthy but infertile couples. The main character and narrator, Offred, is the handmaid to an important Commander, and she finds small ways to assert her identity within the restrictive Gileadean society. Gilead redefines and manipulates language in order to further oppress the common people, denying them individuality, with the end goal of sustaining those in power. However, it also exposes faults in the hierarchy of power, notably the hypocrisy of those that wield it, and it shows that language facilitates power. Overall, Atwood utilizes Gilead’s oppressive manipulation of language in The Handmaid’s Tale to reveal the hierarchical dynamics of power in the theocratic state.
Gilead manipulates language in a religious context in order to establish the hierarchy of power dynamics and therefore further its existence as a totalitarian state. Gilead cements the hierarchy of power by limiting the knowledge of the common people. Offred lives in a theocracy, where there is no separation between church and state. Looking back on her situation, hundreds of years later, Professor Pieixoto tells the reader in the Historical Notes that Gilead used biblical precedents to justify the new, oppressive system. “God is a Natural Resource”, the slogan goes (Atwood 213). The Republic of Gilead claims that they have biblical approval for the establishment of the handmaid class. Every month before the Ceremony, the Commander reads from the Bible, reminding the reader of the story of Rachel, who was infertile and gave permission to her husband, Jacob, to have a child with their maid. Atwood does not criticize religion, or religious influences, in the book. Rather, she denounces how people use the Bible to create rules in order to oppress other members of the society for their own purposes. Gilead also uses religion to justify its harsher qualities. By reading from the Bible before the Ceremony, the Commander is legitimizing the government-sanctioned sexual violence against the handmaids. Lack of knowledge enables oppression, and Gilead manipulates religious influences like the Bible to control what the masses know, keeping them subservient. Also, routine biblical language invokes a sense of paranoia in the common people. When saying goodbye to Offred, her shopping partner Ofglen gives her the official farewell, “Under His Eye”, making a clear reference to God. The precise language here gives the handmaids a sense of fear, and a reminder that they could be under surveillance at any time. It causes them to censor their behavior and their words, even when nobody is watching. Gilead’s use of religious language in everyday activities is the intersection of theology and autocracy in the novel. It helps Gilead maintain an iron grip over the populace and keep the common people subservient, by giving the state control over the thoughts and actions of the society. Language is denied to women in order to control them, and to prevent their resistance to the people in power. Offred finally realizes what she has lost in the onset of Gilead, saying, “The Commander has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once”. Without language, Offred realizes, those oppressed have no means with which to rebel. But by restricting the common person’s access to knowledge and language, concealing the words of the Bible, and even prohibiting the right of handmaids to read the signs of shops, the theocracy prevents resistance and furthers its existence as a totalitarian state. Offred knows that the prayers she hears at the Red Center have been altered from the original text, and that victims of Salvagings are political dissenters rather than rapists or homosexuals, but she has no way of corroborating this with someone else. The upper class in the novel maintains their position of power by inhibiting open dialogue between the common people and by preventing their contact with literature, which might otherwise result in rebellion. By restricting her access to knowledge and language, Gilead can control Offred and others like her.
Gilead also manipulates language by creating a role for women that is less than human, in order to make it easier to control them, and this reveals flaws in the hierarchy of power. Gilead is a theocracy created because of widespread panic at decreasing birth rates. To combat this epidemic, men in power revert women’s role in society to sexual objects, thus allowing them to be easily manipulated. In controlling their reproductive rights, Gilead lowers the status of women to less than human. Offred eventually recognizes that she is valued as no more than a set of reproductive organs, and Gilead utilizes oppressive language to try to make her forget that any other possible reality ever existed. When the Commander takes Offred to Jezebel’s, she thinks to herself, “It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them” (236). She realizes she is being paraded around like a treasured livestock, and is no more than property to him. Offred knows she could end up discarded, killed like that prized animal for meat without a second thought if she no longer serves a purpose. The language in this passage shows that Offred, as a woman, is outside the hierarchy of power and therefore subject to its whims. Gilead claims to put women on a pedestal, protecting them from sexual violence and other crimes in its new society, but by controlling their reproduction they are forcing women into a less than human role, with the end goal of making it easier for the government to control them. Offred, talking with the Commander after one of their illicit Scrabble games, narrates, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better . . . better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some” (211). The Commander is assessing the policies of Gilead, a freedom granted only to the powerful. Rather than quote propaganda, he can be honest and tell Offred that in order for some to enjoy this new life, others, meaning women, must suffer. Also, the Commander is the main source from where Offred experiences language within the course of the novel. By breaking the laws he himself made, he reveals the hypocrisy in the Gileadean hierarchy of power. The Commander also reflects the elite’s belief that they are above the law when he takes Offred to Jezebel’s, where she is confronted by the fact that “by night, they are exploiting the same women whom they ostensibly hold on a pedestal by day”. The brothel, which should not even exist within the Gileadean system, shows how Gilead was not in fact created to fulfill a religious goal of converting the populace or to fix the birth rate problem, but rather to establish control over others. The power dynamics exposed by Gilead’s manipulation of language reveals the flaws in the theocracy.
Gilead also manipulates language through its use of dehumanizing language and its suppression of individuality, in order to better control the common people and maintain the hierarchy of power. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are defined by gender roles, rather than their true names. Gilead denies them their individuality by giving them set dress colors and activities, such as Milk and Honey, which is a biblical reference to fertility, and the only store the handmaids are allowed to shop at. By not allowing the women individuality, it is simpler for Gilead to regulate their behavior and control their thoughts. The theocracy also employs dehumanizing language to make the abuse of women easier on the collective conscience of the society. Feminists are called “Unwomen”, deformed babies “Unbabies” or “shredders”, and the man at the Particicution becomes an “it” for the handmaids to rip apart. Additionally, when preparing to try and flee Gilead, Offred remembers that her cat needs to be killed in order for them to escape undetected. After Luke tells her he will take care of it, she tells herself, “I knew he meant kill . . . You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real” (192-3). This terminology separates the oppressed from the oppressors. By making the objects of their abuse seem less than human, objectifying the situation, violence and systematic oppression can happen without the normal consequence of guilt or remorse. The strongest manifestation of this dehumanizing language, however, is in the names of handmaids. Instead of going by their real names from before the time of Gilead, the women are forced to adopt a name that deems them property, not as living, breathing, human beings. In this way, they are once again denied their individuality. In the novel, the true name of Offred is never revealed, and without her identity, she is “lost in a sea of names”. By not disclosing her name, Atwood argues that her fate could happen to anybody, even the reader. Gilead manipulates language through dehumanizing terminology and the names of women, revealing how the theocracy can commit daily abuse so casually, and the means by which it maintains control of the masses.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood argues that the manipulation of language is a necessary component for retaining autocratic power. Gilead uses language to oppress women and suppress their individuality, dehumanizing them in an effort to make their abuse easier. Traditional gender roles form the bedrock of inspiration for the handmaid’s oppression, but language can be used by anybody in the upper echelons, not just men, to oppress those below them. As Offred recalls from her time with Aunt Lydia at the Red Center, “We are hers to define. We must suffer her adjectives”. Words like “define” and “adjectives” emphasize that language facilitates power. Without language or power, women like the handmaids are easily oppressed and must “suffer” the worst abuses of tyranny. Thus, people with power in Gilead use language to retain their authority and keep the common people subservient. In the closing moments of Offred’s narrative, as she is taken away by the Eyes, all she has left is language. She has no guarantees of safety, no weapon to defend herself with. The Commander, Luke, Moira, and her daughter are all gone. She only has the trust she places in Nick, and her anomalous faith in language. Atwood ends on a hopeful note, yet reminds the reader that language is inseparable from power, as they are both tools used to oppress.
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