How Atwood used language as a narrative device to build Gilead
Over the last few years, Atwood's Handmaid's Tale has made an incredible come back, thanks to the tv series but also to the actual political climate. Although The Testaments - its sequel - is a great book, it doesn't strike the reader as much as The Handmaid's Tale. Why? The whole impact of The Handmaid's Tale relies on the reader discovering Gilead, and instead of telling us how it works, Atwood used language as a narrative device to show us this alternate reality. So, how did she do that?
David Hogsette argues that in The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood, 1996) ‘immediately following Gilead takeover, Offred begins to realise the existence of a relationship among language, the self, institutions, and power’ (Hogsette 1997, p.266). In this essay, I will demonstrate how Gilead’s use of language – a religious propaganda - is an instrument of control; how it constrains the identity category of gender with elements of language which strip women of their identity and humanity; and finally how Offred uses language as an affirmation of her ‘self’ and as a resistance’s tool in the telling of her story which could be a testimony for future generations.
In Gilead – which is a dystopian vision of the United States of America, where, after a war and environmental issues which have led to an extreme drop of fertility, a Christian fundamentalist group has installed a dictatorship – language is constructed to accommodate a constant religious propaganda and men’s supremacy. Atwood uses intertextuality with the Bible as citizens of Gilead engage in most interactions involving some form of compulsory litany: ‘May the Lord Open’, ‘Blessed be the fruit’, ‘Praise be’ (Atwood 1996, pp.28-29), ‘Under his eye’ (p.54), to show that they are ‘true believers’ (p.177) and to avoid scrutiny and eventually retaliation from the militia. Every noticeable event or milestone is celebrated with chanting, for the birth of a child for example (p.126) or preaching during group weddings called women’s Prayvaganzas (p.232), and the executions of those who have broken the law are called Salvaging (p.42). Titles and names too are deeply intertwined with religion, ‘Commanders of the Faithful’ (p.31) – originally used in Islam by Caliphs – which in The Handmaids Tale refers to the highest-ranking men in Gilead, the ‘Birthmobile’ (p.31) which name reminds us of the Pope mobile. I agree with Hogsette who suggests that ‘The men of Gilead appropriate the text of the Bible to fit their political, social, and sexual goals’ (Hogsette 1997, p.271) as the Republic of Gilead’s entire lexical field revolves around religion and its so-called duty sworn to God to repopulate the country, which of course is a leeway for men to take control over women’s lives and bodies. Furthermore, they justify the entire structure of their society by desensitising ‘individuals to social and political horrors by manipulating language’ (Hogsette 1997, p.268). They call ‘Ceremony’ the rape of a woman (a handmaid) by a high rank man (a Commander) – because ‘all children are wanted now, but not by everyone’ (p.36) – every month during her fertility window, held by the wife, in order to procreate, keep the child for themselves, and then, send the handmaid to another household, or discard her to the colonies if she doesn’t produce a child after a certain amount of time.
Although Gilead favours men to women, everyone is likely to be spied on, reported and incarcerated or killed, and the sentence ‘under his Eye’ is there to remind everyone that there is no freedom of speech (or of opinion) in the Republic. Spies or secret agents called Eyes could be anywhere, and suspicion is in everybody’s mind: “Perhaps he is an Eye” (p.28).
Language in Gilead has become the most restrictive and codified tool instead of being a mode of expression.
In Gilead, people’s, but mostly women’s identities – or lack of –, and social statuses are constructed around their domestic role: wives, econowives (for low status men), Handmaids for procreation, Aunts to teach traditional values to the future handmaids and to discipline them, Marthas for housework, Jezebels for prostitution, or status for the men: Guardians, Commanders, etc... The entire Gileadean society and its language revolve around controlling women’s lives and bodies – for the greater good which is to repopulate the Republic. Handmaids are stripped of their names: ‘my name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden’ (Atwood 1996, p.94), and therefore dehumanised, they are relegated to the status of ‘two-legged wombs (…), sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices’ (p.146).
David Hogsette argues that in the phallocentric Republic of Gilead, the handmaids are nonpersons and that they become the possession of their respective Commanders, and that the subsequent new names reflect how Gilead structures its social hierarchy around levels of subservience and ownership (Hogsette 1997, pp.267-268). Offred therefore is the property of Fred, Ofwarren, the property of Warren, and so on so forth. Not only they are stripped of their identity (first name and surname) but they are denied any kind of identity altogether; if a handmaid, let’s say Ofglen is replaced by another one, the new one will be called Ofglen. At the lowest level of the hierarchy, the Unwomen, who are Godless (pp.128-29), infertile, or not conforming to the expectations of their sex which is a ‘Gender Treachery’ (p.53) or to the compulsory heterosexuality, are punished by being sent to the Colonies as slaves or killed. The Republic of Gilead uses the prefix ‘un-‘ not only to judge women (Unwomen) and still born babies (Unborns) but to deny their rights as human beings.
Nevertheless, Offred has found a way to use language as a quiet act of resistance. Offred and the other handmaids cling to their name as a means to remember who they were, ‘within the Handmaid Sisterhood, however, the women share with each other their real names, thereby maintaining, as much as possible, their former identities. In that act of sharing, those women also preserve their own individual humanity, their personhood’ (Hogsette 1997, p.268). By secretly telling her name to other Handmaids or to Nick, she is resisting the system and reclaiming her identity and her humanity: ‘I tell him my real name and feel that therefore I am known’ (Atwood 1996, p.282); but it is not enough. Encouraged by the discovery of the Latin sentence carved in her cupboard, ‘”It pleases me to know that her taboo message made it through, to at least one person, washed itself upon the wall of my cupboard, was opened and read by me” (p.62). Those words grant Offred the faith that her own narrative may be uncovered by some future reader’ (Hogsette 1997, p.269). Offred decides to tell her story as a testimony of her life, the evidence that she existed, although sometimes she fantasises the events which took place: ‘I made it up. It didn’t happen that way’ (p.273). She has hope, that someday, someone will listen to her tapes and acknowledge her as a human being; but also that they would comprehend the trauma women who lived freely before Gilead took power, suffered from in being relegated overnight from their status of full individuals equal to men in most areas of their existence (work, social status, etc…) to a life of slavery, and for her as a handmaid sexual slavery.
In conclusion, the Republic of Gilead asserts its power through language, which is the foundation of the patriarchal dictatorship, and uses the Bible as a means to control women and assert its power in every interaction. Although Offred has found a way to resist in claiming back her identity by using her forbidden name and telling her story, this is not enough to free her from a life of suffering. This is a just rebellious act which keeps her going and sane until she escapes, but will she escape?
Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written as a dystopian novel in the nineteen-eighties, we can argue – considering the recent events in the United States of America where several states just criminalised abortion, and where a rapist will get less jail time than the woman (or girl) he raped if she is pregnant as the result of the assault and abort – that the risk of seeing a Gilead-like society emerging in the next few years, is closer and greater than we could imagine. The correlation between their religious agenda, their use of language with words such as ‘pro-life’ to justify the dehumanisation of women, taking control of their bodies and their lives, and Gilead is flagrant. In this regard, Offred’s story seems more like a premonition which warns us of what women could face in the near future, and what we, men and women should actively fight to prevent happening, than a dystopian tale.
Atwood, M. 1996, The Handmaid's Tale, Vintage, London
Hogsette, DS. 1997, 'Margaret Atwood's Rhetorical Epilogue in The Handmaid's Tale: The Reader's Role in Empowering Offred's Speech Act', Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 38:4, pp.266-271