When I was in high school, I met Margaret Atwood.
Well, that’s not entirely true since I never got close enough to shake her hand but I was in the same room as her and got to hear her talk about one of her books. Oh, and there were some other people there too.
Atwood is one of those people who can capture a room. She has one of the fastest wits I’ve ever been near and has a slow, methodical way of answering questions even when she has an answer at hand–because it’s not just about giving an answer, it’s about willing people to understand.
While the protagonist would never try to command a room like Atwood does by nature, there is a patience to her story-telling that reminds me of the author I almost met.
Offred let’s her narrative breathe, walking the reader through not only the world she finds herself in but also the thoughts that circle through her mind as she tries to cope with her life. She is an “Every Man Hero”–if you can excuse the term–in that the reader can become frustrated with her while also asking themselves “would I have done it any different?”
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now . . .
The fact that Offred is telling her story at all points to her still having some sense of self
separate from the identity she has been given. While little rebellions help Offred be independent, she is continuously dehumanized as a way of Gilead and others above her station to control power, through the use of religion as a way of altering fundamental morality and taking away language so it cannot be used to cement one’s self identity externally.
In a book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, religion is presented as almost interchangeable with what Haidt refers to as a “hive”, in which individuals give-up part of their individuality in order to be part of a greater whole–making the argument that existing in a community is more meaningful than the belief system itself. In the case of this novel, religion (twisted as it may be) is forced upon the nation in order to strip away individuality and segregate the nation into smaller, more manageable groups.
By separating the different groups by colour, it becomes difficult to pick out individuals
from the crowd. This is even more extreme for the Handmaids as they are given white blinders which restrict their vision while they are out in public. The Handmaids’ exist as a separate group due to the deep integration of religion in Gilead, taking ideas from the biblical story of Jacob. Through this religious connection, the government is able to justify their dehumanization of the Handmaids since they can point to this “moral” text.
Atwood never directly references a religion in particular for Gilead. In a way this makes even Gilead faceless and nameless, much like the people it suppresses. It becomes this nonphysical presents that is the “hive” since anyone and everyone could–and is assumed to be–a spy.
The loss of identity comes down to the very language the Handmaids can use. Language
has power to it because it enables someone to record their own thoughts and opinions, as Offred is doing by telling her story into a voice recorder (for more on this read Archival Embodiment in the Handmaid’s Tale by Joseph Hurtgen). For the Handmaids, this freedom has been taken away not only through the banning of reading and writing but also in the way that they speak. A lot of the time Offred uses silence as a defense because, to voice her own thoughts, would be to put herself in danger.
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.
Even when she is speaking with other Handmaids, such as when she goes on shopping trips, there is a script that has been written for them to say to each other. It is a kind of predetermined small talk that takes away the personalities of the women using it. There is no way for Offred to know if Ofglenn was a true believer or a revolutionary because the same language is used by all of the Handmaids regardless of what they might truly believe.
In this sense of loss of language, Offred often muses about how language is being used
by others. Whether this is simple in the way religious words are used out of habit or individual words.
Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said there was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister. […] I used to tease him about being pedantic
The use of the word “pedantic” at the end of the paragraph is interesting because not only is Offred being somewhat pedatic herself with these musings–and subsequently recording those musings–but she is also pointing out how she used to tease Luke for paying attention to details, something she wishes she had done before Gilead had taken over.
There are so many things to take apart in this novel–I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’ve experienced let alone what others have discovered. I found myself fascinated, as a linguistics major, with the idea of language, religion, and power being so intertwined within this world. Not only that, but how easy it was to translate such connections to the real world as well.
Atwood was very careful not to include anything in the novel that had not happened at some point in history because she wanted to have evidence for the world she had created. As such, this mixture of power dynamics is based off of what is found in real cultures. It is an alarming awakening to not only what has happened in human history but also what could happen if we don’t help from our past.