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Examining the Power of Activism in The Handmaid’s Tale
Activism , a term commonly associated with riots, rebels, and a general disdain for systems of power, refers to a range of actions or inactions designed to incite or deter change within a society or institution. In Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, activists who challenge the governing institution of Gilead face sinister consequences; namely death. The story follows the narration of Offred, a young woman struggling to maintain her humanity in a sea of indignity and sexist oppression . Although severely restricted by the patriarchal theocracy of Gilead, Offred revolts against oppressive rule through forms of physical and mental activism, which ultimately help preserve her Pre-Gilead identity.
Despite her lack of power , Offred uses small physical activisms to maintain her individuality, regain her sense of control, and salvage any shred of agency possible. Small acts, such as theft, show Offred’s willingness to rebel against her oppressive setting, thus contributing to her maintained sense of dignity and hope for a less oppressive future. One rebellious practice that exemplifies Offred’s desire to remain unique is her use of stolen butter as skin lotion. In optimistic longing, Offred notes, “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire” (Atwood 96). For Offred, the small feat of nourishing her dry skin is an act of defiance against the systems that oppress her. Recognizing that her body is still worth caring for encourages her spirit and keeps Offred’s pre-Gilead identity as a mother, wife, and generally liberated woman in tact. Despite her position as a slave-like vessel for childbearing, Offred refuses to surrender her true identity. The act of stealing a pat of butter and caring for her body is both a gesture of remembrance and an act of defiance. Small forms of activism such as the butter theft serve as a link between her prior state of liberation and current state of oppression.
Upon entering the sitting room on the day of the ceremony, Offred again relies on theft as a source of power: “I would like to steal something from this room. […] It would make me feel that I have power” (Atwood 80). Though she never actually steals anything from the sitting room, the knowledge that she could provides Offred with a sense of agency. She derives almost as much power from not stealing as she does when actually taking the butter. The mere act of choice is a source of power—regardless of the impact that choice has. In the pre-Gilead society, the notion of influencing the surrounding world was incredibly powerful; people constantly sought to “make a difference” or “have an impact.” The sexually oppressive society of Gilead, however, prevents Offred from making a difference, thus she resorts to these small physical activisms that allow her to maintain self-respect.
In the early stages of the novel, Offred was the only character aware of these physical activisms, which implies she sought them out for her personal welfare, yet as the novel progresses, she becomes more daring—often engaging with other characters in a rebellious fashion. Perhaps attributed to the success of her smaller physical activisms, Offred’s escalation in rebellion plays a crucial role in her increased confidence and willingness to break the rules. A prime example of an interactive physical activism is Offred’s intimately casual relationship with the Commander. Considering the consequences of interacting with him, Offred notes:
I could become an Unwoman. But to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power. But there must be something he wants, from me. To want is to have a weakness. It’s this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me. (Atwood 136)
Offred recognizes the Commander has a drastic amount of power over her, yet she sees an opportunity to capitalize on his desires. She sees a chance to exert her own agency and take advantage of his “weakness.” As their relationship grows, Offred builds enough confidence to barter for goods such as real lotion, magazines, and information. Furthermore, her desire for such luxuries supports the notion that Offred is unwilling to sacrifice her Pre-Gilead identity. In fact, she is willing to risk her life to preserve that identity.
While her relationship with the Commander becomes more complex, Offred engages in the most dramatic physical activism of the novel: passionate sex with Nick. Sneaking out at night to partake in an illicit affair with Nick reveals Offred’s growth as an individual. She risks her standing as a Handmaid for the pleasure and comfort of intimacy. Unlike her sexual relationship with the Commander, Offred has control in her relationship with Nick, which is perhaps the greatest luxury in her life. Built on a foundation of sexual desire and simple companionship, Offred’s connection with Nick serves as an indicator of her self-worth and agency: “I went back to Nick. Time after time, on my own, without Serena knowing. It wasn’t called for, there was no excuse. I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely” (Atwood 268). Similar to her use of butter as lotion, Offred uses Nick as a means for her own pleasure—even if he fails to live up to Offred’s husband, Luke. By endangering herself with the affair, Offred again indicates her willingness to preserve her true self. These examples of physical activism show Offred’s increasing confidence in her actions as well as her commitment to maintaining some semblance of personal dignity.
Escalating in perfect synchronicity with her physical activisms, Offred experiences a transformation in her mental state and gradually stands up against the systematic oppression of Gilead. Through her sense of ownership, memories, and feeling of agency, Offred seeks to reclaim her dignity and preserve her identity. At the beginning of the novel, Offred clearly has surrendered all sense of ownership about the world around her: “The door of the room—not my room, I refuse to say my—is not locked” (Atwood 8). Even the room she has dwelled in for months is not her own. The systematic oppression of Gilead has stripped away almost every aspect of her individuality—especially her sense of ownership.
Because of her physical activisms, however, Offred’s mental complacency with the oppression begins to dwindle, thus allowing her to revive her inner-spirit. After discovering the Commander lingering outside her bedroom, Offred asks, “Was he in my room?” following up with, “I called it mine” (Atwood 49). Her sense of ownership escalates further when Moira inquires about her relationship with the Commander, to which Offred replies, “He’s my commander” (Atwood 243). After validating her special relationship with the Commander by using the possessive pronoun “my,” Offred opens the door for other instances of ownership. Her taboo interactions with the Commander violate the oppressive structure of Gilead, allowing her to claim him as her own. The process of assuming ownership of belongings and people is crucial in Offred’s journey towards recovering her identity.
Along with a developed sense of ownership, Offred takes part in mental activism when engaging with her memories. Reliving and reimagining her own memories is her strongest link to her pre-Gilead identity. Offred sings an old song in her head, noting, “I don’t know if the words are right. I can’t remember. Such songs are not sung anymore in public, especially the ones that use words like free” (Atwood 54). Through the music, Offred reconnects with her old identity, thus rebelling against her current one. In addition to the music, Offred uses her memories as a coping mechanism, an escape from the treacherous reality of her daily life. At one point she says, “The night is my time out. Where should I go?” implying the escapist nature of her mind (Atwood 37). Mental activisms such as these allow Offred to relive her past and revive her spirit.
However small, Offred's physical and mental activisms give her hope for the future and empower her to maintain her individual identity. As Offred's time in the oppressed society of Gilead increases, her mental and physical activisms feed off one another to produce a more daring and self-assured woman. Although her life will never be the same, Offred comes to realize that the woman she once was is still alive and physically well. The activism she incites, however simple, is enough to remind her who she is and what effect she can have on the world.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor, 1986. Print.