Anna Krainc Prof. Richards Gender in Literature 29 January 2013

Manipulation of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a future dystopia where individuals use power from their position in society to manipulate others.  The Commander, a high-up in Gilead’s hierarchy, initiates a forbidden, though at first non-sexual, affair with his Handmaid and uses his power to direct the relationship to sex.  While Handmaid Offred expresses her surprise at the affair’s seeming lack of sexuality, author Margaret Atwood uses nuanced figurative language to reveal the underlying sexual and manipulative nature of the Commander’s desires.  Atwood compares positional and coercive power to warfare and animal confrontations and emphasizes reward power with sexualized language.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses figurative language to argue that in a society without sex, individuals will manipulate power they have to obtain it.

Atwood’s use of warfare language shows how the Commander uses his power over Offred to intimidate her before initiating the affair.  He lurks around Offred’s room, as if scouting out the territory.  Offred deliberates, “Something has been shown to me, but what is it?  Like the flag of an unknown country, seen for an instant above a curve of hill.  It could mean attack, it could mean parley, it could mean the edge of something, a territory” (Atwood 49).  Offred is confused as to why the Commander is standing near her room because Handmaids and Commanders are meant to have no contact outside of the Ceremony.  Atwood uses the words “flag,” “country,” “attack,” “parley,” and “territory” to show that like a country in war, Offred feels threatened by the strength and foreignness of the Commander’s power.  She fears “attack,” an aggressive come-on; she considers “parley,” an offer of a deal or friendship; she senses the new “territory” to which their relationship may progress.  While the Commander’s signal may be “unknown,” the power behind the potential threat is clear.

Atwood shows the Commander’s coercive power over Offred by comparing his initial advance to confrontation between animals.  The warfare passage above escalates directly into the following power play: “The signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back, raised hackles.  A flash of bared teeth, what in hell does he think he’s doing?  Nobody else has seen him.  I hope.  Was he invading? Was he in my room?” (49). Again, Offred wonders about the Commander’s motivations; yet now, she senses imminent danger behind his seemingly harmless approach.  The listing of “signals” shows that the Commander’s body language communicates an immediacy and intensity to the danger that threatens Offred.  A comma forces the animal comparison to transition straight into Offred’s incredulity and panic at the Commander’s actions.  This direct pairing of “a flash of bared teeth” and Offred’s panic effectively shows Offred’s unease, which is reinforced by the short, unsure sentences and questions that follow: “Was he in my room?”  The dynamic established paints the Commander as the offensive player, the one making the attack, the one holding the power.  In a standoff between animals, the attacker has the advantage; in this case, the Commander has every advantage: he has the power to move Offred to a different household, to the Colonies of Unwomen, or to have her killed.  Hence, when the Commander escorts the scantily-clad Offred to the private room at Jezebel’s, she can do little to protest that will not result in harm to her.  The Commander has coercive power over Offred because her failure to comply with his wishes could result disastrously for her. 

Use of similar animal language recurs in the novel to show the Commander’s power over Offred.  After their first rendezvous, Offred muses, “I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him.  They had not yet reached the level of words” (155).  Offred considers that the Commander might not yet know his motivations for the affair; however, her first instinct is to distrust him.  By saying he might be “toying” with Offred, Atwood implies a level of sexuality and manipulation in his actions.  The “cat-and-mouse” routine, then, places the Commander as the manipulative cat, tormenting its prey before eating it, and Offred as the dangling mouse, completely subject to the Commander’s power.  This “cat-and-mouse” hierarchy transfers to the jaunt to Jezebel’s because Offred is subject to the Commander’s every whim (230).  She doesn’t want to have sex with him, but attempting to resist him could make worse her already unfortunate life.  The Commander has positional and coercive power over Offred because he can control and inflict harm on Offred if she does not comply.

Reward power is a third type of power the Commander has over Offred, as seen in a simile and her exaggerated physical reaction when he rewards her with access to knowledge.  At the beginning of the relationship, the Commander gives Offred the hand lotion she requests (159); however, as the relationship progresses, he begins rewarding her with magazines and books to read.  The first time he offers Offred a magazine, her anticipation is tangible.  She describes, “Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it.  I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache” (156).  Offred craves the magazine that the Commander so casually displays.  Atwood compares the magazine to “fish bait” to indicate that the Commander has the power to lure Offred in as if she is a fish, easily distracted from danger by the opportunity for reward.  “Baiting” Offred with knowledge proves a successful power tactic for the Commander: Offred’s physical longing for that which the Commander controls is such that her “fingers ache.”  Offred is likely to be a more enthusiastic participant in his game, rather than just fearfully obeying, because the Commander shows her what she can gain from the relationship.  Thus, at Jezebel’s, she pressures herself to more actively participate in sexual intercourse with the Commander, to “fake it,” because she feels that she owes him for the “rewards” and because she wants them to continue (255).  The above situations exemplify the intersection of different forms of power because the Commander’s positional power affords him “rewards” with which he can entice Offred.  Scrabble is yet another reward the Commander uses to exercise reward power over Offred.

The sexual language surrounding the Scrabble games shows how the Commander uses the lure of the forbidden game to gain power over Offred.  Offred delights in their first game:

I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters.  The feeling is voluptuous.  This is freedom, an eyeblink of it.  Limp, I spell.  Gorge.  What a luxury.  The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that.  Humbugs, those were called.  I would like to put them into my mouth.  They would taste also of lime.  The letter C.  Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious. (139)

Offred relishes in the feeling of playing the banned board game.  Her description is particularly sensuous, and the senses of touch and taste are highly sexual.  The words “glossy,” “smooth,” “finger,” “feeling,” and “voluptuous” all pertain to the sense of touch.  “Candies,” “peppermint,” “cool,” “mouth,” “taste,” “crisp,” “tongue,” and “delicious” all pertain to the sense of taste.  “Freedom,” “gorge,” and “luxury” are lush, indulgent words that pair touch and taste to create a highly sexualized description of the game.  Like Scrabble, sex for pleasure is banned in Gilead.  By comparing the two, Atwood shows how strong the pull of the forbidden is for both Offred and the Commander.  Offred desperately wants to maintain access to this forbidden world, and the Commander’s ability to give her access or take it away gives him power over her.

The Commander holds the ultimate power in any situation with Offred because his status gives him positional power over her.  Everything reminds Offred of this, even her name, “of Fred.”  The Commander’s status allows him to coerce her without her fighting back because a Handmaid’s word against that of a Commander means next to nothing.  His privilege as a Commander and a male gives him the power to reward Offred, making her feel as if she owes him.  Even so, the Commander is not the villain.  He is only the product of an extremist society that allots individuals grossly unequal amounts of power.  He abuses his power because he craves the normalcy of a system that allows for excitement, rejection, and intimacy.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses figurative language to show how the Commander uses his positional, coercive, and reward power over Offred to manipulate her into a sexual affair.  Nuanced word choice allows readers to see the demoralization of an individual as he abuses the absolute power society gave him. Atwood cautions against extremism by showing how an extremist society can drive individuals to abuse their power.  

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  New York: Anchor Books, 1986.  Print.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.