Oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates an oppressed society in which she critiques the role of oppression in everyday culture. Atwood’s stylistic writing techniques help the reader define the oppression in each of the characters, and the internal thoughts of the narrator show the relationship between individual oppression and the oppression of a group. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood shows the connections between systematic oppression and internalized oppression through the use of short phrases in the narrator’s interior monologue.

            The Handmaids are systematically oppressed through the society’s requirement to participate in the Ceremony, an unjust procreative ritual. Participating in this ritual is not a choice for the Handmaids. Offred notes that she was given a choice to become a Handmaid; however, her other choices were only death or being sent to the Colonies of Unwomen. The society of Gilead believes that the Handmaids choose their position when, in reality, they just decide to survive. Claiming that becoming a Handmaid is a choice is an excuse the society uses to force the Handmaids to participate in this dehumanizing ritual. Through this technicality, Gilead systematically oppresses the Handmaids.  

            Offred’s internalized oppression is evident as she accepts the systematic oppression of the Ceremony. As Offred retells the story of the Ceremony, she thinks, “nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for”(Atwood 94). Offred makes the excuse that this ritual is something she agreed to do; her rationalization justifies the Ceremony’s inhumane nature. The internalized oppression within Offred appears in her accepting language. Offred’s statement is separated into two phrases by a colon. The phrase after the colon is an explanation of the first phrase. She does not think the ceremony should be considered rape because she agreed to it. This sentence structure with the two short phrases emphasizes Offred’s thought process and her despondent attitude about her duties as a Handmaid. She shows compliance to the horrific practices through her justification. This acceptance is an indication of the internalized oppression in the narrator.

            The systematic oppression of the Gilead residents appears through the corrupt religious laws. The laws of Gilead are based on an interpretation of the Bible, so if a resident of Gilead is unlawful, they are also considered to be sinful. Gilead’s laws also declare sinful the individuals that are victims of accident or misfortune. The demand to follow and believe these laws oppresses the society.

            Janine, also known as Ofwarren, feels strong effects of internalized oppression when her baby, whom she conceived illegally, dies. Ofglen describes Janine’s thoughts as she states, “she thinks it’s her fault…Two in a row. For being sinful”(215). Janine blames herself for her baby’s death because a doctor impregnated her instead of her Commander, which is highly forbidden in Gilead. Janine is internally oppressed because she truly believes what the society has declared the truth. The short sentences that Atwood uses to portray Janine’s thoughts are absolute. Her factual thoughts indicate that Janine believes she has committed sinful acts. She accepts and internalizes the systematic oppression.

            The society of Gilead dehumanizes the Handmaids through the detachment of their bodies from their individual person. In the Gilead culture, the Handmaids are thought of as sacred, but not as sacred people, only as sacred reproductive organs. The society values the Handmaids for their fertile ovaries. This detachment from the humanity of the Handmaids is another example of systematic oppression.

            Offred describes the internalized oppression of the Handmaids as they begin to accept that they are only useful for their reproductive abilities. Describing the handmaids, Offred offers, “we are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”(136). Offred is explaining that the sole purpose of the Handmaids is to produce children. Not only does Offred’s statement degrade the Handmaids, but it also detaches the Handmaids from their own bodies. The Handmaids begin to accept the prejudice because they are no longer seen as humans, but only as wombs.  Offred’s thought consists of five short phrases. The second phrase, “that’s all,” attempts to simplify the idea that the Handmaids are only fertile organs. The continuation of the sentence with descriptive phrases after the colon shows Offred’s acceptance of her place in society. She is internalizing the oppression by simplifying the idea, just as the society has simplified the Handmaids to the use of their reproductive organs.

            The color-coding of the residents is another way Gilead systematically oppresses its citizens. Each group is forced to wear a certain color, which defines them. Not only does this categorizing strip the characters of their individual identity, but it also defines a specific class and power structure within the society. Without individual identity it is much easier to stereotype groups because they are told to wear the same color, perform the same duties, and act in similar ways. The stereotypes and prejudices that categorize the residents form another system of oppression.

            As the members of Gilead begin to fall into their assigned roles and lose their individual identity, they begin to internalize the systematic oppression of the members’ categorization. Offred illustrates the Handmaid’s dress code, “everything except the wings around my face is red; the color of blood, which defines us”(8). Offred describes the loss of individual identity throughout the society because she and the other Handmaids are defined by the red color that they wear and by their healthy reproductive systems. Without their identity, the residents of Gilead are forced to follow their given roles because they have no other identity to claim as their own.  As the residents accept their place in the society, they are falling to the internalized oppression. Atwood uses short phrases to show Offred’s acceptance of her place in the Gilead society. She begins with the color red, and then extends the description by comparing red color to blood. Finally, she finishes the sentence with how both the color and blood define the Handmaids. The breaks in the sentence offer the train-of-thought feeling for the reader. As the reader enters the narrator’s mind, he or she understands that Offred is beginning to accept the idea that the color red and her fertility define her and the other Handmaids. She is internally oppressed by this idea.

            Through the previous examples, it is clear that the narrator is feeling the effects of both systematic and internalized oppression. The self-doubt and contradictory statements that the narrator makes provide more evidence to the reader that she is being internally oppressed. Throughout the novel, Offred indicates that she is simply telling the story as she remembers it, and sometimes she is still unable to recall what really happened. For example, as Offred is reminiscing, she states, “this is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction”(134). Then, later in the novel, the narrator attempts to tell a story three times before saying, “it didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction”(263). Offred cannot remember exactly what happened in her stories; she only hopes that she can retell her story how she does remember it. Her inability to recall her past accurately is a product of the oppression that has multiplied in her life over her time in Gilead. Offred’s memories are tainted from the reality because of all the oppression, which has altered Offred’s outlook of herself and the rest of the world. Atwood uses short phrases, again, to emphasize the narrator’s train-of-thought, and the sharp breaks in Offred’s thoughts accentuate her self-doubt. The narrator’s inability to remember her stories and her reality illustrates the oppression in her life.

            The Handmaid’s Tale shows the distinct progression of oppression in a society. Atwood helps define how systematic oppression leads to internalized oppression. When an individual accepts the systematic oppression, he or she is then internally oppressed as well. Many of the characters throughout this novel experience the effects of both types of oppression. Atwood uses short phrases to emphasize the effects of internalized oppression within characters. This writing technique allows the reader to enter the narrator’s thought process, which helps to better understand the effects that society has on an individual. Atwood shows the connections of oppression of a group and of an individual; the systematic oppression of a group leads to the internalized oppression of individuals, which creates a continuous cycle of oppression.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

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