Patriarchy Reinforced Through Language in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
by James Leavell
Throughout history, pivotal social movements have arisen out of criticism of the inequality that stems from a patriarchal society. For instance, famous activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton have spoken out for women's suffrage, as well as gender inequality within the areas of education and the workforce. However, while many societies have advanced past these misogynistic inequalities, Margaret Atwood, in her novel The Handmaid's Tale, presents a futuristic, dystopic society called Gilead, which takes these patriarchal ideas to their logical conclusion. Throughout the society, Atwood is able to present the ways that Gilead enforces its patriarchy onto its citizens, allowing readers to draw potential parallels to their own societies. The Handmaid's Tale presents language as a means of maintaining a patriarchal authority, which serves as a critique of our own society and the problems present within as a result of our own structure of language.
In the beginning of the novel, Gilead's use of language is made apparent through its social hierarchy that categorizes its citizens with labels such as Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, and Commanders. These labels carry great significance to them, as they dictate social roles and status, and each carry various prejudices and judgments to them. Additionally, each role is assigned its own color of clothing, which serves as the primary recognition of these labels and (Atwood 8-9). As a result, women are isolated as a result of their assigned roles. As a consequence of this isolation, we see Offred narrate:
"There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dressed, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men" (Atwood 24).
Any concept of a woman's individual identity is essentially non-existent because of the enforced color-coding. In fact, these roles not only isolate women from each other, but also from their own concept of self. This is evident when Offred, after noticing a mirror, sees herself, “ like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger” (Atwood 9). Offred recognizes her reflection as a facade; she is isolated from her former sense of self, instead forced to recognize herself in relation to her assigned gender role and color of dress as a “Handmaid”.
In addition to the imposition of gender roles, language allows the patriarchal government of Gilead to strip away women's own sense of identity and replace it with one of their own shaping. This is most evident with the naming of the Handmaids, who are renamed with names such as “Offred”, “Ofglen”, and “Ofwarren”, which are nothing more than portmanteaus that decree a woman to be the property “of” their Commander. When Offred's friend, Ofglen, is replaced with a “new” Ofglen, Offred reflects that, “And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen (Atwood 283). Here, Offred's comment reveals how women are presented as commodities that can be replaced, and are given no acknowledgment of individuality or humanity. She laments this loss of identity, remarking that, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which no one uses now because it’s forbidden” (Atwood 84). By imposing this system of nomenclature upon women and forbidding the use of their real names, Gilead is able to use language as a means to remove individuality from a woman's identity and redefine their concept of self as contingent upon men.
Another way that women's roles are reinforced through language is in the realm of sexual reproduction. Certain words are outright removed from Gilead's lexicon, as Offred reveals, “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (Atwood 61). Offred's sentiment reflects a patriarchal ideology that absolves men of any fault in reproduction, whether it be sterility or birth defects. As such, the societal pressure and expectations are forced onto the women of Gilead. To reinforce these expectations, a variety of other terms exist, such as “Unbaby”. When thinking about Ofwarren's pregnancy, Offred wonders, “What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog's, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet?” (Atwood 112). Consequently, women who act against Gilead, even involuntarily as in the failure to produce a healthy child after enough time, are labeled “Unwomen”, and are sent to a place known as the Colonies. Through language, Gilead is able to rob individuals of their humanity through various terms that reinforce the social expectations and duties that women are obligated to perform.
While Gilead uses language to assign social roles and identities through labels, the patriarchal nation also manipulates literature to impose their ideologies. For example, Biblical text is used and construed to justify the rule of law-women are not allowed to read. This is revealed when Offred recollects how Aunt Lydia once used the Biblical phrase, “Blessed are the meek” to assert women's place in society, she mentions how Aunt Lydia omits the remainder of the phrase, which states that the meek shall inherit the earth (Atwood 64). However, because women are not allowed to read, they are unable to discern for sure the real Biblical quotes from these “altered” versions, and are forced to accept the false ideology imposed on them through these pragmatic Biblical interpretations.
The power of language is also reinforced when Offred finds the Latin phrase, “Nolite te bastardes carborundum” in her living quarters, having been inscribed there by the previous Handmaid of the Commander (186). The Commander later tells her that this phrase means: “don't let the bastards grind you down” (235). Upon discovering this phrase, Offred ruminates:
“I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen. It's one more thing I would like to steal” (Atwood 186).
The significance of this phrase is made apparent in a variety of ways. It draws upon the symbolism of Latin as a sign of the educated. Whereas the Catholic Church was unified through its use prior to Vatican II, the Latin phrase in this scenario is a sign of division between men and women, educated and non-educated. The sheer desire conveyed through Offred's speech as well as a play off of the phrase “penis envy” display an inferiority complex that women feel in regards to men. However, in an optimistic vein, this phrase also serves as a subversion of the patriarchy imposed by Gilead; it serves as an example of a woman who has been empowered enough to understand and write this message, an indirect affront against Gilead that encourages other women such as Offred to rise up and fight the “bastards” of Gileadean patriarchy referred to in this inscription.
Throughout the entire society of Gilead, the use of language is prevalent as a powerful means to subdue and coerce the female citizens to obey the patriarchal government. Offred's narrative reveals her insight into the various effects that the power of language has on women: women are isolated from each other, compromised psychologically, deprived of a sense of self, and forcing them into specific social roles. While military force is often used to intimidate a population into submission, this novel reveals another powerful, albeit more subtle, means of controlling a population through language. While The Handmaid's Tale is an example of hyperbole, the novel nonetheless provides its readers with a presentation of language's effects, allowing them to deconstruct their own idea of language, and furthermore, allowing them to translate Offred's thoughts and experiences into their own participation in their respective societies.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor, 1986. Print.