Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopic vision where the use of power is illustrated and maintained through fear, violence, language, and control of sexual rights. Through these types of power a number of important observations can be made, explicitly the attraction of extremism and the vulnerability of skilled dominated societies. In Contrast will power takes Offred to great lengths.
The Handmaids Tale opens up to the consequences that come to be from the reversal of women’s rights in a society called Gilead. In the distinct world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists have taken power, and have turned the sexual revolution upside down. The society of Gilead is founded on what is to be considered a return to traditional values, gender roles and the subjugation of women by men, and the Bible is used as the guiding principle. Though the people of Gilead are made out to be weak, distinct characters fight for their rights.
"We are for breeding purposes. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts. We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels ambulatory chalices (Atwood, pg. 176)." Offred, the protagonist of the novel must lie on her back once a month and hope that her commander impregnates her. Her sole purpose is to act as a vessel. She even starts to measure her self-worth by the viability of her ovaries, which affect her character tremendously. Offred goes into detail, describing the appalling act:
The commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I don't say making love because that's not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate because it would imply two people, when there is only one. Nor does rape cover it. Nothing was going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice, but there was some and this is what I chose. (Atwood, 121)
This statement is very dangerous and shows the power the commander has over her body. It also shows how Offred has convinced herself that this deploring act is not so bad. She is beginning to embrace the system and justify the violations that are being committed against her. By calling it a choice she has shifted the blame from her oppressors to herself and labeled the blatant crime as a mere practice.
Atwood has drawn much attention to the meaning of words and the significance of names, as well as the prohibition for women to read or write in order to portray Gilead as a successful totalitarian state.
"Played... from a tape so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading (pg 110).” Atwood is trying to make the point that in a dystopian world, language can be powerful. The meaning of names is crucial in the novel, because names define people. Their worth and functions are summarized by the names they are given. We can see this very clearly with the Handmaids, whose names all begin with “Of”, plus their commanders’ names, forming names such as Offred and Ofwarren. This act taken by the Gileadian state totally objectifies the Handmaids. They no longer have a status in the society; they instead become objects and possessive items of the commanders.
The search for individualism and freedom highlights the strong sense of political power and the importance of this in society. The novel explores the totalitarian state and the fear that is imposed to the people through violence.
Violence is a key theme and is used as a way to control and scare the Handmaids to obeying orders: “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts (Atwood, 8).” The Handmaids are treated worse than animals and the “electric cattle prod” emphasizes the extreme uses of violence that is inflicted onto the handmaids if they do not obey orders, they are seen as inferior and property. The aunts also use violence as a sign of power and authority over the handmaids.
Through fear and violence Gilead attempted to destroy any impression of the corrupt past, but they failed to see that it’s impossible to wipe out everything in the human heart, and their memory. It is easy to deprive someone of some thing they never had, but it’s almost impossible to erase something that people have already experienced, like freedom. Offred may show many signs of giving in, but her old self won't go out without a fight. She has memories of a life that was taken away from her. She can remember years before, when she had a family, husband and child, when she had the decision of working, money, and most important access to knowledge. All of these things conflict her opinion of Gilead and make her want to rebel to get them back. Neither violence nor the fear of what awaits her is as powerful as her own will and thoughts.
Throughout the novel Offred is fighting to keep her the memories of the past alive and not be sucked in entirely by the system that oppresses her. What keeps her going comes from knowing she is alive and breathing, and the purpose that she must survive if she is going so see a new day. She keeps a vague love, hope, and desire to see her daughter and husband someday. So she must survive for their sake because she needs to believe that they are still alive. Her dreams and reality become intertwined and this makes her fight for her sanity. Offred fights to retain her peace of mind. She says, "sanity is a valuable possession; I save it, so I will have enough when the time comes (Atwood, 140).” To be sane is to be alive.
Offred finds hope in the memory of Luke, and lust and compassion with Nick. When she thinks of Luke, she believes that there is a chance of returning to how things used to be before Gilead. The many visits to Nick show Offred’s desire to fill herself with passionate moments. She thinks that being with Nick is what she needs to feel alive, whatever the outcome may be.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.