In the dystopia of Gilead, women are defined primarily by their fertility. Based on this assumption, one could logically assume that since pregnancy and birth are highly physical experiences, the women of Gilead would live in a highly embodied state. An embodied experience is one in which one’s body is united with the idea of the self, and experiences are understood in terms of the body. However, the patriarchal structures of Gilead make clear that the functions of women’s bodies belong to the state rather than themselves. This idea is accomplished through the arrangement and separation of women depending on their ability to reproduce. In Margaret Artwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the use of personal pronouns and the personifications of bodies as separate from identity demonstrate the forced disembodiment of handmaids. Within this oppressive system, Offred’s body is not allowed to be her own.
Offred often speaks of her body as something outside of herself. She describes a routine check up at the doctor as a disembodied experience, stating, “at neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so that the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only” (Atwood 60). Offred uses the sheet to symbolize the separation between her identity, everything above the waist, and then the body below the torso. It is significant that she says my face, but a torso. This sheet, which separates the head and heart from the reproductive organs, implies that Offred understands her true self to be her thoughts and emotions. This difference in pronouns suggests that the half of her body responsible for sexual pleasure doesn’t belong to her. She is disembodied.
Most physical of her routine experiences is the Ceremony. Offred is assigned a commander with whom she must have sex in hopes of procreation. Describing the first Ceremony, she reflects, “what he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating would too be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved” (Atwood 94). While there is a possessive pronoun used for “my” body, she describes that only one “person” is involved. This language implies that while her body is one of her possessions, it is not her true self. If her body were a part of her true self, two people would be involved in the Ceremony. Her experience with the Ceremony reaffirms the separation of the true Offred living above the waist, and a body existing below the waist.
Offred began to experience these moments of disembodiment even before Gilead evolved into its most extreme patriarchal state. She describes her relationship with Luke after being fired, stating “I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll” (182). She is still embodied, but feels her strength slipping away. Offred is disembodied in experiences with both the doctor and the commander, and almost with Luke. These characters are tools of varying degrees of the patriarchal structure that control Offred through her body.
Neither disembodied language nor bodily control are applied to men in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even though the commander is also engaged in what seems to be a mutually unpleasant activity, she still interprets him to be an embodied person. Offred does not say that “the lower part of his body is fucking the lower part of my body,” but instead refers to the commander as “he”. Men’s bodies are not oppressed and controlled in the same categorized way as women in Gilead. Therefore, one can infer that the more a body is controlled in Gilead, the less likely an individual is to feel ownership over the body.
Despite her oppressive situation, Offred creates opportunities to experience her body in the same, unified experience of her past. She desires bodily pleasure and wants to feel dignified within her body when she is alone. Instead of eating the butter that comes with her meals, she saves it for hand lotion to apply in the privacy of her room (Atwood 96). She does not do attend to herself in order to feel desired or attractive to others but as a means to preserve self-worth. Offred lives as she used to in her body when she is alone. In public her body is a tool of the state.
Offred also rediscovers embodied sexual pleasure with Nick. The Ceremony offers no sexual pleasure for Offred, so she detaches from her body as a coping mechanism. However, when she chooses to have sex with Nick, she operates against the oppressive power structure and experiences her body once again as her own. She can even intuit a new pregnancy as she places Nick’s hand on her stomach and tells him that, “it’s happened […] I feel it has. A couple of weeks and I’ll be certain” (271). The significance of this change is more apparent when compared with Offred’s consistent contradictions and uncertainty in the rest of The Handmaid’s Tale. By confirming an experience that she understands bodily she is demonstrating a connection with her own body.
The significance of embodiment is rooted in its connection to agency. Even the most developed sense of distinction between the body and the mind doesn’t change the fact that one must use the body to exercise the will. A closer relationship with one's body increases an individual’s agency and ability to act on desires. However, when one feels detached from the body, one cannot harness the power of the body for personal agency. It is no coincidence that Offred experiences a disembodied existence in the most oppressive moments of her life. The causality between embodiment and agency is debatable, however the correlation is obvious. Offred is at her most subversive when living an embodied existence, both with Nick and on her own. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale can be read as a warning against the temptation for societies to control, coerce and abuse the bodies of its citizens—particularly women.</p>
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York. Anchor Books. 1986. Print.
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