Language and power: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Today I’m going back to my academic roots to take a look at the use of language in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I got on a bit of a roll so it is a long one. Sorry!

‘But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’

George Orwell, 1946

Language is loaded with assumptions of power and authority that, whether real or perceived, can make us act or react in a particular way. In this post I take a look at the language of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to explore how language can be used for power. In particular, I will focus on how language can be employed both as an instrument of control and as a means for resistance and agency.

At its most basic, the purpose of language is to facilitate the transfer of information from one person to another. As Hogsette points out, however, language is never value-neutral (1997:263); it is always loaded with intent. Dystopian fiction will often explore the connection between intent and the use, or misuse, of language and the idea that ‘human existence is essentially predicated on the facility to use and manipulate language’ (Millward 2006:2). Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, where the fight for human survival is literal and language is weaponised and manipulated by the institution(s) for containment and repression, provides fertile ground to explore this thesis.

If language facilitates the transfer of information from one person to another, it follows that for language to be weaponised, there must be both a ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ of that information. Indeed, Hogsette takes the position that ‘the power of language involves two agents – a performer and an audience’ (1997:276). That is to say that language can only achieve its desired outcome – in Gilead’s case, control – if the receiver ‘properly interpret[s] the language’ (Hogsette 1997:265), implying, therefore, that the receiver must understand the ‘intent’ of the communication. Fairclough’s position, that ‘the power of language’ always depends on ‘power of [the] users’ (qtd Namjoo 2019:90), suggests a more nuanced consideration of the power dynamic.

Consider the Aunt–Handmaid relationship and the power structure established by the nouns used to describe them. As well as its specific familial meaning, in pre-Gilead times ‘Aunt’ was often used as a sign of respect in addressing and honouring older women. Contrast this with the identifier ‘Handmaids’ which serves to objectify and de-humanise the servant women and we see a distinct power imbalance emerge.

If we examine the protocol for personal names, however, we see that both the Aunts and the Handmaids are stripped of their identity with the intent of disempowering them. In the case of the Handmaids this is explicit as they are given what is essentially a patrimonial that reflects their purpose while denoting them as property through the prefix ‘of’ – Offred being the Handmaid ‘of Fred’.

With regards to the Aunts, the de-humanising and control is more subversive as they are bestowed with classical names found in the Bible. If we consider that these names – for example Lydia, Sarah, Elizabeth – were also commercial products available to women in the pre-Gilead era, we could suggest that they serve a more pointed purpose of reminding the women of the life that is no longer available to them. What becomes evident from these examples is that the Gilead regime is manipulating language at several levels to achieve a carefully constructed power matrix.

The performer / audience power dynamic is further exemplified by the Centre mottos recited by the Aunts, such as:

‘Yours is a position of honour’

‘Modesty is invisibility’

‘Ordinary…is what you are used to’

We can note here that while the Aunts’ are singularly focused on reinforcing and maintaining the status quo and keeping the Handmaids in line, the mottos comprise familiar words and innocuous sounding phrases. Millward proposes that in dystopian fiction, ‘Reflective language’ (defined by Millward as language of the past—so in this case pre-Gilead language) ‘seldom exhibits invention, manipulation, or transformation; instead, it is explicitly marked by its congruence with the commonplace, the prosaic, the familiar’ (2006:39).

In essence, this manipulation of language is akin to a verbal Trojan Horse – the familiar proverb-like statements acting as the packaging for a hidden malintent. The Gilead regime, therefore, wields its power through the intent that lies behind the value-laden language.  

The enforced use of a ‘call and response’ between the Handmaids provides a further example of how language is being used as an instrument of control. Consider this exchange:

‘Blessed be the fruit,’ she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.

‘May the Lord open,’ I answer, the accepted response (Atwood 2010:31).

By dictating how the Handmaids greet and receive each other, the regime creates an environment of suspicion and fear of one’s peers that suppresses any ideas of resistance. As Klarer reminds us, ‘By […] controlling the very structures of language and thinking, the leading class is able to consolidate the basis of its monolithic state and keep all others in their assigned positions’ (1995:130).

Paradoxically, while the prevention of (free) speech is being used to disempower, this strictly proscribed discourse empowers the Handmaids with the ability—and indeed, the imperative—to identify and out anyone that goes off script.

The Gilead regime also uses language to reinforce normative performances of gender, together with stereotypes around control and subservience. This is particularly evident in the names given to the various social classes or roles. Commander, Guardian of the Faith, Eye—the roles undertaken by males—have connotations of control and power. While Angels—used to denote a fourth group—does not present a vision of strength, it does suggest a superior being with higher powers.

In contrast, the roles undertaken by females—Handmaid, Martha, Econowife—are named in a way that suggests subservience and ownership, and strips individuals of identity. This is particularly so for the ‘Unwomen’ which collectively refers to all the women not fitting Gilead’s proscribed female, exemplifying the hostile gender divisions being reinforced. We also see many of the females reduced to oral culture, unable to speak freely, even among themselves. While Klarer suggests that ‘[…] the female half of the state of Gilead takes a step back into the primitive, pre-literate beginnings of human civilisation’ (1995:132), this misrepresents the act as one of choice rather than an action imposed upon them.

While the manipulation of language for control may be more overt, language can also be manipulated to reclaim agency and provide the catalyst for resistance. As Hogsette notes, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses ‘on oppression enforced by institutionalised control of acquiring knowledge and using language’ but also ‘on the self-liberating potential of an individual’s act of storytelling’ (1997:263). Offred comes to understand that ‘words are one of the few tools that society cannot take away from her’ (Pittman 2019:140) and ‘as Gilead uses language to construct one version of reality, she too can use it to construct another, subversive or, at least, counter version, one that directly attacks the version that Gilead promotes’ (Hogsette 1997:270). In effect, she becomes aware that she can use language to reframe her narrative.

A powerful example of this is Offred’s reconciling of the Ceremony. In her retelling of the event, she rejects the idea that the act constitutes rape, conceding that although there wasn’t ‘a lot of choice […] there was some, and this is what I chose’ (Attwood 2010:107). Offred’s manipulation of language in this way highlights the possibility for language to be used as a tool maintain control over one’s circumstance. As Hogsette reminds us, ‘Reality is created through language’ (1997:265) whether imposed upon us by others or created by oneself. Thus, in controlling the narrative, Offred achieves a sense of agency and puts herself in a position to rise up against the Republic.

Offred further creates and validates her existence through regular wordplay. In contemplating the meaning and origin of everyday words—such as fraternise, Mayday, chair—she maintains a connection to her previous life. This strengthens her resolve and her ability to withstand the doctrines of the regime.

This resolve is further boosted by the covert Scrabble games played with the Commander. Ironically, it is during those sessions in the study that Offred ‘develops her control of language […] enabling her to recreate and ultimately asset her own subjectivity’ (Hogsette 1997:267). Pittman sums this up by noting that ‘They can prevent her from reading or talking, but they cannot prevent her from thinking’ (2019). It could be argued that Offred’s ability to appropriate language for her own means would not be possible without her in-depth knowledge of, and curiosity for, language and words. If we link this back to the earlier observation by Fairclough that ‘the power of language’ always depends on ‘power of [the] users’ (qtd Namjoo 2019:90), it suggests that the ‘power of the users’ may be more appropriately described as the language knowledge or language mastery of the users.

In exploring how language is used within Gilead, we can see how language can be used both as a conduit for power for the purpose of controlling and manipulating others, and for controlling and manipulating one’s own narrative. The examples provided here have also demonstrated how it is often the intent behind the language, rather than the language or words per se, that wields the power.  

References

Atwood M (2010) The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Books, London.

Hogsette D (1997) ‘Margaret Atwood’s Rhetorical Epilogue in “The Handmaid’s Tale”: The Reader’s Role in Empowering Offred’s Speech Act’, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 38(4):262-278.

Klarer M (1995) ‘Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwoods’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 28(4):129-142.

Millward J (2006) ‘Dystopian wor(l)ds: language within and beyond experience’ [PhD thesis], The University of Sheffield, accessed 11 May 2021.

Namjoo M (2019) ‘Language as a sign of power in The Handmaid’s Tale’, Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies, 12(1):85-98.

Orwell G (1950) Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, Secker and Warburg, London.

Pittman IA (2019) ‘No Way Out: The Futility of Resistance Language in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association 36:136-146.

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