Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Power Dynamics and Demoralization
In political terms, power is the ‘ability to control the behavior of people and/or influence the outcome of events.’ according to study.com. Typically, power is asserted to those of a higher rank on the hierarchy. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there was a two-level hierarchy prevalent throughout the entire novel. Men were on the top, and women were on the bottom. The power gap between the two hierarchical levels was absurd, making it unfair and extremely difficult for the protagonist, Offred, to live a regular life. As the plot deepened, Offred quickly lost more and more of her basic human rights. Men began using language as a way to oppress women, women were stripped of their own freedom and dignity, and worst of all, it was nearly impossible for them to gain power and equality.
Language as a Tool of Oppression:
Language can be a very powerful thing if it is used in the right way. It can be used persuasively to alter people’s thoughts and opinions and can even be used to assert dominance or a feeling of dominance over other people. However, it can also be used for the opposite intentions. If someone gives themselves a sense of dominance over another person, the other person will feel low and powerless. The scary thing is that it does not only have to affect one person. It can harm a mass group of people, too, which is exactly what happened in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel, language was used to oppress women.
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The Republic of Gilead- the country where The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in- created its own vocabulary, which restricts women from having their own thoughts and reading, similar to “Newspeak” from George Orwell’s 1984. After forbidding women from having jobs, Gilead created a system that refers to people based on what their job title is. Men are referred to by their rank in the military, and women are defined by whatever role they have, Handmaid’s, Wives, Marthas, or Econowives. By referring to women by their gender roles, their real, unique names were lost, which takes away their own identity and individuality.
Handmaids were given new names that were combinations of the word “Of” and their commanders’ names. For example, the protagonist was referred to as “Offred” throughout the novel, as her commander’s name was Fred. “My name isn’t Offred. I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter. Your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others, but what I tell myself is wrong. It does matter.” Without the simple human right of a name, it was hard for Offred to even consider herself a ‘person.’ Not only did it create a mental stigma that women have against themselves, but it also further led men to think it is okay to treat women like half of a human.
The constant feeling of worthlessness asserted by those generalized names has led Offred to be unhappy with herself, which is shown in the following quote: “My nakedness is strange to me already. My body seems outdated. Did I really wear bathing suits at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs, and back were on display and could be seen. Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest, but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” Gilead created these titles in an effort to make women feel subhuman.
Stripping of Rights and Identity:
Not only did Gilead try to mentally dehumanize Offred and the other women of Gilead, but they also physically stripped women of their freedom. The men of Gilead seek total control over women. Women were not allowed to own property, have a job, spend money, read, and much more. Offred was even forced to wear a red dress, just like all the other handmaids, so it was nearly impossible for handmaids to stand out from one another, which is exactly how Offred feels in this quote: “So now that we don’t have different clothes, you merely have different women.” The only way to tell women apart was by their faces. Women were also no longer different from any other woman. Instead, they all fit under one big umbrella term: female. Similar to times of slavery, Offred was owned by her commander. She was forced to obey and follow through on all of the commander’s orders.
“He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his.” This quote was when things first began falling apart, and Offred was stressing about becoming someone’s property. Every asset Offred had in the world she lived in before was gone in the blink of an eye. She was fired from her job and lost all the money in her bank account. It all happened so quickly that she was not even aware until her friend, Moira, told her: “They’ve frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective’s too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do was push a few buttons. We’re cut off. But I’ve got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered. Women can’t hold property anymore, she said. It’s a new law. Turned on the TV today?” The Republic of Gilead gave women about as many rights as a pet.
The Elusive Quest for Power:
Just as it seemed that it couldn’t get much worse than that, it was also nearly impossible for Offred to regain power. The reason behind this is that Offred is in the same boat as all the other women living in Gilead, so in order to gain power, she would have to be ‘special’ and extremely different from the rest of the women. However, it may be hard for Offred to stand out from the rest because they do not have the freedom to choose what they want to wear or have their own name. As explained in the previous paragraph, “You merely have different women.” Gilead oppressed women and stripped them of their identity.
This action, along with many others, made both men and women feel like women are not ‘humans.’ “It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. All those women having jobs: hard to imagine now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing. Now it’s like remembering the paper money when they still had that.” This would make it very difficult to get the men to listen to Offred because they do not even value her as a human. She is not even allowed to have a job. Even if Offred somehow did get their attention, the men control everything anyway, so it would be up to them if Offred could gain power or not. Because women were thought of so lowly, the chances that Offered gained power were not too high.
Demoralization is the action of ‘depriving (a person or persons) of spirit, courage, discipline.’ according to dictionary.com. The demoralization of women was very frequent in this novel, as Offred and many other women were oppressed by demoralizing words and titles, stripped of their basic human rights and freedom, and lastly, it was very improbable for Offred to gain power in the position she was at in the novel.
- Study.com. (n.d.). What is Power in Politics? – Definition, Types & Sources. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-power-in-politics-definition-types-sources.html
- Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. McClelland and Stewart.
- Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. Harcourt Brace & Company.
- Demoralization. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/demoralization