Reversing the Control

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. (Atwood 135)

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood “speculates” a society in which the structure of freedom rights is reversed from what America accepts today. If our society is structured to emphasize the freedom for citizens to act how they wish with less concern for the consequences of one’s actions, Atwood’s depicted society is structured against citizens acting however they wish in order to provide a “freedom” from the worry of the consequences of one’s actions. In order to accomplish such a structure, Atwood’s society diminishes much of women’s freedom of choice and seems to place most of the power in the hands of the men, creating a hierarchy of power. In the passage above, Offred has a moment of reflection in which she forms a conclusion that goes against the structure of the society illustrated by Atwood as a way to fight internally against the basis of the society she lives in.

Offred first defines that what she is reflecting about is the power dynamic exchanged between two individuals. She considers both those with power, “who can own… who can do,” and those without power, who are owned or acted upon. The relationship between the two is shown through the use of symmetric sentence structure in this passage. The short sentences in the beginning and end and the two parallel sentences in the middle with “[m]aybe it isn’t” show an exchange. However, this seemingly symmetric structure is interrupted when Offred interjects with what “it is about,” making a symbolic break in society’s hierarchy structure.

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An exchange between those with power and those without power

One of the most obvious devices of this excerpt is the repetition of the word “maybe” at the beginning of each sentence. This word is intimately related to the action of speculation. In this short reflection, Offred is speculating a different society than the one she lives in, without the hierarchy of control. By speculating this different society, she tries to create a new world for herself in which perhaps she is in control.

This passage as a whole begins by arguing against the fact that control is what defines Offred’s society. Offred lists examples of what society “isn’t about,” all of which depict a comparison between those with power, who perform actions, and those without control that are acted upon. By dismissing this comparison between those with power and those without, she again defies the basic structure of power in society. Near the end of this reflection, she chooses to put importance in action of forgiveness. Forgiveness opposes the idea of “get[ting] away with it,” which defines her current society. Her decision to put importance on forgiveness brings power to those “without power” because only those “acted upon” can forgive others, while those “acting upon others” must receive forgiveness. Thus, the role of those acting and those acted upon, in this case, are reversed, effectively creating a society with a reversed power dynamic in Offred’s own world.

 

Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/vveUXPW3VZQ/maxresdefault.jpg

Searching for Stability

“I move the eggcup a little, so it’s now in the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again, on the tray. The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds must not be distracted by profusion […] The egg is glowing now, as if it had an energy of its own. To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure. The sun goes and the egg fades” (Atwood 110).

Throughout this passage, Offred is fixated on a single egg, a seemingly innocuous object that is meant to represent herself. With the use of diction, syntax, parallel structure, and symbolism, Offred reveals the duality that exists within herself—whether or not to conform to society— in order to implicate the societal doctrines that oppress women.

Offred’s slight moving of the egg into “the watery sunlight” demonstrates that Offred has the ability to “move” and react against the current society. But as an egg, Offred’s life is fragile, easily crushed or overshadowed. Furthermore, “the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again” reflects her hesitation and apprehension as to how others will respond. Rather than provide a warm and constant light, which would give Offred stability and support, the sun is unable to offer anything more than “watery sunlight.” The diction of “watery” lends a sense of mutability and lack of substance.

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The “watery sunlight” that Offred experiences

The parallel structure of “brightening, waning, brightening again” further develops the control society wields over Offred, who is a Handmaid. The lack of the sunlight’s constancy reveals her paradoxical role (she is simultaneously important and not important): In the context of this passage, the “watery sunlight” will brighten if a Offred becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth. However, if she fails to deliver a child in a specific amount of time, the “watery sunlight” will wane and Offred will be discarded. The presence of this “watery sunlight” manipulates her into thinking she has a purpose in life. But because her value is solely determined by her ability to “breed” and produce, Offred cannot fully develop and express her own sense of identity. The value of her life (represented by the “small pebbles of calcium”) is “defined by the sunlight.” Offred notes that the “small pebbles” are like “craters on the moon,” a comparison that reflects how she, as a Handmaid, is only valuable when society says she is.

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The craters on the moon are only visible when light hits the moon, which parallels Offred’s current situation.

Offred does seems to express appreciation for individualism—she notes that the egg’s surface is “smooth, but also grained […] It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect.” The grains reflect Offred’s past life and experiences, as well as her own thoughts. Although the landscape is barren, as Offred is not allowed to actually express herself, it is perfect because her individual thoughts still exist. Nevertheless, she reverts back to the societal expectation of women to be pristine and untouched when she says that “it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds must not be distracted by profusion.” Any “profusion” that a man or “saint” experiences is automatically blamed on women (similar to how in this society, no man is sterile. It is only the women who are infertile.)

Offred’s pondering of society’s shortcomings causes the egg to glow, “as if it had an energy of its own”; this glowing demonstrates the potential Offred has to rebel against society and find stability for herself, and it is something that gives her “intense pleasure.” But ultimately, the “sun goes and the egg fades.” The short, abrupt syntax is a warning to Offred that society controls the “sun,” and ultimately holds the power to rob her of her stability.

References:

  1.  Sunlight (https://blog.dashburst.com/pic/dense-sunlight-through-windows/)
  2.  Moon (https://www.britannica.com/place/Moon/images-videos)