Mass Media: Informant or Indoctrinator?

“The anchorman comes on now… What he’s telling us, his level smile implies, is for our own good. Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. You must go to sleep, like good children. He tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing. I struggle against him. He’s like an old movie star, I tell myself, with false teeth and a face job. At the same time, I sway towards him, like one hypnotized. If only it were true. If only I could believe.” (Atwood 83)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale continually explores the subject of government control. As the reader attempts to understand how the society came to be, he/she looks to the information propagated by the leaders in Gilead.

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Acting akin to a parent, the media can ‘spoon-feed’ information to the viewer.

Atwood uses anchorman’s dialogue to show the government-sponsored infantilization of the populace. The anchorman uses short, simple syntax as one would use to talk to a small child. He even requests that they act “like good children,” submitting to the government’s parental-like authority. Just as children are taught to not question their parents when they make decisions on the children’s behalf, so too is the populace told that they “must trust” in the government. The anchorman tells them “I promise,” as if he carried a sort of credibility. The people must trust because the anchorman says so.

To contrast with the anchorman’s message, Atwood uses complex syntax when Offred is thinking for herself. This is similar to throughout the entire novel, as thought is portrayed as Offred’s primary means of defiance. Every other chapter is “Night,” describing how Offred attempts to remember the past, giving her hope that society has the ability to change if it has changed before. She attempts to tell herself that “he’s like an old movie star” to destroy any credibility that he has an anchor, but she is not powerful enough to fully deny the power of his words.

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The media functions almost exclusively to elicit obedience.

In addition to Atwood’s utilization of syntax, she also uses diction relating to hypnosis to subtly show the extent of the government’s control. Earlier in the novel, we have seen Aunt Lydia’s attempt to teach morality to the handmaids in brief, definitive instructions, similar in its intent to Brave New World‘s hypnopaedic slogans. Atwood expands on this instruction in this passage of the media, as the anchorman tells the people “you must go to sleep.” Additionally, Offred shrewdly points out that she moves towards the TV, “like one hypnotized.” He assures them, in this altered state, that “everything will be all right soon.” Atwood shows that for this indoctrination to take place, it is preferable, in the government’s perspective, for the people to not fully be conscious.

 

By portraying the media as infantilizing and hypnotic, Atwood asserts that the media has a functional role in the continuation of society. The media operates to comfort its citizens in order to keep the status quo. This will work best if the people are not even fully aware that this is taking place.

A Caricature of Present Reality

“Finally, he tells me it’s time for me to go home. Those are the words he uses: go home. He means to my room. He asks me if I will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street. I say yes. We open his study door, just a crack, and listen for the noises in the hall.” (Atwood 139)

This passage depicts the tense moments as Offred leaves the Commander’s study after a night of scrabble, a forbidden act, but within the context of a larger narrative, the passage depicts central themes of the novel. Atwood uses imagery and syntax to bring to mind the dangers and struggles of womanhood, both in the novel and in the present reality.  

First, the passage consists of a metaphor  equating Offred’s room to her house and the stairway as a dark alley. The comparison illustrates a central theme of the novel, the subjection of women  because the right to own a home and the freedom to travel at night are liberties  that many readers of the book, such as women, are not necessarily granted. Atwood is paralleling the tensions and struggles Offred faces to the sexism and lack of sexual freedom faced by women of real life society.

The first textual evidence of implementation of this metaphor is when the Commander tell Offred to “go home.” The use of italics in the passage marks the short command as the most important and central part of the passage (syntax). The italicized command highlights the power assumed by the Commander because he sees no need to ask her and forcefully tells her what to do. The command also points to fact that Offred does not actually own anything in her life. Not only does she not own her own room, she does not own her own body because the Commander has assumed this responsibility with his demand.

When Offred describes the Commander speaking of the stairway as if were a dark street, she is implying that he is speaking of the stairway as if it were a dangerous space. In our past and current narratives, dark alleys are depicted as spaces where violence occurs, often towards women (e.g. back alley abortions, rape, etc.). In the passage, the dark stairway represents the dangers of Offred’s society and her own womanhood. By comparing the stairway to a dark street, Atwood relates the dangers of being a woman walking alone in a dark alley. For both Offred and women in our society, walking down a dark street alone poses a serious threat for simply being a woman.

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A dark street (Image via Flickr)

Finally, rather than opening the door freely, the Commander opens it “just a crack.” This careful action represents how women must watch their every movement when dealing their sexuality and sexual health. Offred is not able to step freely into the outside world, the stairway, after she makes her own choice regarding her sexuality, kissing the Commander, out of fear of punishment from her government and society. This experience is easily relatable to women in real life modern society. The present reality for women, even in highly developed societies is one rooted in fear. If a woman wished to take responsibility for her health (e.g. abortion, birth control, etc.), she may fear judgment from family, friends, partners, or even the medical professionals on which she depends. Through use of metaphor that compares the Commander’s house to a pre-war neighborhood, this passage argues that the atrocities being committed are merely caricatures of the real society of the reader.

An Empty Room

“Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I am too disembodied. […] I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it’s like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it’s like snow. There’s something dead about it, something deserted. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor.”(128)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale explores the consequences of society where fertility is limited and gender roles are exaggerated as a result. This passage occurs later at night of the same day of Offred and the Commander’s routine interaction, and Offred lies in bed thinking and contemplating about her blissful time in the company of Luke. Now, she is overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and longing for real, genuine human contact. Through the first person point-of-view, continual references to death, and the similes comparing Offred herself to objects, Atwood indicates how Offred’s mind and body are separate entities where only her body is valued, and suggests that this dehumanization is attributed to the detrimental societal constructs of the totalitarian society.

As we discussed in class, the majority of this novel is narrated in first person point-of-view, allowing Offred’s experiences in this society as a handmaid to represent the experiences of all the handmaids. Thus, all the handmaids are likely to feel the same detachment from their bodies, presumably because their value is so often attributed to their uterus, and their body as a baby-making machine—which the totalitarian government dictated for them. This reveals the dehumanizing nature of the society towards handmaids, and also towards other classes in the hierarchy.

While contemplating the concept of real human contact that seems to be nonexistent in this society, Offred poses a rhetorical question, asking if this urge for human contact is something worthy of blame. In today’s society, it is completely normal to have this urge; however, in this future society, handmaids are conditioned to resist these natural urges. By asking this question, the narrator allows the reader to empathize with her and recognize how hard it must be for the narrator to not have any real people “to put [her] arms around”. Furthermore, the use of the word “disembodied” implies that without this lack of human interaction, Offred’s soul and mind are separated from her body. This separation is a result of her physical demands not being met, leaving only her emotions.

Following those phrases, Offred compares herself to a “plateful of dried rice” and “snow” that is “dead” and “deserted”. Rice that has been left out for a while becomes dry, and Offred feels like her body has done that, just been left out without anyone paying attention to it. Furthermore, “rice” is an object, and by comparing herself to an object, she objectifies herself—conditioned by the society to do so. The totalitarian society has stripped her of value of her mind, leaving only a body which dehumanizes her. These words also create

an eerie tone with all the references to desolation and death, relating to the eerie nature of this society. Finally, Offred compares herself to a room where nothing grows and only the “pollen of the weeds” blow “as dust across the floor”. Again, she compares herself to an object, dehumanizing her. It is depressing to see how something once lively now has no signs of life, because what Offred is doing is not living, it is just existing to serve her one purpose. There are only weeds growing because weeds are irrelevant and useless—symbolizing the irrelevant, superficial human interactions Offred has each day.

 

Freedom from Freedom

Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman… Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you’d’ come apart, you’d vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together. (Atwood 133)

In this passage, Offred recalls Moira’s escape from the Red Center. The contrasting descriptions of Moira and the other Handmaids at the Red Center, revealed through similes and ambiguous diction, exposes human susceptibility to indoctrination due to the multifaceted, fleeting nature of freedom of thought.

The use of ambiguous diction in the word “loose” reveals that a lack of clear definition creates an environment in which it is easy to succumb to a source of structure and rigidity. The repetition of “loose” emphasizes the freedom that Moira has acquired through her escape, but also illuminates the multiple meanings that the word takes on in Offred’s thoughts. The phrase “set loose” compares Moira to a wild, untamed animal that is released from its captor, dehumanizing her into a creature that acts instinctually and without reason. In Offred’s mind, power has transformed into something uncontrolled and dangerous; by exaggerating the harmful instances of humanity, the society in The Handmaid’s Tale takes advantage of fear to control women.

Moira is like an animal “set loose” from its chains (steemit.com)

Rather than praising Moira for her freedom, Offred categorizes Moira as a “loose woman,” implying that a woman with freedom must also be promiscuous and unchaste, further revealing the prejudiced attitude toward woman that is adopted by the novel’s dystopian society and instilled on the Handmaids.

The simile comparing Moira to “an elevator with open sides” implies that Moira’s freedom gives her the ability to raise her living standards. However, this becomes twisted in the Handmaid’s mind as they can only focus on the dizzying nature of Moira’s freedom, her “open sides,” because they feel unstable and out of balance. The fact that the Handmaids are losing their “taste” for freedom reveals the idea that they have become numbed to any sensation due to the indoctrination at the Red Center. Without any exposure to freedom, the Handmaids have forgotten its value and thus are satisfied with their new rigid and structured lifestyle.

Riding an “elevator with open sides” can be both exhilarating and terrifying (www.travelpulse.com)

The simile of the elevator contrasts with Offred’s description of the Handmaids when she states “you’d vaporize.” By switching to second person, Offred generalizes her description to an unspecified audience, revealing the pervasiveness of the regime’s brainwashing. While Moira is able to remain whole as one entity, the Handmaids have become so accustomed to their strict lifestyle that they believe they would “vaporize” and disappear if given access to freedom. The women have become reliant on the “pressure” exerted by the society in order to continue functioning as a complete being.

 

Wanting is Weakening

“But to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power.

But there must be something he wants, from me. To want is to have a weakness. It’s this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me. It’s like a small crack in a wall, before now impenetrable. If I press my eye to it, this weakness of his, I may be able to see my way clear.

I want to know what he wants.” (Atwood 136)

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the readers are introduced to a society in which individuals are distanced from each other via social stratification. Individuals from different classes are discouraged from associating with one another, Commanders and Handmaids, in particular, by law. So, how did this society come to be? What is the reason why formation of relationships are so discouraged and individuals are so emotionally isolated? This is a question that we have already begun to ponder in class. Through use of parallel structure, imagery and a conversational tone transparent to Offred’s perplexity, the above passage suggests that to expect something from another is a form of weakness. The passage further complicates relationships through attributing its formation to the revealing of such weakness, and thus arguing the vulnerability of human beings when we engage in relationships.

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Wanting leads to weakness. Revealing the weakness or vulnerability leads to the formation of relationships. There is something enticing about the realization of vulnerability. (http://www.thecoachpod.com/2016/03/14/cp55-the-power-of-vulnerability-2/)

The use of parallel structure in this passage functions to establish a universal truth. The phrases that involve parallel structure that we have been exposed to include “Like father, like son” or “Easy come, easy go”. The rhythm and flow created by such parallelism adds a matter-of-factly tone to the phrase. Thus, by stating, “To want is to have a weakness”, the narrator establishes that “wanting” as a form of “weakness” is a universal truth. In other words, the parallelism impresses to the readers that it is an undeniable truth that when one “wants” something out of another, they are “weakened”. Such matter-of-fact phrase, placed right after the first sentence asserting the Commander’s power effectively debunks the seemingly dominant male. It ultimately points the weakening of the Commander to the fact that he “wanted” Offred to come see him; by trying to form a relationship with Offred, he is thence weakened.

In addition to the parallel structure creating an instantaneous assertive tone, the overarching conversational tone places an honest ethos to the narrator. Phrases like “whatever it is” in “It’s this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me” invites the readers into Offred’s internal confusion. The fact that she is being conversational in admitting her confusion in the exact idea of weakness then adds a more authentic voice to the fact that she was enticed by it. In other words, she honestly did not know how one is ‘weakened’ in response to the ‘want’ but was nonetheless lured by the idea of the Commander being vulnerable. The authentic voice created with the conversational tone then serves to reveal to the readers that the narrator herself is beginning to form a relationship with the Commander. The fact that she is enticed by the seemingly vulnerable Commander then implies that she ‘wants’ to figure him out. In effect, the passage establishes a mutual ‘want’ of relationship. This concept is further clarified by Offred’s last sentence in the passage when she says, “I want to know what he wants”. In her authentic voice, the readers are convinced to believe that she too ‘wants’ to get to know him, a seed to the development of a relationship, and is therefore also ‘weakened’. Offred’s engagement in ‘wanting’ acquaintance is leaving her vulnerable.

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Crack in the wall, representative of the peek into the Commander’s vulnerability (http://eastebuilder.co.uk/articles/view/184/Reasons+for+Cracks+on+Your+Walls)

Finally, the use of visual imagery highlights Offred’s transition from a passive female to one that actively seeks to learn about the Commander’s ‘want’ or ‘weakness’. Creating the image of a wall with a small crack, and illustrating Offred going up against it and pressing her eye to it gives the readers the image that Offred is actively engaging. In contrast to her reluctance to come up to meet the Commander, previously, the image created displays her moving towards the crack, or apparent weakness of the Commander. As a result, the visual imagery further strengthens the fact that Offred is actively taking initiative in forming the personal acquaintance. This image, in particular, is crucial given the circumstances of Offred being a Handmaid. It would be illegal for her to display any sign of visible action to get to know the Commander. Instead, the imagery helps communicate Offred’s below-the-surface level active initiative.

In such ways, the passage helps to underscore the vulnerabilities that branch from the formation of relationships. This is done through drawing a definitive link between ‘want’ or any desires for another, and the subsequent ‘weakness’ as drawn by parallelism, strengthened by an authentic voice and enhanced through imagery.

Returning to a Child

I fold back the sheet, get carefully up, on silent bare feet, in my nightgown, go to the window, like a child, I want to see. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow. The sky is clear but hard to make out, because of the searchlight; but yes, in the obscured sky a moon does float, a newly, a wishing moon, a silver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink. The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway. (Atwood 97)

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are no more than reproductive machines and only viewed as substitutable properties of the Commander. However, through this passage, the readers can know more about the inner self of Offred and her deep cravings. Through portraying Offred’s actions and the view she sees from her perspective, this passage sheds more light on Offred’s psychological status and the derived desires which are unfortunately suppressed by the society, and it leads to a better understanding of the narration style of the novel and the humanization of the handmaids.

Firstly, the depiction of Offred’s actions suggests her return to a more original, child-like mental stage. In the first sentence, Offred employs short, repetitive structure and simple verbal use which resembles the talking of a young kid. She expresses her thoughts plainly and directly: “I want to see.” Offred thinks like a child and therefore she talks like a child, without cautiousness she presents when talking with Serena or the Marthas. Moreover, the actions “fold back the sheet, get carefully up, on silent bare feet” imply more about Offred’s retrogression. The sheet symbolizes the chain the society of Gilead imposed on her: she is caged and fed in this room, and she even has a bathing schedule like an animal does. Everything in this room is a restraint, and as she goes “bare feet” and looks out of the window, she is casting the superficial limitations way, facing who she really is and what she really wants.

And how Offred sees the view “as a child” reveals more on the two questions above, and the readers can reach the deepest part of her heart through these lines. The image of the moon has been presented to the readers before, as in chapter 13 when Offred describes how she is totally determined by her uterus: “every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen.” The round moon signifies the failure of conception and the despair following it, and the new moon here must stand for the opposite – it is “a wishing moon,” a moon that brings her hope, which “does float” in spite of the obscured sky; it is the moon that brings the beauty of the world and shows her the bright side even though it is actually lifeless and cold, which she refers to as a “deadly hardware.” More importantly, the metaphor of “a wink” corresponds to the wink that Nicks gave her on the driveway of the Commander’s house. The shape of the moon reminds her of the attention she gets as a real, living being, and it is an indication of the fact that she craves love from others as much as she craves hope and beauty. This explains why Offred always has flashbacks from the past: her mother, her daughter, Luke, and Moira satisfy her needs for love and care, which are nonexistent in her new life. She wants to be a child, and she wants to be loved, nurtured and protected. She wants to escape from all the coldness, the worrying in life and she needs hope as every human being does. Offred has to partially live in the past to meet those human needs, and this is the main reason why these characters are making such frequent appearances even though they are not a part of her new life of being a machine and a property of the Commander.

What is a Name?

“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. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.” (Atwood 84)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale delves into the idea of individuality and one’s own identity. Offred struggles with this idea of who she truly is with the change of her former name to her current name which suggests that she is the property of her commander. Offred has lost her true self and doesn’t know all parts of herself. In this particular excerpt, Offred attempts to confirm that her name truly is important and is an integral component of her identity.

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Offred starts off with describing how names don’t matter as they are simply “like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” Even though Offred initially states that names are initially not important, she immediately back tracks and restates the importance of names. When Offred does this, it seems as if she is confused about her own identity and what truly is important. Does her name matter or not?

Furthermore, Atwood later compares knowing a name to “treasure [Offred will] come back to dig up, one day.” Offred elevates the status of her name so once again to the point that it is a treasure that is considered to be important. By comparing her name to treasure, Offred brings up the idea that her name is a rarity as if a long, lost treasure. This rarity heightens the importance of her name while also hinting at the idea that her true identity is difficult to find and maintain as it is hidden away. Also, immediately afterwards, she goes to say that she is going to bury her name almost as if it is something to be ashamed of rather than appreciated. This duality in her thinking demonstrates her confusion with her sense of identity and understanding of herself.

buried-treasure

In addition, Atwood personifies a name as it “floats there behind my eyes.” By personifying the name as something that floats, it creates an image of unattainability. It almost illustrates a scene of a child reaching out for a balloon that is slightly out of their reach as their fingertips barely graze the end of the balloon. Her name is so close yet so far. Offred does not have a true understanding of her identity as it is a hazy image.

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Furthermore, floating can also be connected to ghosts. In this way, her name has passed away and is locked away. Even more, Atwood writes that “this name has an aura around it, like an amulet.” By addressing her name as an aura, Offred further emphasizes that her name and identity are ambiguous and hazy. An aura does not have a defined set of boundaries; the boundaries can be difficult to identify similar to Offred’s true identity. 

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Hidden values

“We hand over our tokens, and one Guardian enters the numbers on them into the Compubite while the other gives us our purchases, the milk, the eggs. We put them into our baskets and go out again, past the pregnant woman and her partner, who beside her looks spindly, shrunken; as we all do. The pregnant woman’s belly is like a huge fruit. Humungous, word of my childhood. Her hands rest on it as if to defend it, or as if they’re gathering something from it, warmth and strength” (26).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood describes a society that is far-fetched and dystopian and yet corresponds to a lot of the values held in our modern society. By juxtaposing imagery and metaphors, Atwood establishes a dyarchy between women in order to illuminate the subconscious prejudice prevalent in today’s society.

The most apparent piece of imagery in this text is the description of the pregnant woman in comparison to the other women. Atwood uses phrases of positive connotation, such as “huge fruit” and “warmth and strength,” to portray the pregnant woman as a measure of success, whereas the woman beside her “looks spindly, shrunken; as we all do.” This juxtaposition reveals the well-defined goals of women in this society: to produce offspring. Although this goal in this society is very obviously depicted, Atwood displays to the reader a significant, often concealed, value held in today’s society.

These hidden values and priorities of the women are shown through symbolic objects in this text. As mentioned before, the pregnant woman is described as having a “huge fruit” that gives her “warmth and strength.” However, Offred and Ofglen are seen purchasing “the milk, the eggs” given to them by male guardians. These two objects are highly associated with pregnancy and child-rearing, portraying a life where the basic needs of the individuals are met. Thus, the two woman desire these specific types of produce as opposed to the others because the society that they are in has created a value in child rearing. On the other hand, the pregnant woman has a “humungous” belly and “her hands rest on it,” which can be seen as being satisfied because of a full belly. This constant symbolism of food and child-rearing equates these two concepts as one; both are vital to our existence and both are responsibilities of women in this society and, to an extent, our current society.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood criticizes our values towards gender roles and child-rearing by displaying a society where these values are ubiquitous. By portraying juxtaposing, symbolic imagery, Atwood creates a society where the hidden values of our current society are prominent and unopposed.

Citation: Atwood, Margaret. “Shopping.” The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor, 1998. 26. Print.

Total Control is Impossible

“I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not, I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.

I want to steal something.” (Atwood 97)

As Offred looks out her window at night, she thinks about all her wishes, allowing the reader to understand them better because of the stream-of-consciousness. The society that she lives in is heavily controlled, meaning that she has never been able to share her desires with anybody. Through Offred’s expression of her deeply personal, flowing wishes that sometimes seem unrelated, the reader realizes that a society that aims to reduce a person to a single role is misguided.

One of the striking aspects about the passage is that every sentence begins with “I.”If somebody spoke like this, they would seem petty, but because these are Offred’s thoughts,  they are profound in that they reveal her role in society. The Republic of Gilead emphasizes the role of women as child-bearers and nothing more. Therefore, Offred resists her devaluation by offering her wishes over those of society’s. The passage also shows a struggle against the duality of women presented in the novel. Usually, Offred conveys a distinction between herself and her womb. Here, she emphasizes herself as an individual, showing that she doesn’t accept society’s reduction of her. Society can pressure Offred to act as though she isn’t an individual, but her thoughts are her own.

The sentence length increases as the passage progresses to demonstrate that Offred can have complex desires that go beyond just having a baby. She goes from saying “I want to be held” to “I want to be valued, in ways that I am not, I want to be more than valuable.” Not only does the sentence length increase, but also the complexity of her wishes does also. This progression from short and simple to long and complex demonstrates that society has censured Offred so much that she has to rediscover herself. In other words, to get to her main desire of being valued, she has to use a sort of inductive reasoning. She is able to reach this conclusion, however, illustrating that an individual’s suppression can be reversed.

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Offred just wants to be held.

During her gradual rediscovery, Offred seems to jump from one thing to another. For example, she initially wants “to be valued” but then soon after wants “to be more than valued.” In addition, the majority of the passage conveys a desire for a social relationship, but then the last sentence abruptly shifts to a desire for stealing something. This illogical organization of thoughts is important because it shows that people don’t think in a linear manner but are actually complex beings that can’t be completely understood. Consequently, a society that aims to reduce women to a single role fails to understand that this is not human nature. People go from wanting “to be valued” to wanting “to steal something” without reason, and no law or societal custom will be able to control this randomness.

This passage that conveys Offred’s thoughts shows that even a controlling society such as the one in the Republic of Gilead will never be able to maintain total control over individuals. Offred continues to think about herself, continues to explore her feelings and emotions, and displays randomness that is a part of human nature.

 

Life as a Two-legged Womb

“We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” (Atwood 136)

In the society of The Handmaid’s Tale, women, specifically handmaids, are objectified to be merely “two-legged wombs” (136). The women in this society are bound to staying home, doing domestic work as usual. There is no true love and emotion in this society, and these strict guidelines put forth in the women’s lifestyles are apparently for their own benefit. By intermingling words that usually describe animals as well as the repetition of negative words, Atwood emphasizes how unnecessarily restricted and confined women are in order to encourage women to not give into the objectification of themselves by the men in society as well as society itself.

animal-baby

Women have been degraded to be breeders, just like this mom polar bear

In the passage, handmaids are stated to be for breeding purposes. Breeding is typically associated with the reproduction of animals. By using this word, Atwood shows how dehumanized women in this society have become. Women have been degraded to being baby making machines and no more. While stating that the women are for breeding purposes, the narrator also lists what the women aren’t: concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. This is a list of women who perform many sexual favors. However, a lot of those are for the entertainment and pleasure of the men that are receiving these sexual favors. In The Handmaid’s Tale, sex isn’t enjoyable to either the men or the women, for it is only a required monthly activity. Also, by listing everything that the handmaids aren’t, the specificity and simplicity of the role of the handmaids is emphasized. The handmaids have one job and one job only: to make babies.

With the use of a negative word “nothing” and the repetition of the word “no” three times in the middle part of the passage, readers are shown how strict and numerous the rules governing what handmaids can do are. Also, the sentence that starts with “there is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us…” (136) isn’t divided at all. All the rules are continuously stated, either separated by a comma or a semicolon. Since this sentence isn’t separated between the different rules, it visually makes it seem as if the list of rules is endless.

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Handmaids are “chalices”

Also, there are to be “no toeholds for love” (Atwood 136). The word toehold is described as “a relative insignificant position from which further progress may be made.” The fact that there can’t even be a toehold for love shows how cautious the commanders and rules are so that the emotion of love doesn’t get involved in the process of reproduction at all. Handmaids are also described as “chalices” (136). This means “a large cup or goblet.” The handmaids are degraded to being only a cup that gets filled metaphorically with a baby. Once that baby is out, the cup is then used again for the same purpose until the cup, metaphorically the handmaids, is no longer usable. With all these mechanisms, Atwood emphasizes how strictly the process of reproduction in this society is monitored in order to encourage women reading her book to not conform to society’s ideas of what a women’s role should be.

Sources:

  1. Definition of toehold: Google
  2. Polar bear picture: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/26/f8/01/26f8014c31959b59e4739cb6e1b75c93.jpg
  3. Definition of chalice: Google
  4. Goblet: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/clubpenguin/images/7/73/Goblet_Pin.PNG/revision/latest?cb=20150314205740