The Handmaid’s Tale Analysisf
A language is a tool of power in any society. In current society, new words like ‘tweeting’, ‘Googling’, and ‘Facebooking’ reflect the new social trends on the Internet. Like today’s society words, Margaret Atwood used words as tools of power in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The new society of Gilead created new titles for women and men that empower a patriarchal system. New words are also used to denote new situations and events. These words imprison the women as much as the guardians and angels soldiers.
The regime in Atwood’s novel is Gilead. North America is the location of Gilead. The official vocabulary of Gilead has new words that define the new society. The first type of word is a system of titles. Men are commanders, angels, guardians, and eyes. Commanders are the elite white males of Gilead. Sons of Ham are black. Sons of Jacob are Jewish. These individuals were sent back to Africa and Israel. Angels are the soldiers fighting in a war. Guardians are soldiers that perform domestic duties. These men are the very young, old, disabled, or unfit for active combat. Eyes are the spies that watch civilians for any treachery. Women are wives, daughters, handmaids, Marthas, aunts, econowives, unwomen, and jezebels. The wives and daughters belong to the commanders. They have the highest social role as a woman. Handmaids are fertile single women that must bear commanders’ children. Marthas are infertile women that have become domestic help. Aunts are infertile women that train the handmaids in their duties. Econowives are women married to men of a lower station. Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and others that will not conform. Jezebels are prostitutes. These titles create an identity for each group. Finely defined roles are labeled by these titles.
Individual names are not used in The Handmaid’s Tale frequently. People are referred to as their titles, except for handmaids. Handmaids are referred to as ‘of’ and the name of their commander. For example, the narrator is Offred (Atwood 84). Offglen is another handmaid (Atwood 19). These names are possessive. The commanders own the handmaids, just like they own their wives and daughters. The exception seems to be the Marthas. Rita and Cora are the Marthas for Offred’s family.
The term for a baby that is medically unfit or miscarried are “unbabies” or “shredders” (Atwood 113). These are unlucky words. In a society that is focused on procreating at any cost, babies that are not perfect represent guilt, disease, and sin. Of course, unbabies and shredders are the entire woman’s fault. The men are not checked for infertility or other problems. Children and bearing them are the responsibility of the women. The words for abnormal babies are used to scare the women into giving birth to perfect children. The words unbabies and shredders are used in whispers to avoid bad luck.
Events also have new names. “Prayvaganzas”, “Salvagings”, and “Particicutions” are events in Gilead. A “Prayvaganza” is for celebrations like weddings or military victories (Atwood 220). Women attend a service that is led by a commander. “Salvagings” are public executions (Atwood 273). These events are segregated. “Particicutions” are punishment for rapists (Atwood 278). These events are where a man is thrown into a crowd of handmaids. He has then ripped apart. These events are given neat little names. Instead of a celebration or execution, the words Prayvaganza, Salvaging, and Particicutions are used. This has a terrifying connotation surrounding the events.
The words used in Gilead are like any in a totalitarian society. They are used to keep control. In Gilead control over women is used by a language. Titles, people, and events are named terrifying names in order to maintain control. When the power of a word creates a superstitious fear, a whole society of unbelievers can be controlled. Words can be powerful, especially when used by a charismatic leader. Gilead has many charismatic leaders. Commanders, aunts, and angels use these new terms and titles for the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the new society that feels procreation is the highest calling. The words create the reality that the citizens live.
Works Cited: Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor, 1998.