Seminar paper by Nisja Naja Resinovic
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale shows the reader that society often forces its weaker or powerless members to change not only their behaviour, but through it also their sense of self, in order to ensure their own survival. In the case of Gilead and Offred, the narrator of the story, this transition is twofold: Offred is first forced to adapt to the new social norms, and later she finds herself a changed woman who thinks mostly in the way of the new society. The circumstances force her to become just like the others, who are complicit with the new society.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NAME
A person’s given name is the focal point of their identity, and the name one gives when meeting others is dependent on who these others are (Windt-val 275). What, then, happens if a person’s name is forcefully ripped away? In the new regime of Gilead, the Handmaids receive new names as soon as they are transferred from the Red Centre. These names mark them as possessions of their Commanders and are easily changed with their posts. The Handmaids know they are only useful as long as they can bear children; they know that they can easily lose a limb or an eye if they are disobedient. When they receive their post, they must forget their previous names and lives so that they don’t interfere with their duty to the society. As Offred realises early on, it is better to not think. Thinking leads to ideas about escaping and that would hurt her chances of surviving (Atwood 17).
The Handmaid narrating the story, Offred, never mentions her true name. It can be assumed that her given name is June, as she mentions several names when speaking of the Red centre – Alma, Dolores, Janine, Moira and June (Ibid., 14) – and all names but June are later mentioned regarding another girl. No matter her true name, she always introduces herself as Offred, both to the reader and to people around her. As mentioned before, a name is a big part of one’s identity, and Offred inevitably changed when she had to suppress her own. Because she was treated like property, she gradually started feeling like one, slowly losing her identity and adopting a new one, with a personality worthy of a Handmaid. In her memories, she remembers herself as very outgoing, a smoker, a person not afraid to talk about and engage in sex (Ibid., 66). Most importantly, she used to be a woman who followed her heart despite the protests of society. She started an affair with Luke, a married man, and defended her decision when her best friend chastised her for it. She remained with him through his divorce and later married him herself, and created a family, though in the process, she inevitably became a homewrecker. In contrast, as Offred she is terrified of breaking the rules and tries never to cross any lines; even when she sometimes wishes to, she never dares (Ibid., 71). Due to her obedience, she finds herself in an impossible situation: she has the choice of breaking the law or disobeying Commander Waterford’s orders when he wishes to see her alone (Ibid., 146). Ultimately, the latter poses a bigger threat to her life and so she bows to his wishes. Still, she retains some of her rebellious streak and dares to ask him to break the law for her – an eye for an eye, so to speak – when she asks him for hand lotion (Ibid., 167). She also listens behind closed doors to gain any information, something she admits she never would have done before, but now this is the only way to find out what is happening (Ibid., 20). It seems that more than anything, Offred longs for an equal companionship and information that is no longer freely available to her (Ibid., 21).
Once Offred realises she can bend the rules if ordered to, she is less afraid of doing so. She knows she must get pregnant at Waterford’s house, as this is her last chance to produce a child. When Serena Joy suggests she sleep with another man, the Commander’s driver Nick, Offred accepts the proposition (Ibid., 215). At this point, however, she is resigned to her role as a child bearer and is willing to do anything to avoid being sent to the Colonies, radioactive wastelands where the misfits are sent. Ironically, it is following those orders that brings her rebellious streak out fully, as she falls in love with Nick and, once again, breaks the rules of society for love.
Offred’s compliance with the new regime is partly truthful and partly fake. Her acting can be seen when she interacts with the original Ofglen, as she drops the pretence once they both realise they aren’t true believers (Ibid., 177). She also admits she enjoys having power over men; the power of being something they want. She knows her being the object of desire is not an active attack on the society, but knowing men will suffer at night thinking of her brings her satisfaction (Ibid., 32). Another part of her, however, accepts the new circumstances and what they mean for her, and during important events, she falls into a believing state. A good example is the Birth, where she does and feels exactly as she was taught at the Centre (Ibid., 135).
During her time in Gilead, she keeps her given name hidden inside herself, protecting it both from others, so no one can steal it, and from herself, as dwelling on the past would only hurt her chances of survival. It is obvious that she still hopes someday Gilead will fall and her hidden name will be dug out and be useful once again (Ibid., 94). Although she doesn’t agree with the new society, she fakes faith and compliance to survive, yet she never acts out against it. She allows herself to think about the name she bore before only after she finds love in Nick; even going as far as telling it to him (Ibid., 282). Only then another, non-compliant part of her surfaces again and she dares to love and to risk everything for love.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CLOTHES
The transition Offred was forced to undergo can be seen by observing her relationship to clothes. She recalls wearing clothes she chose herself, from tight-fitted leggings in bright colours to many different types of shoes (Ibid., 34). The clothes she used to wear before Gilead were fitted and revealing, colourful and sometimes borrowed from her friends, but they were hers and represented who she was as a person. In contrast, in Gilead she is forced to wear long loose red dresses and matching flat shoes, a red cloak and red gloves. In addition, her hair must always be covered and her head protected with white wings when she goes outside. The same outfit is prescribed to every Handmaid when she starts her education at the Red centre and helps differentiate them from everyone else. They must look the same, for there is no place for individuality in Gilead. When she is taking a bath, Offred remembers how she used to wear swimsuits, her whole body on display. She realises that she has become uncomfortable with her nakedness because her whole body is constantly covered (Ibid., 72). She feels better when she does not stand out, when she is like everyone else.
The part of the narrative that shows just how much Offred’s fundamental views have changed is when Ofglen and her meet Japanese tourists. They look at these women in their short skirts and high heels, linger on their uncovered hair and painted lips, and they think: “They [are] underdressed” (Ibid., 38). They are both repelled by their near-nakedness, but at the same time deeply fascinated; clothes like that just aren’t worn anymore, they are like a live museum exhibit. Offred suddenly realises she used to dress like that, but it didn’t take long for the society and her training to change her mind (Ibid., 38).
Although she realises she has been, essentially, brainwashed, she is already too integrated in the new culture to either protest or change.
What she once found appealing is now repulsing, and the issued clothes she says she dislikes provide a cover behind which she is comfortable.
A rather similar thought process occurs when the Commander takes Offred on an illegal adventure into the Club. When she looks at the feathery dress he provides for her she is disgusted by it, yet highly curious how wearing it would feel (Ibid., 242).
Similarly, once he provides her with makeup, she is hesitant to apply it – she remembers the motions but is uncomfortable having a painted face (Ibid., 243). It can be assumed makeup was a part of her everyday routine in the before, but listening to the Aunts’ warnings about wanton women makes her subconsciously hesitant to use it. Once at the Club, she realises the scantily clad women and their sharp makeup seem grotesque to her. She is no longer used to seeing women with makeup, and even her own dolled-up reflection with bright red lipstick makes her think it is wrong of her to look like that (Ibid., 265–266). The transition from the woman Offred was before to the Handmaid she is now as seen through her relationship to clothes is incredible. There is no semblance between the two and it is like looking at two different women. Just like names, clothes, too, are a big part of a person’s identity; and taking away the freedom of choice regarding everything, from the name to the cut and colour of the clothes, slowly chips away at the identity’s core, until the only thing that remains is what the society wants.
THE DIVISION OF SOCIETY
Gilead’s society is divided into many classes with different standings, but the pervading distinction is achieved with clothes. Each part of the society wears clothes of a different colour so they can be easily recognised and put in their place if necessary. The Handmaids wear red, the colour of blood and life, but also the most visible colour of them all – they can neither run nor hide. The Wives wear light blue, the colour that symbolises faith, truth and wisdom. It also gives them an aura of regality befitting their station. The colours of both sets of women clash terribly, representing what society expects of them but also alluding to the power struggle between them – the Wives with their superior standing waging a silent war against Handmaids and their singular ability to produce children. Other women of different standings are similarly garbed in different coloured clothing: Marthas wear light green, Aunts wear khaki and Ordinary Wives wear colourful stripes. Even Jezebels are easily recognisable by their trashy clothing from before the revolution; should they ever manage to escape the Club, they could be found easily.
It is interesting that only women are distinguished with colours of their clothing, as men wear mostly black regardless of their status. The only distinctions of their attire are the marks of rank the Angels and the Commanders wear. This alone is a good indication that Gilead is a completely patriarchal society. Even so, the men do not trust one another, much less women, and this creates the need for spies. The Eyes are Gilead’s worst kept secret; everyone knows they exist, the silent watchers with no tangible form. However, no one but their direct superiors know who they are – as far as the public is concerned, they could be the driver, the tour guide or a random passer-by. This state of not knowing sows distrust not just between members of different classes, but also within the same class. The Eyes do not only watch over the Handmaids and Marthas, but also over the Commanders and their wives and, ultimately, over one another.
The Eyes are not the only spies. The Handmaids must always walk in pairs so that they can both spy on each other and serve as a control measure. They know that, should their partner commit an offence, they will be questioned and possibly punished as well. Still, not all of them are without compassion and are willing to issue warnings before reporting their partner to the authority. This is proven when Offred untactfully questions the new Ofglen’s loyalties and is warned – the new Ofglen knows but will not tell if Offred never repeats such offence again (Atwood 296).
The distinction of people does not end with the living – in Gilead, a person is also marked in death. The criminals hanging as a reminder to others bear signs of their crime hanging around their necks. A doctor that aborted babies in the before has a sign with a foetus (Ibid., 42), while priests wear their black cassocks and homosexuals have purple signs hanging around their necks (Ibid., 53). The hanged serve as a reminder of all that is sinful, but also send a disturbing message: they were different, they thought differently, believed differently, loved differently; so we killed them.
Ultimately, all these distinctions serve to create anonymity between and within classes. The Handmaids are scorned for their role in society by all other women, seen as a necessary evil. Cora and Rita, Marthas at Waterford’s, talk about Offred as though she were another chore to be completed (Ibid., 58). It seems as if they chose to forget the Handmaids did not choose their role and that they are the future of the society. What is more, Handmaids are not only seen as burdens behind the walls of their homes, they are also a constant source of jealousy. When one of them gets pregnant, others are happy for her, yet they are also jealous they are not the ones having the honour of bringing a new life into the world. The Commander’s and Ordinary wives are also jealous of them, as they cannot bear children themselves. The two main events in the life of a Handmaid, Birth and Ceremony, are an attempt to connect them with Wives, but these attempts at unity are paltry at best. The distinctions between them are too deeply rooted in their minds and simply cannot be overcome without the complete collapse of the society.
The main narrator of the story, Offred, proves how much a person changes when forced into a new role in the society, especially if there is no escape. It appears that adapting to survive changes the core of the identity, creating an almost completely new person in the process. This happens without conscious thought or consent; it seems to be a psychological reaction to unwanted circumstances.
Similarly, this analysis of the society and their reactions proves that forcing people to mark their status in the society in any way works towards instilling hate and fear in everyone. This damages society in the long run, as it starts to collapse from inside out, ultimately demolishing it completely.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Vintage, 1996.
Windt-val, B. “Personal names and identity in literary contexts.” Names and Identities, special issue of Oslo Studies in Language, vol. 4, no. 2, 2012, pp. 273-284.
Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.