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Language & Power in

The Handmaids Tale


The power to control ones language is significant, as the ability to think freely and share
ideas is wholly tied up with an individuals access to language which allows them to
shape and communicate these ideas and opinions. There is a simple relationship here
between language & power:

Language = Knowledge
Knowledge = Power

Which groups in Gilead Your response here...


have freedom of speech?
In what ways does this
imbue them with power?

Which groups in Gilead are Your response here...


restricted in their freedom
of speech? In what ways
are their uses of language
controlled?

Biblical Language
Christian religious terminology underpins the rules of naming in Gilead and is used to reinforce
the theocratic dictatorship of Gilead and the propaganda that perpetuates this system of
government. Consider the below examples:

Biblical Term Meaning in Context of Gilead Connotation / Implied Meaning


(for Audience)

Angels

Marthas

Jezebels

Guardians

Soul Scrolls

All Flesh, Daily


Bread, Loaves &
Fishes

Neologisms
Neologisms are words that are invented or given new meaning in Gilead which help to transport
us into the world. The official sanctioned power to create new words rests wholly with the
government. Consider the below examples:

Neologism Meaning in Context of Gilead Connotation / Implied Meaning


(for Audience)

Pravaganza

Particicution

Salvaging

Unwomen

Unbaby

Birthmobile

Econowife
Offreds Narration
Offreds style of narration constantly draws comparisons between past and present in bringing
our attention to the altered freedoms and lifestyle for individuals and, accordingly, how language
use reflects these changes. Her narration is inherently rebellious; even the act of her recording
her story for others to read gives her a power and agency beyond her socially defined role:
Im sorry there is so much pain in this story. Im sorry its in fragments, like a body caught in the
crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

Ive tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would
we be without them?

Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasnt once enough for me
at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated
story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance... By
telling you anything at all Im at least believing in you, I believe youre there, I believe you into
being. Because Im telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are. (Ch 41)

By extension, Offred sees her role as storyteller as significant, not just for herself but also for
others that she cares about, for example Moira:
This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can't remember exactly, because I had no way
of writing it down. I've filled it out for her as much as I can: we didn't have much time so she just
gave the outlines... I've tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It's a way of keeping her
alive. (Ch 38)

She is also burdened by the responsibility and personal cost of being a storyteller:
I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better
light... I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love (Ch 41)

I don't want to be telling this story. (Ch 42)

Consider the above quotes Your response here...


from Offred as she directly
addresses the audience.
What points does she make
about the power of
storytelling?

What do you notice about Your response here...


Offreds specific language
choices (diction) used to
describe her story? In what
way can it help us to better
understand her experience
in Gilead?

What have some critics said?

In a society where literacy is forbidden her, Offred frequently contemplates words and their
meanings or exhibits a certain playfulness in her ability to shape and reshape language in her
narration. In this way she demonstrates a subversive form of power - the power to shape words
and knowledge in ones own mind. Consider the below examples:

Example What does it reveal about the power of language?

Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Your response here...
Why do I want? (Ch 2)

The door of the room - not my room, I Your response here...


refuse to say my... (Ch 2)

Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Your response here...


Luke told me that. He said there was no
corresponding word that meant to behave
like a sister. Sororize, it would have to be,
he said. From the Latin. He liked knowing
about such details. (Ch 2)

The night is mine, my own time, to do with Your response here...


as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I
dont move. As long as I lie still. The
difference between lie and lay. Lay is
always passive I lie, then, inside the
room (Ch 7)

...no wonder these things used to happen. Your response here...


Things, the word she used when whatever it
stood for was distasteful or filthy or horrible
to pass her lips. A successful life for her
was one that avoided things, excluded
things (Ch 10)

I almost gasp: hes said a forbidden word Your response here...


Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile
man anymore, not officially. There are only
women who are fruitful and women who are
barren, thats the law. (Ch 11)

I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes Your response here...


carborundorum. I dont know what it means,
but it sounds right, and it will have to do,
because I dont know what else I can say to
God. (Ch 15)

I sit in the chair and think about the word Your response here...
chair. It can also mean the leader of a
meeting. It can also mean a mode of
execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It
is the French word for flesh. None of these
facts has any connection with the others.
These are the kinds of litanies I use, to
compose myself. (Ch 19)

There is something powerful in the Your response here...


whispering of obscenities, about those in
power. There is something delightful about
it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden,
thrilling It deflates them, reduces them to
the common denominator where they can
be dealt with. (Ch 34)

The arrival of the tray, carried up the stairs Your response here...
as if for an invalid. An invalid,one who has
been invalidated. No valid passport. No
exit. (Ch 35)

Make your life a tribute to the loved one. Your response here...
And he was, the loved. One.
Is. I say. Is, is, only two letters, you stupid
shit, cant you manage to remember it, even
a short word like that? (Ch 35)

Fatigue That is what gets you in the end. Your response here...
Faith is only a word, embroidered. (Ch 46)

* Why does Offreds narration focus so much on the uses of language? *


Whats with the scrabble?
The Commander breaks with protocol by inviting Offred to spend time with him, alone
and unattended, in his office. Instead of illicit sex, the Commander engages her in illicit
games of Scrabble. Since literacy is outlawed
for Handmaids, Offreds participation in Scrabble
demonstrates her ability to exert control over
language as a creator and sharer of knowledge,
and thus she is allowed the opportunity to
momentarily express ideas (even simply). By
extension, she and the Commander discuss
ideas otherwise prohibited. She also has a parity
of power with the Commander socially in the
secrecy of the office, as both equally possess the
ability to shape language.

How does Offred respond to Your response here...


the Commanders invitation to
participate in prohibited acts
(i.e.scrabble & magazines)?
Why does she take the risk?

Language shared between characters


Look closely at the conversations between these pairs of characters and consider how the tone,
language choice (diction) and connotation of these interactions imply a power relationship. Make
some notes in the comparison table below:

OFFRED & THE COMMANDER OFFRED & MOIRA OFFRED & OFGLEN (1.0)
- Ch 23, 29, 36 - Ch 22, 34, 38 - Ch 4, 8, 27
FOOD FOR THOUGHT?
1. Is controlling language the most effective way to create or maintain
power in a society?
2. In what ways can literacy be a threat?
3. What general observations or comments can you make about
Atwoods use of language in this novel?

ADDITIONAL READING:
The Analysis of Language in The Handmaids Tale and How it Influences Writers Style -
http://www.fouronesixlit.com/2016/03/24/the-analysis-of-language-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-how-it-
influences-writers-style/

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