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Extended text essay

Analyse how the writer of a text you have studied helped you understand the
personality and attitudes of at least one important character.

According to Offred, the central character of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The


Handmaid’s Tale, “ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance; you have to work at it”.
Throughout the novel, readers are helped to understand this character’s increasingly
passive nature through Atwood’s use of simile, and by way of juxtaposition and
balanced sentences, empathise with her need for memories and language to cope with
daily life in the illusionary utopia of Gilead.

Atwood’s use of simile is effective in helping the reader understand Offred’s


passivity: her awareness of her oppression yet fear of rebelling against the regime.
When Offred first arrives at the Victorian house, she describes the old pink carpet
runner down the hallway as being “like a carpet for royalty, it shows [her] the way.”
This simile comparing her to royalty is fitting to Offred’s duty as a Handmaid, which
is to have children and ensure the ultimate survival of the population, similar to the
necessity in the royal family that the royal blood is passed on. However, this idea is
ironic because despite her importance to society and the privilege of this role, Offred
has no control over even her own life. Instead she is ‘shown’, rather than chooses, a
singular, perilous pathway to follow through life which she cannot deviate from, for
fear of being hanged or declared an “Un-woman” by the society of Gilead. The lack
of choice for the Handmaids effectively strips them of their freedom, and therefore of
their humanity, meaning that life and death are one and the same. Readers are made to
understand that Offred is aware of this harsh reality, yet throughout the novel there is
no opportunity for her to rebel when even the paintings are “guarding the room with
their narrowed eyes”. This use of personification shows how Offred is so used to
being under the surveillance of society that she feels she is constantly being watched,
and must therefore adhere to the rules of the regime. Though she is portrayed by
Atwood as an observant character, even Offred is afraid of the imaginary person who
will report rebellion, and for this reason appears to be passive in nature: she considers
all the ways she could escape, but never follows through with them. This clearly
highlights how self-surveillance can be a very powerful form of control in a
totalitarian society such as this, where people fearfully believe that they are always
being watched, so no real security guards are required.

Since Offred cannot rebel against the regime, she attempts to distance herself from
reality by turning to the past, which Atwood shows through juxtaposition. During the
pre-Ceremony gathering in the sitting room, while “Serena lights another cigarette,
[Offred] gets into the car”, remembering the last time she was together with her own
family before the regime. The juxtaposition of the present and past helps the reader
understand how Offred values these memories as a reminder that there is a purpose to
life and that freedom does exist – allowing her to cope with daily life in Gilead. The
fact that these are two ordinary events suggests that people can easily adapt to change
over time, as Aunt Lydia says: “it will become ordinary.” However, Atwood’s choice
to contrast them reveals this is not true for Offred because her memories of the past
prevent her from accepting the new way of life. In a similar way, the sitting room has
been turned into a tense environment by the regime, and Offred’s knowledge of it
previously being a place of happy family evenings results in her longing to escape it.
She is aware of the illusion of utopia in Gilead, where only the pretence of a happy
family exists, and for this reason must find consolation in her memories. However, as
Atwood shows, distancing yourself from the present cannot change the situation you
are in, so even though “the good weather holds…there are three new bodies on the
wall”. This phrase is a further example of juxtaposition, and Atwood is asking readers
to consider whether they themselves would rather focus on death, oppression
happening in the present; or sunshine, happy memories from the past, as Offred does.
They are therefore helped to empathise with Offred and understand the importance of
these recollections in numbing the sense of fear she has of what is happening around
her.

The use of balanced sentences express to the reader that as well as memories,
language is also very important to Offred. Forced into her role as a Handmaid, she
writes that “what I feel is that I must not feel”. This is both a balanced sentence and
an oxymoron which reflects that the only way to survive is to be without emotion.
However, this is ironic because our ability to ‘feel’ defines us as humans, so by
accepting the regime without complaint, Offred would be losing her humanity. She is
fearful of rebelling publicly, but inside her head as she tells her story, she has the
small freedom of being able to manipulate words and explore their different
meanings, and this somewhat makes up for not being physically free. Atwood’s
repetition of the word “feel” suggests that Offred has forgotten what it is like to feel
an emotion such as love because Gilead is so devoid of it, and she is trying to
remember the meaning of the word. In a society such as this where there is very little
opportunity for free communication between people, language evolves to fit specific
needs – there is no need to love anyone, so the word ‘feel’ has become redundant.
Throughout the novel, Atwood portrays this subjectivity of language and how the
meanings of words can change easily over time. Names, for example, no longer refer
to the individual, but to their ‘owner’: “Of Fred”, which reflects how young women
are now considered as useful objects rather than people. This helps readers understand
why it is so important to Offred that she remembers the previous meanings of words,
as they prove she is human and provide her with a connection to the past, giving a
futile hope that everything will go back to normal.

As readers we cannot comprehend living under a totalitarian regime, but through


Margaret Atwood’s depiction of the character Offred in her novel, The Handmaid’s
Tale, we are given an insight into the hardships which would be experienced and how
people would cope with them. The use of simile was effective in helping readers
understand Offred’s passive nature because of her lack of freedom and fear of
rebellion, despite her awareness of the reality of Gilead. Atwood also used
juxtaposition and balanced sentences to express how Offred valued her memories and
language, as both allowed her to reconnect to the past, when everything was
“ordinary”. This forced readers to appreciate the freedom that we have, but also made
us question the definition of “ordinary” in our own societies, and acknowledge the
changes which inevitably occur to it over time.

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