‘How is Gilead presented as a place of power and control in the opening chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale?’ The Republic of Gilead is the fictional country which Margaret Atwood chose as the setting for her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. We can infer from the first chapter that Gilead is within the borders of the USA from the fact that ‘old’ blankets still said US: this hints that some sort of major catastrophe has occurred before the time of the novel to change this. The first few chapters suggest a lot about the setting, and also how the transition of the country from being the United States of America to the Republic of Gilead may not have been a particularly positive one. The novel of The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the political oppression of women and how the new theocratic government of the Republic of Gilead manipulates the Bible into promoting the control of women. The first chapter opens with ‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium’.
If schools are being used to house women, then they cannot be used for education. This is a form of indoctrination – a way of avoiding a rise in support of any other ideas within the younger generation, or anything that would be counter-productive to the way Gilead is run. We later learn that the new regime states that women are not allowed to read in Gilead at all, and even the shop names have been painted out to remove this ‘temptation’. Money has also been exchanged for pictured vouchers, which again shows how the state obviously feels that if they can control women’s minds, the better they can control their bodies. Offred recalls how an Aunt once told her that where she’ll end up ‘is not a prison but a privilege’, and the fact that the Aunt felt the need to say this shows how the Commander’s house would be a place of strict control.
The women who live in the gymnasium are not allowed to communicate, shown by how they ‘learned to lip read’ at night in the dimmed light. They are under constant surveillance of Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth, who ‘had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts’, which suggests the means by which they keep control are through fear and occasionally violence. The fact that the lighting is not completely cut at night shows how the Aunts control the women even when they are sleeping – they can see them at all times. However despite this ‘even they [the Aunts] could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked by the Angels’. This shows the social hierarchy of Gilead and how the idea of control through weapon runs through all castes with any importance.
Although the Aunts are responsible for bringing up the Handmaids and preparing them to do their job, the male Guards and Angels still have more authority than them. However despite this, the guardians are ‘supposed to show respect’ to the Handmaids despite their place in society, showing that there is still a hierarchy within the males and they still have to follow orders. The Commanders at the top of the ladder seem to have the most power, shown by the fact that they have ‘double obscurity’, in contrast to every other caste within the society who is under the constant watch of the Eyes. The Handmaids in particular do not seem to have any privacy at all– the door to Offred’s room in her Commander’s house does not even shut properly.
The sense of constant paranoia of all citizens of Gilead is obvious throughout the opening chapters of the novel, and seems to be a passive way of the state keeping total control. When Nick, the chauffeur, winks at the Offred it leads her to think that ‘perhaps he is an Eye’ positioned to test her response. This shows just how strict the control of this new style country is as this small action causes so much stress. This seems very familiar to the idea of the secret police in Nazi Germany, whose identity no one knew and presence was used to encourage conformity and obedience by prompting constant fear in citizens of being reported.
The Handmaids also go shopping in pairs; they know that this also for control – ‘she is my spy, as I am hers’ and this ensures that they conform to decorum. The different uniforms worn within Gilead are another example of the state using the power they have to control their citizens. All women in the Republic are defined by the colour of their uniforms. These uniforms remove all individuality from particularly the submissive women, as well as camouflaging all signs of shape and figure. Gilead sees women’s sexuality as dangerous, which is why the uniforms they have prescribed are so concealing and unflattering. When Offred walks by the young Guardians, she moves her hips when she senses them watching her, and then states her hope that ‘they get hard’ as a result of her doing this.
This shows how she feels that her ability to inspire sexual attraction, despite her uniform is the only power she herself retains. Fear is obviously used in Gilead as the main form of control, made clear by the fact that there are ‘men with machine guns in the pillboxes on either side of road’ – this indicates how strict the rules within the country are, and how severe the consequences are if you break them. The Guardians’ sexual desire is controlled by the idea of the ‘floodlights going on, the rifle shots’ which illustrates the extent of the power the state has over them – they have not yet earned the right to a women, therefore would be totally sex-starved as masturbation is a sin and porn is forbidden. The only hope for them of this changing is if they were promoted to Angel status, and this desire as well as fear keeps them obedient.
Stories of people being shot, such as the Martha they guards thought was a man carrying a gun, show that the state are so set on keeping control of everything within Gilead they will act before establishing if their beliefs are true or not. These stories would have heightened the fear of the citizens of being caught doing anything even slightly wrong. Aunt Lydia gives one of the most important quotes in the novel – ‘…in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.’
This sums up the new way of society in Gilead completely, right down to how the Aunts indoctrinate the women into thinking that the transition is beneficial for them – this is shown by how Offred says that ‘women were not protected back then’. The new state has removed all free will and option of choice from every citizen within the Republic in exchange for having the power and complete control over them – the state evens controls the citizens’ sex lives, as well as what they wear – and I feel that in doing this they have now presented Gilead as a complete terror state.