Control and Power in Margaret Atwood’s Novels (Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake)

Categories: Novel Oryx and Crake

At the heart of Atwood’s dystopian novels lies the concept of control and power. How far would you agree with this reading of the novels?

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones (Sufi proverb: Epigraph to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian literature, described by herself as ‘speculative fiction’ , provides insight into the concept of power and control found within totalitarian regimes, where those in authority attempt to govern the natural rhythms of life through exploitation of religion and society.

Atwood’s novels, Oryx and Crake (OC) and The Handmaid’s Tale (HT), both portray the systematic destruction of society in which the protagonists exist in an environment where independence is lost. This is seen in HT through Gilead, a theocracy, whose party slogan is ‘Freedom, like everything else, is relative’. This leads to the impression, that power and control are the fundamental themes within Atwood’s writing. However, it could be suggested that freedom and rebellion is more important and is the principal subject; evidenced by the eventual demise of the structures of governance and the survival of the protagonist within both narratives.

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It can be argued that the issue of control and power is less significant and instead used as a method to highlight the self-autonomy of the two protagonists, whom are able to escape a system of totalitarian rule. Therefore, to understand which themes are more central to Atwood’s writing it is important to explore the relationship between religion, society and the ‘self’.

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The ‘self’ being the power that an individual is able to exert over himself and the influence they have upon society, expressed through freedom. Furthermore, we have to look at how these governments attempt to exercise their supremacy over the protagonists and in turn the protagonists’ subsequent efforts to undermine the government.

In both novels, we see that Atwood examines the theme of control and power by exploring the relationship between religion, politics and the effect that it has upon the characters. The exploitation of dogma by the leading figures, in an effort to assert control over the rest of society, is evidenced by Jimmy’s use of religion to control the Crakers, and Gilead to repress women’s sexuality and identity. In HT, Atwood presents religion as a tool used to legitimize political values in an attempt to further the State’s ideological control over society. This reoccurring motif is exampled by scripture such as, ‘Adam was not deceived, but the women being deceived were in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing’. Such use of language is used to endorse the subjugation of women through Gileadean social principals, loosely stemming from the Old Testament. This leads to the situation where females are treated as subhuman, just a ‘two legged womb’ , further reinforced by the titles given to women by society that serve to repress their identities. These titles, based upon the role they perform in society, assign females to ‘classes’, often with biblical reference. One of these ‘classes’, the ‘Marthas’, consists of older infertile women who concentrate on housework and are made to dress in green. This reference to a domestic character from the Bible , serves as a constant reminder to society that the regime is built upon religious justification in which ‘God is a National Resource’. In this way the Gileadean regime uses misogynist biblical quotes, for example, ‘Give me children or else I die’ , thus permitting the authoritarian government to send infertile women to the colonies to die. Further, the fact that only men are permitted to read the Bible suggests that Gilead maintains its control over women’s bodies not only through its Scripture, but also those who are permitted to access it. The red garments worn by the Handmaids symbolize that they belong to a separate class. Atwood uses red as a symbol for passion and danger, describing it as ‘the colour of blood’ , an emotive metaphor that encourages the resemblance to a warning signal, thus showing the sinfulness of the Handmaids. We are invited to see that the garments are used to repress harmful female sexuality, further intending to marginalize women and eradicate as much of their independence as possible. This enables a patriarchal society to install dominance. Atwood also uses the idea of religion in OC, for example where Jimmy, the reluctant prophet ‘Snowman’, uses ‘creation stories’ to control and inhibit the Crakers. In response to their insistent questioning, ‘Snowman, tell us please about the deeds of Crake’ , Jimmy endeavours to satisfy the Crakers through his myths, inadvertently creating a pseudo religion.

As OC progresses, the ‘creation stories’ that are used by Jimmy to control the Crakers become more convoluted through his mistakes. This encourages the inquisitive nature of the Crakers, evinced by such questions as ‘please, oh Snowman, what is toast?’ This suggests that the sway religion holds over humanity is not indefinite and leads us to an alternative interpretation. As a relatively weak method of control, we see Jimmy’s influence wane as his use of religion fails and ultimately leads to the Crakers forming their own theories in an attempt to explain their beginning. When people start to question their religion all legitimacy that it gives is lost, as the Crakers do not need to rely upon Jimmy for guidance. Crake’s insistence that the Crakers were not programed to be religious is proved wrong as they still have the capacity to form a religion. Their prayers to the effigy of Snowman show that the natural world and human instincts cannot be controlled by society. We can see that at a superficial level, power and control is the key concept within the novels. However, it can be suggested that the short-lived notion of control and the importance of freedom, demonstrated by the eventual collapse of both systems of governance, are central towards Atwood’s writing.

The concept of control is further explored within Atwood’s novels through the use of names. Names are significant in both novels as a way of determining someone’s fate and their role in society, as acknowledged in HT: ‘My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter; your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others’. Offred, derived from the name of her Commander, is an attempt to remove her individual identity and decide how she is seen within the patriarchal society. By eradicating her identity she has been objectified and all sense of her past identity is removed, so creating her role in society as a possession of Fred, her Commander. Names are also important in OC. The only person working at the Paradise complex that doesn’t use a nickname from the game ‘Extinctathon’ is the only person to survive the virus. This shows that Crake had decided who would live and die and that their fate had been predetermined through his God-like power. We can therefore assume that in Atwood’s novels, control is a vital theme, explored by the suppression of our focalizers, Jimmy and Offred. However, at the end of OC, we can see that there are three other survivors, raising the question of whether Atwood is looking at the resilience of human beings more generally when resisting control.

Another way in which the totalitarian regimes assert their power is through use of fear. In HT and OC death or banishment are used as a way of imposing power. In OC, social separation is used to exert control over the population and therefore the threat of extradition to the Pleebands terrified the social elite who lived in the Compounds. Crake describes a visit to the Pleebands, without the protection of vaccination, as ‘like having a big sign on your forehead that said, Eat Me’ . Thus, the government was able to exert control through fear. Also, execution was another way in which the Corpsecors could exercise their control over society resulting in the opinion that any opposition to the state could lead to death. However, Offred shows that you can get used to these totalitarian regimes in her statement: ‘It is truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations’ . This is seen by Offred’s disgust at the clothes that the tourists wear, even though she acknowledges that she would once have worn them herself. This is also shown by Jimmy’s viewing of live execution on the internet; he doesn’t care about the executions as he exists in a society where he can get access to what he wants, when he wants, as long as he has the money.

Language is used in both novels as a chance for the protagonists to gain power over their ‘self’ and to rebel against the system trying to control them, but also, the perversion of language by governments to exert control. Jimmy depicts the importance of language through his attempt to remember lists of forgotten words used to rebel against the control of nature and the Corpsecorps. As he becomes unable to remember the definitions or importance of words in his lists, he still endeavours to retain as many as possible, believing that he is the only surviving human. If true, it means that once he forgets a word, it's gone forever. Therefore, every word he remembers can be seen as an act of rebellion against the circumstances that he is in and further, an attempt to retain authority over himself and the world around him. Moreover, keeping alive the old, in an attempt to rebel, is mirrored in HT with the women ‘learning to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths, exchanging names’ . This act of defiance against their ‘captors’ is an attempt to assert control over one’s identity. By sharing their names ‘Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira, June’ we see a potent form of rebellion against the power of the regime by a small act of defiance. This defiance by the women represents Gilead’s inability to exert its power upon people, and equally, their failure to repress someone’s identity. However, we do see that Jimmy uses language to control the consumer market into buying medicines that will ‘make you younger’, becoming a tool of the capitalist markets, an example of perversion of language where it is used to control, not to liberate.

Likewise, language is also used to bring together disenfranchised people and to empower them within the novels. Atwood uses coded phrases that enable rebellion to go undetected. In OC, Maddaddam is an organisation against the control of the large corporate companies, disguised as part of an internet game. Emulated in HT, our focalizer is told ‘it’s a beautiful May day’ by her fellow Handmaid Ofglen. This coded sentence confirms that she is part of the anti-government Mayday Group. Therefore, these groups are able to utilise language in an attempt to remain hidden and to rebel. This use of language is further reinforced in the phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ ; literally meaning, don’t let the bastards grind you down. It symbolises a connection between the old Offred and the new Offred that gives her strength against Gilead. Through the narrative voice we are able to see this strength by Offred’s actions. Outwardly, she is reserved and drained of emotion - what Gilead wants. However, through her language, we can see that inwardly she has energy and is constantly challenging and questioning the world about her. In a world where Gilead is trying to restrict women’s access to language by not allowing them to read, Offred’s fascination with language, especially the meaning of words can be seen as rebellion. Her constant defining and challenging of words can be seen through her various interpretations of the word ‘chair’: ‘the leader of a meeting’ or ‘a mode of execution’ . This is an act of defiance against Gilead which shows the sharpness of Offred and her refusal to be controlled. Therefore, we can see that language can be used to manipulate and to control rebellion, but also to rebel against these attempts to control.

In Conclusion, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian literature focuses on power and control as a fundamental theme to further explore the issue of freedom and rebellion. The relationship between religion, society and the ‘self’ within the novels is evidenced through the protagonists’ attempts to escape the control of the authoritarian governments. Atwood presents religion as a tool to legitimize the implementation of separate classes of women, however, this highlights the failure of the governments to fully supress ‘harmful female sexuality’ proven by the fall of their patriarchal society. This is also supported within the novels through the questioning of religion, leading to the situation where all legitimacy that it gives is lost. This is seen in OC where Jimmy’s mistakes lose him his control of the Crakers; leading to a notion of the superficiality of religion and the control it exerts. This is symbolised by the power that individuals are able to gain over themselves by rebelling against the short-lived idea of control, highlighting the significance of freedom within Atwood’s writing. The use of names and titles within the novels evidence how themes of control are used to show the importance of rebellion. Within both novels names determine a character’s fate and role within society where governments are attempting to eradicate a character’s identity, yet, through small acts of rebellion, we see that the protagonists still hold onto their identity, proving the importance of freedom within the novels. This is further shown by the use of language in which the protagonists retain power over their ‘self’ and to rebel against the system trying to control them, even though they are fighting against the perversion of language by governments in an attempt to further their control. Finally, within Atwood’s writing, we see that language is used to bring together disenfranchised people and to empower them within the novels, thus proving that the key concept within Atwood’s writing is power and control in which the issue of freedom and rebellion is highlighted.

Updated: Feb 17, 2024
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Control and Power in Margaret Atwood’s Novels (Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake). (2024, Feb 17). Retrieved from

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