In the nineteenth century, Lord Acton remarked that: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel originally published in 1985. It artistically demonstrates the existence and manipulation of power. This is the main point of this work and we can see it in every aspect of the novel. We see how people use and misuse power in order to gain their objectives. This work could be seen as an examination of power – who has it, how they gain it, how they utilize it.
First, we are going to examine how this patriarchal totalitarian regime attempts to control society by enforcing preposterous laws and by creating a society that is fundamentally a prison. Then, we verbosely go through the people’s power.
The main object of this paper is to discuss how different kinds of power come into existence, the strength of individuals and power through resistance in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The most obvious form of power in the novel is the regime of the Republic of Gilead. We are led to believe that it came into being through violence (they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency’ (Atwood 142). The Republic of Gilead uses biblical power as a validation of political power to oppress and recreate Gilead as a totalitarian state, by suppressing individual human rights. Male figures like ‘Commanders’, ‘Guards’ and ‘Eyes’ are Gilead’s representation of male power at its most extreme, where it’s patriarchal influences subjugates and reeducates women into the submissive, powerless and slave-like roles of ‘Handmaids’ and ‘Marthas’.
Gileadean’s sexist ideology treats male with power and sexual force and female with reproduction and submission.
As we mentioned the state of Gilead uses religious fundamentalism to justify male political, patriarchal authority. Gilead’s social policies are based on the Old Testament, where patriarchal authority is justified as the ‘law of God’. The ‘Patriarch Jacob’ is their hero and the fanatic republic of Gilead is closely connected with his history. Gilead is where Jacob established his household, his lineage and his flocks and herds. This can be used to justify the imposition of the state of the male Commanders as heads of the household, and their needs for lineage justifies their use of Handmaids because their infertile wives cannot provide for them children due to heavy environmental pollution.
Use of Handmaids refers to two biblical stories: Genesis 30:1 – 13 and Genesis 16:1 – 4. In the first story, Jacob’s infertile wife Rachel offers up her handmaid Bilhah to be a surrogate mother on her behalf, and then her sister Leah does the same with her own handmaid Zilpah (even though Leah has already given Jacob many sons). In the other story, which appears earlier in Genesis but is cited less frequently, Abraham has sex with his wife’s handmaid, Hagar. This reference is repeated many times in the text, most notably in the family bible reading before the ‘monthly ceremony’. At the beginning of the ceremony, the Commander reads from the bible (Atwood 76) and with that, he emphasizes the need to be ‘fruitful’ in order to ‘multiply, and replenish the Earth’ and also that the only importance of the Handmaid is to bear children for those that God hath withheld the fruit of the womb’. Although Offred’s remark: ‘Give me children, or else I die’ (Atwood 53), has more than one meaning for her as a Handmaid. Offred uses this reference as an answer to her doctor question: ‘you want a baby, don’t you?’ (Atwood 53) of course, she does, not only because she needs to as her duty as a Handmaid, but also, she needs it in order to survive, which will prevent her from being sent to the colonies as an ‘unwoman’ due to strict rules of the nation. Another example of this biblical reference is in phrase ‘blessed be the fruit’ that people especially handmaids say to each other in numerous times throughout the story.
Gilead’s leaders greatly comprehend the importance of biblical language as the main instrument of ideological control, and how it’s naming effects, shapes the way in which people think about their lives. For instance, law enforcers are named after Old Testament figures, like ‘Guardian Angels’ or the ‘Eyes of the Lord’ or giving the state leaders ‘Godley’ names. This reinforces Gilead and male authority and control over society. ‘Jezebels’, the name of the state-run brothel, represents Gilead’s misogyny vividly because the name Jezebel refers to queen of Israel known to be as an archetype of the wicked woman and that suggests the scandal of female sexuality, which Gilead is powerless to let pass or ignore. On the other hand, we can see that Gilead uses biblical references selectively and sometimes inaccurately that is because they are very fundamental in their beliefs and their leaders use the bible as a source of power to incorporate their own patriarchal interests, in order to enforce them on society as well.
The use of patriarchy as a powerful device is further explored through the male characters, of which the Commander has the most significant. Commander Fred Waterford is the most powerful male authority figure in Offred’s world. He is a high-ranking government official, and he is head of the household to which Offred is assigned. Her given name is Offred, which means ‘Of Fred’ and this represents that she belongs to Commander and it shows that the woman must not have any power or will. Furthermore, the name can also mean that she’s being offered to this man for his needs whatever it may be. The image he represents is at first somehow typical, he is powerful, isolated and moderately indifferent to domestic matters like his wife or his Handmaid. Yet this is not entirely true, on the grounds that Offred has seen him earlier on the day of the first ceremony, lurking in the shadows outside her room, as a figure who tried to ‘peer’ at her as she passed. Also, later on Offred gets to know the Commander individually and she begins to see his stereotypical male power image breakdown. It is he who asks her to visit him after hours in his study, for he is a lonely man who seeks friendship and intimacy with his Handmaid and not just the serviceable monthly sex for which she has been designated to him. In his chamber, he offers a representation of normal life to her, with conversation, games, books and magazines, that he knows all of them are forbidden to Handmaids. He separates her official role as a sex slave from her unofficial role as his companion. Yet, their relationship is still a game of sexual power politics in which the Commander holds most of the cards, which Offred never should forget. He believes that these are natural ways and it allows men to take advantage of women. We can see this in his comments and actions at the Jezebels: ‘Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreation strategy. It’s natures plan.’ (Atwood 195).
However, through the end of the story this relation changes, as Offred leaves his house for the last time, she sees the Commander standing at the living room door, looking old, worried and helpless. Probably, he’s expecting his own downfall, because nobody is invulnerable in Gilead. Offred has her revenge and the balance of power between them has now shifted: ‘possibly, he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down: he is shrinking’ (Atwood 237).
Other patriarchal powers groups are the Angels and the Eyes. These groups are used by the government as devices to dictate domination by force on society and the world. This nation is ruled by fear; Angels are soldiers who fight in the wars in order to expand and protect the country’s borders. Eyes are like the secret police, they constantly watch the Handmaids in case of any resistance. This fear is enforced by occurance of some ceremonies like ‘Salvagings’. Salvagings is the term used to refer to executions in the republic of Gilead. Those who are executed are referred to as having been ‘Salvaged’. Women’s Salvaging is a mandatory ceremony held in an open field in which criminals are executed and by the force of Aunt Lydia, Handmaids are forced to participate at the event and they also gave them the rope used to hang the condemned and pull altogether, in order to share the duty of executing those who commit crimes against the regime.
We don’t have a lot of powerful female characters comparing to male in the novel but they have major impacts and very important rules in the story. Moira, June’s best friend since college, is one of the first people to show power by resisting to be a Handmaid and escaping the ‘Red Center’. Another woman who teaches resisting to June is Ofglen her shopping partner. She is involved with an illegal resistance movement called “Mayday”. She also, like Moira, has major influence in shaping Offred’s fighting spirit. Later on, she dies as a fighter, preferring to commit suicide rather than betraying her friends under torture.
Serena Joy the Commander’s wife at first seems like the most powerful female presence in the story and in Offred’s daily life in Gilead. She is a member of the female hierarchy, she is in a powerful household, she has a great home. However, later we realize Serena’s only place of power is her own living room, she is estranged from her husband, jealous of her Handmaid, and has nothing to do except knit scarves or listen to her young voice on the gramophone. As an elderly childless woman, she has to agree to the ridiculous system of Handmaids in her home which she considers as a violation of her marriage and a constant reminder of her own crippled condition as fruitless woman.
Last but not least, we have Offred where Atwood majestically portrays the individual power. She doesn’t have any individual rights, she is known only by the name derived from her current Commander, Of-Fred. Most of the time, she is isolated and afraid. She is imprisoned in the domestic spaces of the home where the only time she is allowed to go out is to go shopping with a designated partner and also for Handmaid official gatherings, such as Prayvaganzas and Salvagings. Offred resists such conditions and retains her own sense of individuality and psychological freedom. She refuses to forget her past and her own real name and her family. Though she is forbidden to use her own name, she keeps it like a buried treasure, as a guarantee of her true identity: ‘I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day’ (Atwood 72). She refuses to accept her fate as a Handmaid in this regime. She never gives up and constantly fights to get out of her unpleasant conditions in every situation. She is very discreet and never openly acts rebellious. She watches for those moments of possibilities, which she calls ‘tiny peepholes’ when small but important opportunities occur. For instance, the arrangement she has with the Commander provides her with forbidden pleasures, for it is in their Scrabble games that she is at the liveliest and happiest moments of her current life. Although, she is too clever to ever forget that it is only a game or a replay of the past way of living. Her relationship with Nick represents act of rebellion and through this relationship, she manages to find new hope for the future and even to make better circumstances for herself in the present: ‘I said I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settler’s wives thought, and women who survived wars, if they had a man’ (Atwood 220). Offred uses every chance she gets to pursue and regain her freedom and, in the end, she gets it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of resistance, oppression and a fight for survival. Margaret Atwood uses every thinkable definition of power to create this fantastic dystopian world. Offred is definitely the most significant figure in this novel to represent this. She tolerates the patriarchal abuse from the state regime, submissiveness to her Commander and his wife Serena, but most importantly she is a vivid image of resistance by maintaining her individuality and personal freedom.
We can see major aspects of Atwood’s dystopia, especially power-related matters in a lot of our issues today, like power of religion, feminism and anti-feminism, capitalism and totalitarianism and so on. You can say that Gilead becomes like a reflection of what is happening in our world. To me this is Margaret Atwood’s true power, to show us a realistic version of our present or our near future.