In Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, there is a strong prevalence of feminism. Atwood uses the feminist ideals in the book to lead to another theme in the book, language. Throughout the book, Atwood discusses how under the new government women are unable to learn how to read and write, and can only speak in certain circumstances. However, men in the book read, write, and speak multiple languages. Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale portrays women as animalistic by restricting their abilities to communicate showing the control men in society have over women.
Under the new government, Gilead, women are no longer taught how to read and write, making communication for them similar to a dog with their owner. From the introduction of Gilead rules, women’s ability to communicate with one another is restricted like a dog with a muzzle. At the gymnasium, where women are conditioned to conform to Gilead’s rules, they are restricted from talking to one another. Women are constantly being watched by guards and have to try to avoid getting caught (Atwood 4). Not giving women the ability to speak freely keeps them on a tight leash preventing them from rebelling against Gilead. “I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry” (Atwood 29). This excerpt from Atwood’s text references when Offred and Ofglen saw Japanese women when they were out running errands. With the Guardians (men in the government) constantly watching and listening the handmaids are unable to talk to the tourists. Talking to the tourists would give them an opportunity to tell of the torturous conditions that Gilead has placed on women. The handmaids are treated like the rats in Tolman’s psychological experiment and due to their inability to read are unable to break the cycle.
The handmaids are given a specific route and are prohibited from going a different way (Rao 253). During their daily errands, the handmaids are given a specific route to take, without the ability to read they are incapable of figuring out new routes based on street signs and with their speech restricted they are unable to ask for directions. In Tolman’s rat experiment he watched rats follow a maze and showed how without a reward they would continue to follow the path. The handmaids are treated like parrots. When the handmaids greet their partner they run errands with, they must use specific greetings and responses that are considered accepted (Atwood 19). Forcing the handmaids to greet each other in a certain way keeps their vocabulary restrained and removes meaning from conversation. Women are turned into possessions like pets to lower their self-confidence. “The handmaids lose their names as well. Each is labeled as a possession of the commander she serves” (Stein 263). Prior to Gilead all women had unique names like Janine and Dolores. By Gilead changing the handmaids’ names to their commander’s name with “of” in front of it, it lessens the words the women learn and shows that they are no longer a person but a possession. Making women possessions not only shows animalistic tendencies but also harms their mental health. Since the women’s “names” include their commander’s name they are constantly reminded of the trap they are stuck in.
Men are able to speak more than one language to enforce their dominance over women like wolves stand tall to show dominance over prey. Prior to Gilead’s ruling men began to team up like a pride of lions. Luke, Offred’s husband prior to Gilead’s ruling, loved to study language and would give Offred little teases of what he knew. However, the reader saw that Offred was not fluent in Latin by her inability to recognize that the phrase on the cushion was Latin (Atwood 11). Men studying multiple languages, most commonly Latin, prior to the new government gave them a way to keep women uninvolved in conversations regardless of if they knew English. Men who know Latin are seen as higher up in society like different levels in the animal kingdom. “Like so many men of privilege throughout history, he knows the language of the classical curriculum and he uses his knowledge in a subtle reaffirmation of classical gender roles” (Miner 120). Taking the ability to fully understand one language away from the handmaids, ensures that they will be seen at the bottom of the kingdom. Men knowing multiple languages ensures that even the handmaids who were taught to read prior to the new government are still forced to rely on men to understand things.
The way the handmaids are constantly forced to rely on men is like a pet’s reliance on its caretaker. When Offred meets with the Commander one evening she asked him to translate a phrase written on the bottom of a cushion. She has to copy the phrase down and show it to him because she is unable to speak Latin (120). Offred knew how to read prior to the Gilead’s rules being enforced. However, Offred is unable to understand what this phrase and is forced to rely on the Commander once again. The Commander is able to do as he chooses with this situation. If the Commander wants to he can lie and tell Offred something completely different than what the phrase truly means, keeping his secrets hidden. Not only does this make women rely on men like pets, it also gives men the opportunity to keep women intrigued by them like a pet. Pets show affection to their owners and are loyal because they are the only option, Commanders take care of the handmaids and keep them entertained with games like Scrabble to get their attention (Hansot 177). The commanders have been conditioned through operant conditioning to keep coming back. When Offred plays scrabble and spends extra time with her Commander she believes she is gaining freedom because she is being taught to read and spell. However, Offred’s Commander in reality is just making her think he cares in order to get her to do what he wants.
Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful novel that draws attention to societal issues of the time. Going to the extremes when limiting women’s rights under the new government was essential to truly portray her message. By adding animalistic tendencies in the treatment of women, Atwood grabs the reader’s attention. While Atwood goes to the extremes, the way Offred’s life gradually transitions into the control of Gilead shows how the novel could become a reality if something does not change. After the publishing of The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States Supreme Court increased women’s abortion rights and there was a rise in the number of women in the government.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. First Anchor Books Edition, 1998.
Hansot, Elisabeth. “CRITICAL READINGS: Selves, Survival, and Resistance in The
Handmaid’s Tale.” Critical Insights: The Handmaid’s Tale, Jan. 2010, pp. 175–195.
Women Portrait In The Handmaid’s Tale. (2021, May 31).
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