The links between language and power are multifarious. Even an examination of etymologies and fundamental grammatical formulations betray a set of gendered assumptions which some suggest are linguistic building-blocks of oppression. The Handmaid’s Tale examines the way in which language can be weaponised in order to circumscribe the expression of thought – and, by extension, control the parameters within which independent thought can even take place.
Atwood described The Handmaid’s Tale as “speculative fiction” as opposed to science fiction – a distinction which forces us to consider it within the context of the century in which it was written. In part, this compels the reader to consider the ways in which the linguistic and semiotic manipulations seen in Gilead have their roots in the history of the 20th century. In The Rebel (written shortly after the Second World War and while Stalin still ruled the USSR),Camus described the links between linguistic deprivation and dictatorship in the phrase: “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes”. This phrase encapsulates the way in which an oppressive society relies on a dominant discourse that must exist without challenge or contestation. Language is the main tool of oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale because in restricting language, Gilead succeeds in reducing individual identity. Atwood deploys neologisms such as with ‘Salvaging’ and portmanteau words such as ‘Particution’ to take events that are barbaric and make them sound sanitised. So we can see how manipulation at a semiotic level reduces the capacity of Offred and other repressed individuals within Gileadean society to express how they truly feel about such phenomena.
There is an unpleasant symmetry between the methods of linguistic oppression and the resulting emotional impact. For instance, one of the Aunts presiding at the Particicution (a word which itself is the product of etymological violence) guides the other participants with the phrase “you know the rules”. This implication – that the roles being played are part of a linguistic game – correspond with the feeling of infantilisation that to which Offred is subject. This infantilisation is a function of a clear hierarchical structure in the novel – and, by extension, Gileadean society.
Leaders in Gilead use an oppressive form of language in order to maintain their own power whilst simultaneously withdrawing it from those below them. This set of differentiating linguistic rules is signified when Offred explains “We are hers to define. We must suffer her adjectives”. Here, Offred conveys the reality of the handmaids’ oppression by making clear the objectification they undergo when the Aunt’s choose the name under which they are then compelled to live. This is a stark illustration of the lack of individuality that prevails in Gilead – even the most fundamental linguistic component of individual identity is fashioned by a tool of the regime. This has further importance because although the novel is seen to explore a primarily patriarchal society, it can be argued that the occupation of an Aunt is be that which carries the highest form of power and prestige. ‘Aunts’ are further given an authoritative maternal edge in referring to the Handmaid’s using patronyms with the suffix ‘of’,(Offred) making them appear like male possessions.
Here, Atwood’s insistence on The Handmaid’s Tale being described as “speculative fiction” is again significant in that Atwood has grounded many of Gilead’s devices of linguistic oppression in reality. The title of ‘Aunt’ travesties the idea of the family (a fundamental component of a Puritanical Christian world-view) and amplifies this critique through the Gileadean custom of patronymic naming techniques (Of-Fred) which have their reflection in real-world languages such as Icelandic (in which the suffix ‘dottir’ is appended to the father’s name to create a female surname). So Atwood is using semiotics both as a vehicle for critiquing contemporary society, but also as a warning as to the consequences if the implications of such customs are not examined.
There is also a link between names and religious doctrine. The roles of men are given descriptive labels that connote importance such as “Guardians of the Faith”; members of the police are “Eyes of the Lord” and soldiers are called “Angels of the Apocalypse”. This stands in contrast to subservient female roles such as “econowives”,”Handmaids”, ”Marthas” and “Unwomen”. Here, Atwood is drawing upon the descriptors of Christian discourse in order to amplify the impression of inevitability about divergences in the roles of both genders.
There is a seemingly redemptive power to language ,however. Offred is able to signify her opposition to the Republic through individual acts of linguistic selection – refusing to use the word “family” to describe the household in which she lives: “Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow”. In addition, she refuses to use the possessive pronoun “my” when talking about her bedroom. These acts of linguistic civil disobedience chart her fragmentary attempts to recover some of her own autonomy and individuality. The postscript also shows that her control of language has privileged her testimony and that future generations will have their views of Gilead filtered through her language and viewpoint. However, this redemption is not straightforward. Even the title of the book is a Chaucerian joke concocted by two male academics and Dr Pieixoto refuses to use Offred’s testimony as a means of moral condemnation is relation to the Gileadean regime. Here, relativism has replaced absolutism as a discourse of oppression – his insistence on treating Gilead as a historical phenomenon rather than a reflection of male violence demonstrates that the forces which gave rise to Gilead continue to exist.