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The Power of Language in “The Handmaid’S Tale”

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Imagine if a theocratic regime took over America. Well, Margaret Atwood brings this idea to life in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Be aware, the author uses specific writing techniques with the goal of misleading readers from the truth. Anyway, she is not the antagonist you need to worry about. You can safely assume in The Handmaid’s Tale that The Republic of Gilead, Gilead for short, is the leading antagonist. Originally, and supposedly, their mission was to rescue The United States from sin and misconduct. The Republic constructs a very elaborate vocabulary that disregards and skews actuality. They do this with the hopes of making sure the new society’s elite feel in charge…and that Gileadeans are left feeling belittled. Using only thoughtfully constructed language, Margaret Atwood manipulatively tells the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, while still clearly revealing The Republics dehumanizing strategy used on Gileadeans in order to maintain absolute power.

Margaret Atwood uses language as a tool to manipulate the stories described in The Handmaid’s Tale, in order to manipulate her readers. Quite often actually, you may notice Margaret never gives a thorough explanation of the truth. This is not a coincidence; this is what she calls ‘reconstruction.’ ‘Reconstruction’ is the author’s way of reliving and perhaps revamping the beginning middle or end of an occasion, to cusion her memory of that occurrence. As a result, we never know for certain what’s factual and what’s a re-interpretation of something. This became apparent to me in Chapter 9 through one subtle sentence. “I am trying not to tell stories, or at any rate not this one.” (Atwood 60) There’s a oversight here amidst fiction and reality. Margaret Atwood proclaims that she doesn’t want to ‘tell stories,’ as in fibs or inventions, but she then incorporates ‘not this one.’ This is the moment when I asked myself how much of her book is fabricated. The answer to that question is not what’s important. Instead, focus on how she got her readers asking questions. Carefully constructing language is a manipulative writing tool that Margaret used to remind the reader that she is storytelling. Atwood certainly isn’t the only manipulative writer in the game. Lionel Shriver demonstrates his own ability to trick readers, in his book Big Brother. Lionel basically throws his fans into a marathon with no finish line for a huge majority of the book. The storyline follows a unhealthily obese boy named Edison and his sister Pandora, who devotes herself to helping her brother lose weight…or so we thought. Until about three hundred pages in when Lionel revealed that in reality Edison died of a heart attack, and the beautiful story of sibling love you just read was only a delusion of Pandora’s fantasy. After reading the shocking twist ending of Big Brother, a particular student was not a fan of Lionel Shriver’s manipulative writing style. In a book review titled Don’t be a Manipulative Author!, the author wrote on her personal blog, “If you build up the characterization of the protagonist and then go back and say ‘hahaha just kidding!’, you’re a manipulative writer.” (@rosilylips. “Don’t be a Manipulative Author!”) Clearly, she does not enjoy being mislead by an author. However there are certain people, including myself, who love to discover subtle realizations (in the end) that they have missed, or weren’t aware of along the way. Manipulative writing requires a rare taste.

The Republic of Gilead also uses language as a tool—creating a system of titles, essentially “name-calling” Gileadeans with the intention of dehumanizing them. Because there are established acknowledgments for social encounters, gender roles like Handmaids, Marthas, and Wives entirely define females…biblical terms like “Children of Ham” and “Sons of Jacob” are labels The Republic use to describe Black and Jewish people…And worst of all, Feminists and misshapen infants are assumed subhuman; name-called “Unwomen” and “Unbabies.” “‘Unbabies,’ a name that suggests society does not consider them humans. Those who do not fit into the Gileadean worldview are considered not merely dangerous or evil but actually non-human.” (Atwood 31) Names are one of the very few things that are used to identify yourself completely. You introduce yourself to a stranger using your name. You turn in a test with your first and last name written in the top right corner. Being stripped of your unique name is what triggers a loss of individuality in The Republic…And having your name, instead, be replaced with language describing what makes you stand out from the “cookie-cutter” Gileadean, is the cause of dehumanization. It’s clear that The Republic of Gilead is not an effective government system. And although Roy O’Donnell can’t give a perfect alternative, in his article Freedom and Restrictions in Language Use, he leaves you with the advise that, “In the end, society must guard against restrictions that interfere with the free flow of ideas that are essential to the health and existence of a democratic society.” (O’Donnell 1) Personally, I completely agree. Government should not exist to dehumanize, but instead to represent every being…even the “Children of Ham” and “Unwomen…” Similar to the “name-calling” that happens in The Republic of Gilead, The United States has a long list of terms that are now considered derogatory, because history has made it impossible for that word to exist without an offensive connotation. As any student who has taken “American History” in their schooling knows that “Nigger” or “Negro” are two words that exist, but should never be uttered. “For well over half of the 20th-century, ‘Negro’ was the term that most Americans, black and white alike, used to refer to African-Americans. ‘Negro’ had to go, most black people agreed, for a few reasons. One was that it did not seem like it was on a level playing field with ‘white,’ since it was a foreign word that had been appropriated for the sole purpose of labeling an enslaved group of people…” (Miller 1) Miller explains in his academic journal The Trouble with the Other N-Word. Miller believes derogatory language, such as “Negro,” were a part of America’s “…systematic dehumanizing process.” (Miller 1) Which is ironic considering The Republic of Gilead, in The Handmaid’s Tale, has these same intentions.

By controlling language, The Republic has dehumanized Gileadeans, making it easier to gain and maintain power. A theocratic dictatorship makes sure there is absolutely no possibility of legally defending oneself from government power. Making it impossible for anyone to show competence unless they are one of the few on top. The Republic of Gilead perfected this system of power using the impacts of language. However, authority is not a bottomless pit. The more power The Republic gains the less Gileadeans are left with, leaving most feeling hopeless. Unfortunately we learned that some, specifically Handmaids, are left with so little that they end their life themselves, in order to feel like they are the last decider over their bodies and decisions. Infact, Offred admitted to having suicidal thoughts in Chapter 30. In a conversation with the commander, Offred discovers his former handmaid had hung herself. That night she rested and prayed in disorder in the pitch black, ‘That was one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself…” (Atwood 193) imagining suicide. Through her relations to the Commander, Offred gets a taste of what power feels like. However, she quickly remembers that in The Republic of Gilead her sway over him is useless. Even sex and suicide aren’t enough to gain a Gileadean woman any noteworthy power…Nothing is. There are certain rights that millennial woman (including myself) take for granted, because we weren’t alive when these luxuries were not at our disposal. For example, “Saudi Arabia lifted its longstanding driving ban Sunday [June 24, 2018], as women drove to work, ran errands, and even drove a Formula 1 car using their newly-issued driver’s licenses for the first time.” (Haynes 1) I bet most of you didn’t even know Saudi Arabian woman couldn’t drive until recently. To push my point even further, I bet even more of you didn’t know that in 1909, “In part to prove a woman’s competence behind the wheel, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the United States.” (HVA. “Women at the Wheel.”) Especially for woman, nothing is ever handed to us. If you know your history, you may be able to detect that our female (American) ancestors most likely experienced very similar verbal, and nonverbal, discrimination, that the Gileadean woman do. Only after recurrent injustice did brave American individuals fight against government power until they got what they believed wouldn’t dehumanize the next generation like it did theirs.

Using only thoughtfully constructed language, Margaret Atwood manipulatively tells the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, while still clearly revealing The Republics dehumanizing strategy used on Gileadeans in order to maintain absolute power. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A dystopia is an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad. Because I have never lived under a dictatorship, I didn’t think anything in Atwood’s novel would relate to me or my life. However, It wasn’t until I sat down to write this paper that I realized how much I sympathize with the main character. As I briefly mentioned in my second and third body paragraphs, finding similarities in social discrimination between The Republic and The United States is not hard. Dehumanizing blacks and woman are mistakes America has made in that past; We now call this racism and sexism. And although The Handmaids Tale may not use American terms to describe what they’re doing, The Republic is run by racists and sexists. As a caucasian young female, I could only relate to the African-American discrimination in this book using the experiences of other people that I have seen or heard about. However, I unfortunately found myself understanding Offred’s female pain a little too well. Please note that I don’t, under any circumstances, believe that my life is anything like Offred’s or a woman in the late 1800’s. Nevertheless, I have been exposed to language that’s was intended to make me feel less than a man. The power of language is so influential that its ideology and effects trickle from the real world into literature, and vise versa, even to this day.

This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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The Power of Language in “The Handmaid’S Tale”. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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