Under his eye: surveillance, discourse control, and the different forms of resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale

Denise Mendes Pinheiro

ABSTRACT: This work intends to study Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel presents a dystopian society based on religion where women are denied their civil rights, and individuals follow a conservative model of organization. Women are divided on whether they are capable of bearing children or sterile. The study first presents the historical origins of the words utopia and dystopia, referring to their most well-known examples. In the first topic, we make a general overview of the author’s career and the plot of the book. We present the Gileadean general rules and the class division of individuals as well as the main character and narrator, the handmaid Offred. After we use the theory of intertextuality according to Kristeva to link and observe similarities between The Handmaid’s Tale to George Orwell’s 1984, comparing how their social organization, rules, prohibitions are similar showing how Atwood’s novel connects to George Orwell’s masterpiece. One of the aspects we analyze more carefully is the role played by language in the fulfillment of the purpose of social control. Finally, we discuss the characters’ reactions to the repression they suffer and how the rebellious acts appear from the subtle ways to clandestine groups that try to save people from the Republic of Gilead.

Keywords: The Handmaid’s Tale; social control; surveillance.


RESUMO: O presente trabalho pretende fazer um estudo literário sobre o livro The Handmaid’s Tale de Margaret Atwood. O romance apresenta uma sociedade distópica baseada na religião, na qual as mulheres têm seus direitos civis negados, e os indivíduos seguem um modelo conservador de organização. As mulheres estão divididas de acordo com suas capacidades de gerar filhos. O estudo primeiro apresenta as origens históricas das palavras utopia e distopia, referindo-se também aos seus exemplos mais conhecidos. No primeiro tópico, traçamos uma visão geral da carreira da autora e do enredo do livro. Apresentamos as regras gerais de Gilead e a divisão de classes dos indivíduos, bem como a personagem principal e narradora, a Aia Offred. Depois utilizamos a teoria da intertextualidade de acordo com Kristeva para vincular The Handmaid’s Tale ao livro 1984, de George Orwell, comparando como as organizações sociais, regras, proibições se assemelham, mostrando que o romance de Atwood sofre influências da obra-prima de orwelliana. Um dos aspectos que analisamos com maior cuidado é o papel desempenhado pela linguagem no cumprimento do propósito de controle social. Finalmente, discutimos as reações dos personagens à repressão sofrida e como os atos rebeldes aparecem, desde os modos mais sutis até a ação de grupos clandestinos que tentam resgatar pessoas da República de Gilead.

Palavras-chave: The Handmaid’s Tale; controle social; vigilância.



The search for a perfect society has always been the subject of many works and projects. Religious leaders, economists, philosophers, politicians, sovereigns have tried to figure out the path to a more egalitarian and happier social order. It is such an important matter that these perfected societies, even though they only exist in theory, are usually called utopias. No coincidence, the adjective “utopic” is currently used to refer to something difficult or even impossible to accomplish.

The philosopher Plato (427 B.C. – 328 B.C.) was one of the first to try to come up with laws that would lead society to perfection in his work The Republic (380 B.C.). Even though he did not use the word “utopia” itself, that was what he proposed. Sir Thomas More first coined the term in his book Utopia (1516), where he uses a fictional island named just as the book’s title where peace, tolerance, and happiness are the pillars to that society. After More’s work, the word became widely used in other theories. It is important to mention that no matter the ideological basis of the different types of utopias, one aspect they all share is the attempt of reaching equality in economics, politics, and justice.

However, this prospect seems too naïve when we give it a more profound thought. According to Alves-Jesus (2015), the women in Plato’s Republic had to serve and obey first their families and later their husbands without questioning; also, women were denied the citizenship and would have the same social status as slaves. Even in More’s Utopia, there were slaves. The author states that each family would have the right of two slaves who would work with their feet chained and be physically abused when necessary. The violence would be applied especially on indigenous people, who were considered to suffer the worst of degradation (MORE, 2004, p. 143). These two examples show how impossible the idea of an equal society is because equality is not extended to everyone, not even in fiction. Because of the impossibility of this idea, we reach the 20th Century in a state of pure hopelessness.

The arrival of the 20th Century did not bring much hope to reach the ideal of a utopia. Wars, diseases, fascism, and the dehumanization brought by the Industrial Revolutions showed how cruel humankind could be and how far people would go for money and power. The future seemed terrifying, and the dream of a perfect society became increasingly distant. In this context, the possibility of facing a dystopia emerged: etymologically this word is formed by the junction of the prefix dys (bad) to the word topos (place). According to Seed (2011), a dystopia is “a term suggesting a mis-functioning utopia” (SEED, 2011, p.75).

In response to that hostile panorama, the dystopian novels gained greater visibility, serving as a warning strategy. Frequently set in the future, the dystopian novels predict how bad things can get when people lose control over their leaders. That is so because one of the features of this genre is the presence of a totalitarian government and a nearly complete lack of individual freedom.

Among the most famous dystopian novels are George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). These works served as an inspiration for many other authors who tried to imagine the consequences of society initially thought to be perfect going wrong. In 1985 Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood published her vision of a dystopian society, The Handmaid’s Tale, which later became her most influential and famous work. The novel is the winner of many literary prizes.[1]

There are three adaptations of the novel: the first one is a 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson as Offred. The second is a Danish opera composed by Poul Ruders in 2000. The third and most recent adaptation is a TV show that premiered in 2017 ordered by the streaming service Hulu. The series instantly became a worldwide success, acclaimed by specialized critics and winner of several awards, such as the Golden Globes and the Primetime Emmy Award.

Atwood based her totalitarian fiction in an extinct United States (now called the Republic of Gilead) that is ruled by an extremist Christian government where women have lost all their civil rights. To guarantee that this society stays functional, Gilead’s rulers keep a strict law of social control, by continuous surveillance, oppression, a prescriptive language and even the branding of people according to their position in social hierarchy. To apply this control and make sure that nobody tries to escape or inflict the laws, the government created a police force in the mold of secret service and their agents are called “Eyes.”

By controlling this society, the government prevents people from speaking up against any injustices, abuses and even leaving the country. The government uses violence and torture those who try to resist, justifying their acts through biblical passages. The Eyes use oppression to alienate people who have no other choice but to accept those circumstances.

Oppressive governments like Gilead are not only fiction. It is common to see some recent examples of governments disrespecting the fundamental rights of citizens, mainly because of the rise of a conservative political wave in the last years around the world. The most remarkable was the United States National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal in 2013 when the former CIA agent Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents that proved that the American government was spying on computers, e-mail accounts and even shopping lists of regular people in and out of the country.

Also, the recent Brazilian election that elected a very conservative president supported both morally and financially by traditional Christians and Evangelicals brought up the discussion on how far religious groups could go into politics. Laicism is one of the essential features of the democratic state since it assures his or her beliefs will discriminate no one. When religious groups get involved in politics and start to push their agenda to the government, it becomes a dangerous threat to the entire society.

Some governments have recently tried to expose individual data using a discourse that the openness of the data would make the State a safer place, since they would know about any possible threats against the State by getting access to what people do or research online. Recently, the U. S. government forced Apple to create a window in its system so that the security agencies could have access to data in each Apple telephone or tablet all in the name of homeland security. This same strategy was applied in the Marco Civil da Internet (Law n. 12,965) in its 13th article in Brazil, where data records must be kept safe by the systems’ administrators for at least one year so authorities may have access to them if necessary.

Taking into consideration these ideas about social control and their importance for understanding the society we live in, this paper proposes a literary study about the different forms of oppression used by the Gileadean government. We intend to investigate how crucial social control is as a weapon to keep the people in Gilead from their past lives and little by little make them accept the new reality. In order to do that we are going to compare Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to other famous novel by George Orwell: 1984, by analyzing their relations through the idea of intertextuality between these works. One can notice the different types of social control as well as their importance to the narrative. Particular attention will be given to the control over the language and speech since the prescriptive discourse is one of the most robust features used in Atwood’s novel.

As complementary to the first two topics, we will analyze the actions of rebellion along the narrative. To begin this topic, we will define what the actual acts of resistance are and differentiate them from simple perks allowed to hierarchically superior people. Later, we will discuss how those small liberties are taken by the characters and what are the consequences that they face as they try to fight the system.

  1. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: an author and novel’s overview, characters and themes

Margaret E. Atwood (1939- ) is best known for her prose fiction currently related to a feminist perspective. She is the winner of many literary prizes and is currently regarded as one of Canada’s finest living writers. Her novels are usually focused on female protagonists enduring difficult situations such as violent crimes, environmental disasters and scientific dystopias where existing requires morally questionable decisions.

Atwood continually repeats that rather than science fiction, her works are “speculative fiction” since they try to warn the readers about the danger of letting small threats find their space in our society in the name of tolerance and old traditions. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a clear example of the author’s attempt to flash a red light on themes such as the patriarchy and the development of religious extremist cells in the government.

Speculative fiction refers to a wide range of works, with the term being used with fantasy stories, horror, apocalyptic, utopian and dystopian stories. According to Ketterer (1989), it is possible to locate The Handmaid’s Tale in the genre of dystopia, since it has many of the aspects that usually characterize this type of narrative:

Many of the features of Gilead are familiar to the reader of dystopian fiction: the lack of freedom, the constant surveillance, the routine, the failed escape attempt (in this case by Offred’s friend, identified by her real name, Moira), and an underground movement (in this case called Mayday) (KETTERER, 1989, p. 211).

In the novel, Offred, the main character, is a 33 years old woman that narrates her own story. She has been a handmaid (that is the title reserved to a fertile woman) for three years in the Republic of Gilead, a conservative, Christian fundamentalist type of government, that used to be what we know as the United States of America. As a handmaid, she had to move into a house where a Commander lives with his wife; Offred is not the real name of the narrator, but a form that consists of the words “Of” plus the name of her Commander (Of + Fred = Offred). All the handmaids in Gilead have lost their former names and gained new ones, based on the same rule.

Offred’s Commander is Fred Waterford and is one of the most important men in Gilead’s government. Parrinder and Lacombe (using Ketterer’s ideas) also list that her “name” could mean other things: “This name – suggestive of ‘offered’ or ‘afraid’ or ‘off-red’ (a rebellious reference to her red habit) or ‘off-read’ (in the sense of misread) – is not her real one.” (PARRINDER, 1986, p.20, LACOMBE, 1986, p.7, apud KETTERER, 1989, p. 210). Although Offred is the narrator of the story and she regularly brings up memories of her life before Gilead we never get to know her real name.

She explains that Gilead rose after the abrupt drop of birth rates in the country, caused by the overuse of drugs (both medical and illicit), the uncontrolled use of pesticides in agriculture, radiation disasters in power plants, and a mutant type of syphilis that was impossible to cure. In this apocalyptical framework a group of extremists found the basis for their government: with so many terrible things going on, only God could save them from extinction, leaders would say. This group called themselves the Sons of Jacob in a direct reference to the biblical character whose story is related to fertility and the breeding of children.

The Sons of Jacob murdered the American President, destroyed the White House and the Congress, and installed a theocracy based mostly on passages from the Old Testament. The men who were leaders of the coup were assigned government positions as Commanders and the women – mostly sterile – were the Wives, responsible for domestic chores, such as knitting and managing the house. The few fertile women that existed were kidnapped and forced to be handmaids under the penalty of being taken to the Colonies (radioactive fields) in case of refusing the task.

The choice of the word handmaid to identify these women was not by chance; the term refers directly to the story of Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament:

And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; he said: Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her (Genesis 30:1-3).

Gilead is a Puritan-inspired society, with traditional values and ideals. It is a society where everyone should direct their efforts to accomplish God’s will, and the seek for a holy existence. Therefore, everything that is considered sinful is forbidden: makeup, high heels, and fancy clothes are just tools to feed one’s vanity, so they are burned and extinct from Gilead. Everybody must wear clothes as if they were uniforms; men use black military clothing with their patches and medals while women use long dresses that cover their entire bodies. The difference is that women must observe the different colors for each status in the society.

In the same sense, alcohol and cigarettes are vicious things that serve only the purpose of poisoning people’s bodies and souls besides compromising the fertility of women. In this context, sex becomes merely a way to achieve an essential thing: bearing children. The sterile Wives are not allowed to have any intimacy with their husbands, so they spend their days knitting and gardening. The closest they can get to their husbands is the one time in the month when they have the Ceremony. It happens once a month when the Handmaids reach the peak of their fertility cycle: they lay on the Wives’ legs while the Commanders try to impregnate them in a twisted holy ritual of copulation and rape.

What’s going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting. It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena. Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom of frivolity merely, like jazz garters or beauty spots: superfluous distractions for the light-minded. Outdated. It seems odd that women once spent such time and energy reading about such things, thinking about them, worrying about them, writing about them. They are so obviously recreational. This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 94).

Besides the prohibition of sexual intercourse for any purpose other than fecundation, Gilead also has a strict rule on media. Reading and writing are forbidden, except for Commanders, who have access to documents and newspapers. Books, magazines, and other means of communication were destroyed or forbidden. Even the stores had to change their front panes to drawings that represent what they were selling, as Offred describes in the passage “[…] they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us” (ATWOOD, 1998, p.22). There is also no money in Gilead; all the monetary system was changed to the use of tokens, small pieces of paper traded for goods in the market according to the drawing on them.

Since sex is just for procreation, homosexuality is completely forbidden, and LGBT people are executed under the accusation of Gender Treachery, and after the execution, their bodies are displayed at “The Wall” to serve as a warning to others. The Wall used to be part of a university is now closed, just like all the others. The building is now property of the Eyes, the police responsible for surveillance and punishment in Gilead. The hanged ones are not only the gender traitors but everyone who is seen as a threat to the government: scientists, doctors who would perform abortions, priests who did not follow the ideals, adulterous women.

Occupying the highest posts of the social chain are the Commanders; they were the leaders of the movement that created Gilead. Men who are not Commanders nor part of the Eyes are placed in ordinary activities, auxiliary to them. One of these men is Nick, Commander Waterford’s driver. He is a mysterious character, even suspicious. At the beginning of the book Offred sees Nick as a dangerous person since he could be a spy of the Eyes, but later she relies entirely on him based on the romantic relationship they build. Even though he serves the government, he has no problem in infringing the rules by having an affair with Offred and later becoming the father of her child.

The women around Offred are notable characters: Moira, the only Handmaid that has her real name revealed along the narrative is Offred’s best friend since college. After her ordinary life is destroyed, Offred loses everything: her daughter, her husband, her friends. She never gets to see them again. The exception is Moira: a bold, independent woman that fights for freedom and her rights (we do not get much information about her physical features, but it is stated that Moira is a lesbian, therefore a possible enemy of Gilead, if it were not for her fertility). The two women are taken to the Red Center, some type of training center to brainwash fertile women and turn them into obedient Handmaids. After a failed first attempt, Moira escapes the Center, becoming a symbol of hope for the other women.

Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom; already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you would come apart, you would vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together. Nevertheless, Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us; she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw to it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacity was what we liked (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 133).

The Aunts are another group of important characters in the novel. They are older women responsible for training and taking care of the handmaids in the Center. Also, they serve as midwives, keeping up with the pregnancies and helping from gestation to childbirth. Offred often remembers Aunt Lydia’s voice explaining to her the new life and the consequences of not following orders.

Aunt Lydia appears as the voice of the Republic of Gilead, manipulating and brainwashing women by twisting biblical messages in order to support the new status quo: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p.23). Aunt Lydia masters the art of manipulation by playing with the women’s perception on how the world used to be, making them believe that in Gilead they are safe: “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 24)

As explained before, each “class” of women must wear clothes of a specific color to be identified: the Handmaids use red and the Wives blue in one more reference to the Bible, since Mary Magdalene (a woman currently referred to as a prostitute) is often portrayed in red clothes and Mary, mother of Jesus, wears blue in all her depictions. In its turn, the Aunts wear gray while the Econowives, wives of more impoverished and less powerful men wear multicolor striped robes. At last, the Marthas, women responsible for domestic service have their uniforms in green.

In Gilead, there are also the figures of Unbabies and Unwomen. The first ones are babies born with “defects” or physical deformation (which is not rare since there are still a lot of residues remnants from poisoned air and food caused by pesticides). They are disposed right after their birth, but we do not know exactly how, although some characters refer to them as “shredders” which could be a hint about it. Unwomen are those who do not fit in any of the classes suitable for females: sterile women, unmarried, lesbians, feminists, and politically dissident. Gilead exiles these people into “Colonies” areas of deadly pollution.

  1. Closed societies and the social control in dystopian novels

When we read Offred narrating her story, we are almost instantly driven to a well-known character: Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984. This link is not only because the two live in a dystopian future. There are many similarities between Gilead and Oceania; for example, they are both living in former countries (the United States and England, respectively) that had their names changed and lived in a war that never ends. Winston and Offred feel uncomfortable in their realities as if they did not belong there, committing various acts of rebellion against the system.

The connection between two or more texts is called “intertextuality,” a term created by the Bulgarian-French literary critic Julia Kristeva (1941- ) while she was studying Bakhtin’s dialogism and the carnivalesque in 1969. In that sense, we must read texts considering the meaning presented in that work but also by relating it to other cultural discourses, for a text is a construction of already existent discourses. As Zengin (2016) says:

With Kristeva, along with the other members of the Tel Quel, intertextuality made a fundamental reversal of the traditional relation between a work and its author, whereby work is seen as a product and an author a producer, and work is made the object of interpretation, behind which a deep meaning is supposed to be lying to be deciphered. Intertextual interpretations’ emphasis on a text’s meaning forming processes rather than the meaning in the text which was traditionally thought to be the object of interpretation is a significant paradigm shift that owes much to Kristevan ideas (ZENGIN p. 318).

1984 is a good example to demonstrate how intertextual relations are built, since in the novel Orwell used Stalinism, a totalitarian regime implanted in the former USSR, as model to create Oceania. The existence of a bureaucratic dictatorship of the one-party regime, the cult of the personality of the State leader and the intense presence of State propaganda are just a few aspects that link the fictional government to the real one.

Resuming the connection between 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, it is essential to point out that more than their liberty, Winston and Offred are deprived of privacy itself. The first is continuously watched by the telescreen, a type of TV that can never be turned off, while Offred cannot close her bedroom door and there is always someone with her while she bathes or goes shopping. Even while she is doing her chores, like going to the supermarket, Offred is never alone, because a Handmaid is not allowed to walk in public by herself. Ingersoll (1993, p. 72) makes a summary of other aspects that connect these two characters:

Both narratives have writers/speakers/narrators, that is, producers of texts, at their centers – Winston with his diary and Offred with her tape-recorder. Winston and Offred are both defined through their efforts to affirm a subjective “truth” as a legacy for future generations to whom they look for validation of their noble struggles to survive as humans, rather than as creatures of an overbearing patriarchal state exacting a kind of castration as the price of citizenship (INGERSOLL, 1993, P. 72).

Also, the presence of the symbolism regarding the figure of the eyes appears strongly in the two narratives. The imagery of a vigilant eye is continuously presented in the narratives and surpasses the idealistic aspect to be a representative symbol of both governments. Throughout London, Winston can see posters showing the face of a man with wide eyes and the words “THE BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” written below the face. The Big Brother is supposed to be the face of the Party, the leader, and a dear friend of people, whom they must love more than anything or anyone.

In Gilead, the symbol of the government is presented as an eye between two angelical wings which represents that the surveillance that the people live under is part of God’s plan to save humanity. The choice of this symbol for Gilead also brings a certain irony to the story, since the Handmaids cannot leave their homes without a sort of hat, called “wings,” that covers the range of their vision. As Offred explains in a passage: “The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 8).

Among many other similarities in these two novels, one important aspect that calls our attention is the role played by language in order to serve the government’s purposes. People’s clothing can be considered as a form of self-expression, and in a way, a type of communication. However, Gilead and Oceania, besides controlling what people wear, control what people say and how they say it. In 1984 there is the Newspeak, a new language manipulated by a philologist, Syme, that intends to make people little by little less conscious about their surroundings and the reality by reducing as much as possible the vocabulary.

Alves and Ferreira (2018) use Slavoj Žižek’s theory of Lacanian Materialism to study how the Newspeak changes the Symbolic aspect of people’s lives to prevent them from thinking for themselves or rising against Oceania. According to the authors “Language is what allows the representation of the world in our consciousness, so that the speaker’s tendency is to naturalize the practices embedded in the language code he practices” (ALVES, FERREIRA, 2018, p.35).

As an example of language used as a tool to naturalize something that would be unthinkable before, it is possible to mention the initial resistance in Offred’s mind of calling the room where she stays in the Waterford’s house as her room. She believes that by refusing to call it hers, she will be resisting that new society and connecting with her old self. Offred knows exactly how the word “my” is important because it would mean a personal belonging and saying “my room” means she had privacy, which she did not have. Later in the narrative, she commits a Freudian slip and refers to it as “my room.” Immediately she complements: “I called it mine.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p.49). Rook (2016) affirms: “Being a possession herself, branded with the symbol of an eye and her own personalized number, Offred can never expect to inhabit and own an independent space” (ROOK, 2016, p.24).

Aunt Lydia also persuades the Handmaids that it is just a matter of time until they get used to their positions and soon will get used to it: “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 43).

The insertion of a new language causes the assimilation of a new ideological content. The fact that Socing strives to create a new language instead of an existing language (so that any dissenting thought is excluded from thought) reinforces its intention of total control, as it’s common in totalitarian parties (ALVES, FERREIRA, 2018, p. 35).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the characters do not have a new language per se but rather some sort of prescriptive language. Even though some words are new, such as “Econowives” or “Compubite” (clear references to the Newspeak where words are combined to mean different things), the language does not change. In Atwood’s novel, Gilead forces people to use a vocabulary taken directly from the Old Testament. The very name of the republic refers to a location in the Bible. Also, the names of different classes (Angels, Sons of Jacob, Handmaids) and the stores where people get things, such as Milk and Honey and All Flesh are all references to passages or key elements in the Holy Book of Christians. The prescriptive language in The Handmaid’s Tale appears as words or expressions that guide every day’s behaviors like greetings: “Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. “May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 19)

Topics of conversation between the Handmaids are narrowed by themes such as the war Gilead is facing, the weather or the quality of products they get at the market. They are only allowed to walk in pairs, with designed partners that only change when one of the Handmaids must be replaced, given childbirth or other obscure motifs.

“The war is going well, I hear,” she says.

“Praise be,” I reply.

“We’ve been sent good weather.”

“Which I receive with joy.”

“They’ve defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday.”

“Praise be,” I say. I don’t ask her how she knows. “What were they?”

“Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills. They smoked them out.”

“Praise be.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 19-20.)

While language is the tool to build communities by sharing experiences, Gilead’s rules serve the purpose of canceling any possibility of real interaction and connection between subjects. Not even the Wives, the women with most privileges can read or speak for themselves. We take the example of Offred’s assigned Wife, Serena Joy. Before Gilead, she was a famous television evangelist who used her influence to spread the ideal of the return to traditional manners. By the time of the book, she lives according to the rules, taking care of her house and constantly overshadowed by her husband:

“She doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word” (ATWOOD, 1998, p.46).

According to Foucault (2009), discourse not only reveals a society’s struggles but most importantly, it is a tool of these struggles and the reason why people seek power so relentlessly. Being heard, more than anything else, is what brings power to a group or individual. He also mentions the “will to truth” which consists in seeking the truth that tends to legitimize certain discourses and exclude others.

The Handmaid’s Tale does not finish letting the readers know what happened to Offred. The story is abruptly interrupted, and the only thing we know is that she entered a car that was supposed to help her flee to Canada. Instead, the last part of the novel is the “Historical Notes” a sort of appendix, where many years later, a professor gives a lecture on Gilead’s History based on Offred’s testimony. Professor Pieixoto explains to the audience that they found the tapes where Offred recorded all those events we learned earlier (which explains why the narrative is in the first person: it was a transcription of the tapes). Later he states that no one knows if what was told in those tapes actually happened and questions their authenticity and credibility. Pieixoto affirms that the woman in the tapes does not follow a reasonable timeline and often loses track of what she said in digressions.

Professor Pieixoto, a scholar and therefore a person whose discourse is respected by society owns the power of truth. In his lecture, he denies the facts that Offred told, by affirming that Gilead was not an oppressive regime and the handmaids were nothing but surrogacies, hired by couples who could not have children by themselves.

In Gilead, the discourse of the truth is based on biblical principles. The high classes in this society use their power to make their discourse the only acceptable truth, circulating their ideologies in a new way. They use old texts and adapt them to fit a modern reality of moral and environmental degradation and justify it with the argument that they only reached this peak of degradation because they were too far from religion. But how different are the narratives found in the Bible from the one provided by Offred? The two are texts produced by anonymous people, narrating facts that usually appear to be impossible or embellished to sound poetic or heroic. And yet, the Bible has millions of believers that cause war and destruction in its name, while Offred’s story is a laughing stock, and discredited.

A third aspect that links The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are the moments when the governments allow the subjects to act violently. In 1984 there is the Two Minutes Hate, which is a daily period in which Party members get around in a room to watch videos of the Party’s enemies, specifically Emmanuel Goldstein. For two minutes people could become violent to show their anger towards Goldstein and the room was taken by a mixture of the worst of humankind: “desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer (sic.) […]” (ORWELL, 2015-a, p. 12)

This action had two intentions; the first was to raise supernatural hate of everything related to Goldstein, therefore Jews and people eager for reading, since the enemies allegedly possessed a book with instructions on how to destroy the Party and bring chaos to people’s lives. It would bring up the vigilante in each person, who would spy on their neighbors, parents, and coworkers in order to feel like an important member of the State. The second intention was to let the citizens exorcize the hate they could feel about the government. With the Two Minutes Hate people would redirect their dissatisfaction to a person, the embodiment of all evil.

In Gilead, they had a similar ceremony. The Particicution happens every time the government takes a prisoner who is accused of threatening the State. In these ceremonies, the handmaids play an essential role: they are responsible for executing the penalty however they want. Aunt Lydia presides these ceremonies, and from the moment she blows a whistle, and the handmaids are free to inflict whatever punishment they think is fair to the person. Usually it is a man convicted of raping a woman, which works for the same purpose that in 1984: that man is the personification of all men that are torturing, enslaving and raping the handmaids in Gilead.

Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must have been most gratifying for the Handmaids, so rigidly controlled at other times, to be able to tear a man apart with their bare hands every once in a while. So popular and effective did this practice become that it was regularized in the middle period, when it took place four times a year, on solstices and equinoxes (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 308).

These ceremonies are necessary to keep the status quo. Both in Orwell and Atwood’s novels the governments believe that if people are given the opportunity to vent their anger in a controlled space, it would “calm down” the eager for fighting social changes that could cause a rebellion. However, these measures are not completely successful since the resistance is active in both novels, by clandestine cells or individual actions.

  1. The forms of resistance: Scrabble and Mayday

Even with the intense surveillance and the presence of spies among people of Gilead, there are many expressions of resistance and rebellion in the novel. Some are very subtle, like using food for cosmetic purposes; others are accepted by the government, as a perk, to avoid losing control of people. Moreover, there are those that are extremely dangerous and could lead to tragic consequences.

As explained before, Gilead primes for the return to everything that is considered “traditional” regarding values and behavior, according to what is written in the Old Testament. Men must be faithful, brave and hard workers; women must be docile, submissive to their husbands and avoid vanity. However, there are some gaps in the system. Like in Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945): “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” (ORWELL, 2015-b, p.75).

This excerpt refers to the fact that even in societies said to be egalitarian; some people have advantages given by their status or power in that society. For example, both the Pigs in Orwell as the Commanders in Atwood’s novel are considered the most smart and enlightened individuals, who have made many sacrifices to keep the order, so it is only natural that they are allowed to have some privileges. This fact is evident in Atwood’s novel when Commander Waterford brings Offred a magazine from before Gilead:

Why do you have this? I asked him.

Some of us, he said, retain an appreciation for the old things.

But these were supposed to have been burned, I said. There were house-to-house searches, bonfires…

What’s dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are…

Beyond reproach, I said.

He nodded gravely. […] (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 137).

Commander Waterford is given some privileges on behalf of his position, just like other Commanders. Besides having access to books and magazines, Waterford can have some memorabilia in his office, such as games, drinks, cigars, and music. When he starts to invite Offred to his office in secret late at night, they start playing Scrabble, a game that consists of forming words with wooden blocks to score points. They are manipulating words, building them and discussing their meanings. After weeks of hiding in Waterford’s office reading, playing and talking, the Commander takes Offred to the Jezebel’s, a brothel that the government keeps for the amusement of important men in Gilead:

“As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 308).

In Jezebel’s, Offred finds out that her friend Moira did not get to escape, but rather became a prostitute there. At this moment she realizes that not even the most rebellious woman she knew could escape Gilead. In fact, by obeying and making all her Commander’s wishes, Offred is not fighting the system, but instead accepting her importance as just a body to be used. The same idea revolves when Serena Joy arranges for Nick and Offred to meet in secret, so he could impregnate her since the Commander seems to be infertile.

Offred does transgress many rules in her clandestine meetings with the Commander. However, in her arrangement with Serena Joy to visit Nick, and later when she insists on visiting Nick, those transgressions directly enmesh her into the system of sex, power, and corruption that characterizes the actual workings of Gilead. These actions powerfully construct her as a being who defines herself by her body (STILLMAN, JOHNSON, 1994, p. 75-76).

As discussed previously, everything that would bring a sense of vanity into the subjects of Gilead was forbidden and confiscated. Cosmetic products were not only forbidden but considered sinful because they were believed to raise luxurious thoughts. However, it was a secret shared by the Handmaids that the butter that was served in their breakfasts would work as a fine body’s moisturizer. So, now and then Offred would smuggle some butter and hide it in her shoes so she could spread it on her body before going to bed.

Since women are not allowed to read or write and therefore are deprived of having access to knowledge, they must rely on oral exchanges to fight back the lack of information. It is through Ofglen’s secret whispers that Offred first learns about the resistance group, known as Mayday. Insults whispered to themselves are common in the narrative, which consists in a non-confirmatory response to the injustices committed by the Gileadean government: “There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power… It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with.” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 222).

A remarkable demonstration of how women were able to communicate even in these oppressive environments is the writing that Offred find in her bedroom’s cupboard: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Her predecessor left this message in the house, but Offred did not know its meaning. Nonetheless, she holds on to this message as a source of hope and courage: “I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else can I say to God” (ATWOOD, 1998, p. 90).

However, later Offred discovers that that message was not exactly a hopeful one. When she asks the Commander to translate it for her, he explains how the Latin roughly means something like “don’t let the bastards grind you down” (ATWOOD, 1998, p.141), which is a schoolboy’s wordplay. Offred recognizes how her predecessor used this quote to explain to Offred that she too ended up in the same illegal position of playing scrabble with the Commander. It is her communication method to reveal to Offred how the Commander used her as well.

  1. Final Remarks

This work focused on the different forms of oppression in the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood. In the story, we are presented to a reality that may be initially a shock, but as soon as the reading goes further, it is possible to notice how close we are to the Gileadean government or at least how little we evolved, as a society, regarding liberties and civil rights. The fact that the themes explored in The Handmaid’s Tale remain so current in our lives shows that we still need to think about our democracies, as well as it shows the power that discourses filled with hate and prejudice have in our social organization.

In the game that Offred plays with Fred knowing the correct words is the key to winning the game and beating the other player. This scene is a metaphor for our society, where the owners of language, also own the power to articulate people and even to start a new regime. The entire novel is a constant struggle between oppressed and oppressors at different levels, but always playing with words. The change in the narration’s style in the epilogue shows how different languages struggle in search for validation, according to who owns the speech. Altogether, Foucault’s (1970) statement that every relation is a relation of power struggle seems to coincide with Atwood’s presentation of the world in her novel.

The forms of resistance in the novel are usually linked to the use of language too, showing how ambiguous this tool can be, serving both sides (repressed and oppressors). The manipulation of words or discourses to blind people’s visions is not only fictional, but it is a part of our lives. More and more individuals are driven to believe in what people they consider reliable say, without checking sources. The Handmaid’s Tale is an allegory about how we can be deceived by anger, fear and faith at exaggerated levels. Language is, like in Scrabble, a game of destroying and building words to serve a purpose, that if used correctly could lead to freedom or eternal imprisonment, either physical, as a walking-womb, or psychological, believing that “two plus two equals five”.


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[1] The Handmaid’s Tale won the Governor General’s Award for English Language Fiction (1985) and the Arthur C. Clarke Award (1987).