The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
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All throughout the text “The Handmaid’s Tale”, there is a permanent theme of totalitarianism. Regimes that follow a totalitarian cultural ensure dominance over their subjects with the use of manipulation (Finigan 435). Besides the use of manipulation, the authority figures in “The Handmaid’s Tale” dominate the subjects by controlling their experience of life, time, memory and history (Finigan 435). In the totalitarian society of Gilead, characteristics of totalitarianism can be found all around. One characteristic of totalitarianism is the use of placing members of society into categories.
By doing this the regime of Gilead is able to manipulate members of society to specific experiences of life. Depending on which category you belonged to would dictate the color of clothes you wore. Gilead being the totalitarian regime it was, made it a law that you must wear the color associated with your category to be easily identified by others. The men in Gilead are placed into one of four possible categories. These four categories in order of superiority are: Commanders of the Faithful, Eyes, Angels and Guardians. For the women of Gilead there are a few more categories than the men.
The women can be placed into one of the following categories: Wives, Daughters, Handmaids, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Unwomen and Jezebels. Whether you were the scum of society (Jezebels) or the elite (Wives), the life experiences which members of Gilead experienced were dictated by their category. Being a Handmaid meant you were under constant surveillance by the Eyes when you were not locked up in the Commanders house. Handmaids were used for one specific function in Gilead, to reproduce for the Commander and his wife.
Offred would have pointless, loveless and speechless sex with the Commander while the wife would sit and watch. If a Handmaid was unable to produce a child after six years they would be categorized as Unwomen and sent away to experience life in the polluted colonies. Dictatorship is a characteristic associated with totalitarianism and can be seen early on in the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” as each individual’s life experiences would be manipulated by Gilead depending on the category they belonged to.
Totalitarian ruled societies attempt to manipulate, steal or remove past memories of a time before the current state of power. “The Gilead regime’s assault on personal and social memory has created an almost unbridgeable chasm between the unstable signifier of Offred’s memories and the signified of past reality” (Finigan 441). Offred claims that her memories have been confiscated by Gilead. Atwood writes “His face was beginning to fade” (104) as she is talking about Offred’s memories of her husband Luke.
Outlooks such as this let the reader know that Offred is becoming a victim of the current totalitarian state as her memories prior to the regime of Gilead are fading. Even memories of one’s own self tend to get lost as Atwood writes about Offred forgetting her own selfhood “I have trouble remembering what I used to look like” (143). On the same page Offred describes herself as “I am thirty-three years old. ”, “I have brown hair, I stand five seven without shoes. ”, “I have viable ovaries. ” and “I have one more chance.
This leads the reader to believe that Offred is almost like a human robot which has been given a name and positioned into a category depending on the abilities of her body. Offred’s memory of having a personality and free mind is being stripped from her by the totalitarianism of Gilead. In a totalitarian society there is an attempt to rewrite or destroy history that does not meet the expectations of the new sanctioned version. While the book “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a fictional book which totalitarianism takes place, a real life example of this is the actions of Joseph Stalin.
One the motions Stalin put forth was the effort to rewrite the history of the Russian Revolution to try and leave his legacy behind as a significant leader during the revolution (McDermott 7). In “The Handmaid’s Tale” the time before the creation of Gilead, there were different laws and some actions were considered legal, specifically abortion. In chapter six Offred and Ofglen pass by the “Wall” where executed bodies of people who committed crimes would be on display to enforce the power of Gilead.
The significance behind these men who were hung was that they were executed for something that was legal (abortion) at the time, but under the new Gilead laws it was illegal and therefore punishable. This is a perfect example of a society following totalitarianism as history was manipulated and abortion had always been a crime against Gilead. Also in this chapter, Atwood writes “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. (34)
While seeing the executed men hang may seem like a brutal form of torture to Offred, as the years go on and the continued totalitarian dominance of Gilead is in power, future generations will accept this punishment for criminals because they do not know any better and grew up in a time where something like this was acceptable. The manipulation of time is another controlling aspect in the Republic of Gilead. Offred gives insight a couple times that she has given up on resisting and accepts her place in time. “But that’s where I am, there’s no escaping it. Time’s a trap, I’m caught in it.
I must forget about my secret name and all ways back. My name is Offred now, and here is where I live. Live in the present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got” (Atwood 143). At this point Offred seems to be falling into the totalitarian regime and becoming just another obeying member of society. Offred continues to lose faith that she will ever escape and is in a futile state of time when she says “I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power” (Atwood 286). Another indicator claiming the regime is too powerful to overcome.
Adding to the futileness is that Offred only knows of one woman to escape (Moria) and she was caught and placed in the Jezebel (prostitute) category. Totalitarianism plays a major role in “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood as throughout the novel the reader witnesses the manipulation done by the Republic of Gilead to alter the members of societies’ life experiences, time, memory and history. Placing people into specific categories, re-writing history, making individuals feel they are stuck in a futile state of time and stripping away memories are all part of the plan for Gilead to have full, total control over a society.