The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic fantasy set in the future of the USA, which has been renamed ‘the Republic of Gilead’. Atwood paints a brutal nightmare centred on the status, roles and function of women as divided in Gilead, into biblical types: ‘Wives’, ‘Marthas’ and ‘Handmaids’ or ‘ambulatory wombs’. Individuality is removed, like possessions, including names. Offred, is in the possessive - ‘of’ ‘Fred’. No part of the name, like the room in which she resides, is hers. The narrator refuses to say ‘my room’ as if she refuses to belong to this world which allows her no belongings. In the ‘sitting room’, she may not ‘sit’. She exists on the edges of language, forbidden to read, hungry for meaning – to mean something. In the Red Centre, the women rebel by whispering ‘names’, seeking ‘touch’. Intimacy is dangerous. Offred says, there were ‘spaces’ deliberately so ‘we could not talk’. Later she says she won’t ‘tempt’ the Martha to friendship as if it were an evil, and describes the voice by comparing it to ‘a traveller coming from a distant place.’ The total lack of intimacy isolates the Handmaids completely, and is one of the most disturbing elements of the novel.
Even the smallest power is strictly controlled: there is little the women ‘can’ do and the word is rarely used, most noticeably where Offred uses it to describe suicide. Here, even the possibility of suicide is removed. She seems to accept Gilead’s dictates when she says to herself ‘Thought must be rationed’. Fear controls even thought, the most chilling form of control there is. Subjunctives for possibilities, like ‘could’ and ‘would’ are most commonly used in the negative. Here, possibilities are strictly controlled: there is only what ‘is’ ‘allotted’ and what is ‘forbidden’. What to us seems a ‘prison’, in Aunt Lydia’s teaching is reversed into ‘privilege’. Women now are allowed ‘freedom from’, not ‘freedom