Slaves to Words:
The Role of Language in The Handmaid’s Tale
For centuries, “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been the adage du jour. Words do more damage than swords, spreading ideas instead of killing people. One dangerous little idea, passed among individuals, does more damage than any blade could ever do; few armies can hold out against strong ideas. In the state of Gilead, words mean everything, and they have the ultimate power. The women in Margaret Atwoods’ dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale have very limited avenues of communication. Of course they can speak amongst themselves somewhat; there are certain greeting rituals they perform whenever they meet, and sometimes they are allowed to respond to direct questions. But they are forbidden from reading and writing, identifying stores by the various pictures of the stores’ fare instead of by written names. The only contact with the written word that is allowed is during household ceremonies, where the man of the house reads a passage of the Bible. In tandem with this, the women are fed an endless cycle of ideas and words delineating what their roles are in this Gileadean society; whether Econowife, Handmaid, Martha, or even a Wife, women are exposed only to the propaganda drilled into them by the ruling male class. In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, language and verbal communication are the manifestations of power, representing to the women both a tool of repression and an aspect of freedom.
The primary tool of control used by the ruling class in Gilead is the restriction of communication. As much as people disappear or are “salvaged,” the most powerful weapon of the men is their ability to control what women are told and, consequently, what and how they think. As women are not allowed to read or write, the only verbal communication they have (legally) is the excruciatingly ritualized little greeting ceremonies they go through with each other. Whenever Offred and Ofglen go for their shopping...
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