This style, however, does allow strong emotive expression which assists in making meaning of the society from her own perspective. Essentially, Offred’s identity is based around survival in negative circumstances. Every characteristic of her life evolves in order to provide conditions in which to preserve her own sense of integrity. One example is her reaction to her name, stating that she will “keep the knowledge of [her] name like something hidden, some treasure [she’ll] come back to dig up” -p 94.
By clinging to her previous name, she is able to maintain a part of her previous identity. Initially, she is portrayed as strong willed and resistive to Gilead’s ideologies, responding to the phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – p62”, or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down. ” Ultimately, however, Offred’s identity is affected by her circumstances. Her own core values are corrupted, expressed through her frequent liaisons both with the Commander and with Nick (“this forbidden room where I have never been, where women do not go” – p146).
In effect she is rebelling against the controls placed upon her by society, she is also, however, corrupting her own promise to be faithful to her lost husband Luke, who she hopes to see once again. The circumstances of her existence have changed her outlook on life. By employing a rigid hierarchal system, with militaristic-type control, citizens of Gilead, in particular the handmaids, have very little spatial freedom. Offred’s room provides only the basic facilities required to survive: “A chair, a table, a lamp… a window, two curtains… a bed.
Single mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing else takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep… the window only opens partly and is shatterproof. I live, I breathe. ” – pp17, 18 This description provides a military or prison-type clinical atmosphere. There is a lack of beauty, comfort or choice – a direct reflection of the society in which she exists. The Handmaid’s every movement is tracked through the use of passes and ‘compuchecks’ in an attempt to control their access to the rest of society (“We produce our passes…
they are inspected and stamped” – p31). Ironically, handmaids are also considered ‘sacred’ (“these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women” – p32) and can only associate with certain caste groups in certain ways. This ‘protection of assets’ is a form of censorship. In effect by controlling the Handmaid’s movements the Gilead government are able to control their response to the society in which they exist. Psychological control perhaps plays the largest part in influencing the lives of the Handmaids, and indeed Offred.
Almost every aspect of a Handmaid’s life are censored, controlled or produced by the Gilead government. News programs are produced by the authorities, providing the opportunity to develop whichever ideologies they require of the people who watch them: “Any news, now, is better than none… They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?… What [the announcer is] telling us… is for our own good… He tells us what we long to believe
Metonyms and rhyme emphasising the Gilead ideologies are integrated into everyday life in an attempt to normalise the fundamentalist society in which they exist. The Handmaid’s names are changed, reflecting the ultimate loss of power (“My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses no because it’s forbidden. ” – p94). By making common communication a misdemeanour, the authorities attempt to detract from any power that the handmaids hold, and, with the inability to confer amongst their peers, handmaids are more likely to accept the values that the Gilead society imposes upon them.
In addition to the vast physical and psychological control structures, the Gilead government also exercises enormous control over the sexuality of women, most extraordinarily in the case of the handmaids. No longer is sexuality viewed as a consequence of romance, passion or desire but rather as a matter of duty: “… the Commander is fucking… I do not say making love because this is not what he is doing… It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance… It has nothing to do with sexual desire… The Commander… is doing his duty” – p104 – 105.
The core duty of the handmaids is that of a fertilisation receptacle, replacing the physical inability of the Wives to produce children. In this sense Atwood explores the division between the physical act of having sex, and the emotional experience of lovemaking. Gilead society practices only the former, with true emotion unable to exist within the strict hierarchal structure that has been created. The differences between physical and emotional sexuality are evidenced when Offred is taken by the Commander to Jezebels, essentially a prostitution centre.
Despite the apparent informal atmosphere, the vast difference in class between the genders sees women effectively sexually enslaved to the Commanders. Rather than being an enjoyable social event for both partners, the ultimate objective seems to be to allow the Commanders to ‘show off’ their property, and experience sex as an enjoyable experience rather than the clinical procedure which they are forced to perform at home; (“You can’t cheat Nature… Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy.
It’s Nature’s plan” – p249). The Handmaids, conversely, have very little choice. They difference in class and power between themselves and the Commanders leaves them little choice but to fulfil their wishes. The lack of emotional contact within Gilead society also sees Offred’s own personal sexuality develop unnaturally. Her decision to visit Nick for discreet sexual liaisons develops as a result of physical necessity rather than emotional attraction (“No preliminaries, he knows why I’m here.
To get knocked up, to get in trouble” – p273) in this way she develops a greater sense of power by being able to choose when to meet Nick and also by having some say in what they do together. Quite far from being a mutual relationship it is merely a power struggle in an attempt to receive physical contentment for both parties. Due to the caste structures, women and men are prevented from having equal and mutual relationships.
The value systems and ideologies employed by the Gilead society develop a cultural identity based around a patriarchal hierarchy of identity, power, control and sexuality. Towards the top of the hierarchy, the Commanders are free to exhibit many of their personality traits and ideas that contribute towards their own unique identity. This is in contrast to the removal of identity towards the bottom of the hierarchal structure, with the Handmaids being forced to mask all their physical, emotional and psychological attributes with those developed by the rulers of Gilead.
Power is also distributed disproportionately throughout the various caste structures, with the Commanders having the majority of power within the society and the Handmaids essentially having none. This disproportioned power structure between each gender in turn leads to the development of unnatural relationships developing, with love and desire surpassed by physical sexual activity. Ultimately Atwood’s dystopia of Gilead portrays the negative consequences an unbalanced patriarchal hierarchy can have and that disjointed power structures result in a disjointed society.