Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

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I Tell, Therefore I Am

In Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, women are subjected to unthinkable oppression. Practically every aspect of their life is controlled, and they are taught to believe that their only purpose is to bear children for their commander. These “handmaids” are not allowed to read, write or speak freely. Any type of expression would be dangerous to the order of the Gilead’s strict society. They are conditioned to believe that they are safer in this new society. Women are supposedly no longer exploited or disrespected (pornography, rape, etc.) as they once were. Romantic relationships are strongly prohibited because involving emotion would defeat the handmaid’s sole purpose of reproducing. Of course not all women who were taken into Gilead believed right what was happening to their way of life. Through the process of storytelling, remembering, and rebellion, Offred and other handmaids cease to completely submit to Gilead’s repressive culture.

“We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we would stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths.” (Atwood, p4) The handmaids whisper to each other to exchange information. They engage in this conversation to keep alive the nature of relationships between people. It is very lonely for these women, for they cannot say what is on their mind, they are only allowed pre-approved phrases from Gilead’s authorities Without this contact it would be impossible for the women to reminisce and be comforted. Another way of keeping the past real to Offred is to remember old stories from before the revolution. She spends a lot of her time thinking about her husband Luke and how the city used to look before, “Lilies used to be a movie theater here, before. Students went there a lot; every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival with Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their own minds” (Atwood, 25). These small rebellions that Offred and other handmaids participate in are very significant. The simple fact that they choose to engage in these insurgences shows that they still cling on to their more just and free past. They still have a notion of truth and are keeping it alive. Having these passions and feelings causes the structure of Gilead to truly not work, and will probably (The Handmaid’s Tale was left open ended) lead to its demise.

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Because of Offred’s need to remember what intimacy and closeness feels like she engages in a sexual relationship with Nick. She takes chances at night, sneaking into his room, knocking on his door softly, in order to experience sexuality again, “We make love each time as if we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever” (Atwood, 269).

These women are like the poets in Plato’s Republic, whom Socrates fears would end the success of his state. If people were to indulge in passions (which the women are told not to, such as believing in romantic love) the people would be ruled by desires, not laws, “And if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law” (The Republic, p290, ln 607 a-b). And so these handmaids of Gilead bring with them stories from their past and memories of romantic and sisterly love, which prohibits them from total subservience to the restrictive state. The visual process: Finding images to compliment my writing was very satisfying. I found the process unproblematic and ended up finding images that were practically exact to what I had envisioned. The process of choosing photos to enhance and dictate my writing left me feeling that my work was more thoroughly complete and aesthetically stimulating.

To find images I would type in key words, such as, conversation, restriction, story, etc., into Google Image search. What I found were many paintings and sketches with vibrant colors. I wanted no real photographs (of actual people and objects) because I wanted to portray a more imaginative, surreal feeling, which is what the Handmaid’s tale is (far-fetched). The bright colors of most of my images sharply juxtapose the rigid nature of the Gilead society, and depict the passion of the handmaid’s acts. I chose the image (with many vibrant colors) of women conversing to illustrate the liberating nature of speech. Contrastingly I chose a girl behind bars to demonstrate the restrictive Gilead culture against women. The image of the two people embracing hit me as particularly strong. The two people are in love (which is strictly prohibited, but is still alive in the minds and actions of Offred) and there is a red shadow around them (which I added myself through PhotoShop). This is significant because throughout the Handmaid’s Tale, the color red is a reoccurring motif. Red depicts the supposed sexual sin of the Handmaid’s (which is an allusion used from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter). Red is the color of the handmaids dresses, and is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. It alludes to the religious sinfulness of promiscious sexuality and their relationship with the "married" commander.


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