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Food as a Control Mechanism in Handmaid's Tale
Food traditionally represents comfort, security, and family. We recall the traditional concept of comfort food and the large family dinners in Norman Rockwell's piece Freedom from Want. However, for many, food is also a serious, and potentially damaging, method of control. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are classic examples of psychological syndromes, related to control, that express themselves with eating disorders. Prisoners of war are denied food as the most basic method of torture and control. Like all humans, Offred, the main character of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, finds that food is a central and important feature of life.
Food has many meanings in the novel, nourishment, fertility, and luxury; however, this paper will focus on food as a control mechanism of Gilead's government. First, page 11 in the novel introduces tokens,î which are the method of payment for food in Gilead. Tokens do not have any writing on them at all, only basic pictures. Here it is important to recognize that handmaids, and all respectable women, in Gilead are not allowed to read. Gilead has biblical mandate for this rule, without doubt, yet the most significant aspect of the rule is its use as a control mechanism. Women are denied the power of knowledge, and hopefully, from the government's perspective, women will eventually lose all ability to gain any knowledge that is not fed to them. We see this same idea expressed on pages 25 and 27 when Offred described the storefronts. All the stores, but specifically the food markets, no longer have written names and signs. The names of these stores are all expressed using rudimentary pictures. As an example, a wooden sign with three eggs, a bee, and a cow indicates Milk and Honey. There is further significance of the tokens mentioned above. Because handmaids must use these tokens to purchase food, they have no choice or free will regarding food at this stage. The food they pick up at the store will be based purely on the tokens that have been given to them, they will hand these tokens to a man behind the counter, and he will hand her the food. It is very simple and extremely passive.
The limitation of free will using tokens is expounded upon when Offred realizes that Milk and Honey has oranges, a rare luxury. Offred is longing for one of these fruits yet cannot have it because she doesn't have a token for it (25).
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Offred, even at this nescient period of Giladean control, as picked up on food's power and her reaction to the oranges represents this molding of her mind. The next day, Offred tells Rita, the cook of her household, about the oranges at Milk and Honey The interchange that ensues is a traditional grapple with power. ìI hold out this idea like an offering. I wish to ingratiate myself,î Offred indicates to the reader ñ showing that she sees this bit of information about food as a tool, to be manipulated. She adds, yesterday she [Rita] was too grumpy. We see that it is not simple desire for the oranges driving this conversation. Rita's response: Rita grunts & she'll think about it, the grunt says, in her own sweet time. Offred seems confident that Rita feels similarly excited about the oranges but is determined to maintain the upper hand in the exchange of information. After all, she is the woman, at least superficially, in charge of food.
The examples above demonstrate the general control that is exercised over the population using food. However, a more specific type of control, over female fertility, is demonstrated during the description of a dinner served to Offred. The dinner is not remarkable, and this feature alone is important. We can only speculate regarding the specific goals of these bland meals; perhaps it is the denial of the pleasure and sensuality of a flavorful meal or perhaps it is the importance of monotony as a way of highlighting inferiority. Regardless, it is about control. The meal is mandatory and Offred, like all handmaids, is expected to eat all that she is served. If she does not eat, the other people in the house must report it because she is jeopardizing the future of Gilead. You must be a worthy vessel (65).
The food motif in Handmaid's can be found throughout the book but the examples above clearly demonstrate the importance of food as a control mechanism throughout the entire work. The government of Gilead consistently and systematically used food in order to exert control over all citizens, but especially women and most importantly, handmaids.