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- Language as a tool of power is a recurring motif throughout Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood envisioned a dystopian future based on George Orwell’s 1984 but chose to imagine the story from the perspective of a feminine protagonist named Offred. Gilead, the fictitious totalitarian theocracy formed from the remnants of the United States uses its regime’s control of the media to dictate a narrative whereby the failings of their society are scapegoated unto the ‘’unGodly’’ which turn the majority of its citizens complacent in the regime and its brutal feudality. Offred alludes to this by saying “Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations”. Gilead’s use of the media and control of the media (and thus language) to control the masses eerily resembles both 1984’s ‘Newspeak’ and more recently President Trump’s use of ‘fake news’ to dismiss anything critical of himself. The control of language goes further than just control of the media as in Gilead, the women fall into 4 main caste-like rankings as Handmaids, Wives, Marthas and Aunts which limit women to distinct roles with no progression or self-determination while also serving to dehumanising them. This is shown by the protagonist’s name, Offred, which dehumanises her into possessed property as she is ‘Of-Fred’. Her name can also be viewed as wordplay on the word Offered, as Offred has been offered to the commander as his unpaid & state-sponsored concubine. The lower-caste women in Gilead, such as the Handmaids and Marthas also have no access to Education and therefore are mostly unable to read or write. This exclusionary use of language to deny the Handmaids a way of communication with each other also limits their ability to assemble and revolt against the Gilead Republic. Men on the other hand are labelled by their Military rank within the theocracy, although retaining their name too. This use of authoritarian titles strongly juxtaposes the women who have sub-human titles and roles in the patriarchal society of Gilead. Atwood uses her book as a form of social commentary based around key moments from her timeline, namely the Civil rights movement and Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, Roe v Wade in the 1970s and the anti-women policies of Reagan-ism of the 1980s. Much like Gilead, those in a position of power or benefit from the regime became complacent via the use of fearmongering and control of the narrative while those who were disenfranchised were mostly unable to have a say in the matter. Offred voices this frustration as ‘’Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently’’ which sums up the proverbial glass-ceiling of expression.
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