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The Use of Language in the Handmaid's Tale

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Ben Anthony

on 9 October 2013

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Transcript of The Use of Language in the Handmaid's Tale

Language and Power in The Handmaid's Tale
The Fun Stuff
- Try to argue to your desk partner
why you should have freedom of speech
why your sport of choice is superior
why you should not have to live in a theocratic dictatorship like Gilead
- CATCH: the defendant cannot use the letter "S"
- Use of the letter S will result in punishment
Offred's Narration
- Contrast of language used in Gileadean Era and the language used the Pre-Gileadean Era
-Use of language to demonstrate suppression from theocratic government
- The power found in certain phrases
Freedom of Speech
- Certain roles not restricted in language they can use
Wives
Commanders
--> Freedom of speech gives them power
- Other roles restricted in how they converse with each other
Handmaids
--> Accepted greetings and responses
--> Restricting their speech gives the government power
Language between Characters
Language
Store Names
- All Flesh
- Daily Bread
- Loaves and Fish

- Clear biblical references
- Reinforces feeling of theocratic dictatorship
Role Names
Dialogue
Religious Language
- used throughout the book extensively
- helps maintain theocratic dictatorship
- certain individuals are forced to use it in certain conversations
- certain individuals not bound by it

- power is created throughout the book by:
freedom of speech
religious language
language between characters
Offred's language
key phrases/words
- power is created for
Giladean government
Offred
between certain characters

- "'Blessed be the fruit'
- 'May the Lord open'
- 'The war is going well, I hear'
- 'Praise be'
- 'We've been sent good weather'
- 'Which I receive with joy'" (Atwood 19)

Freedom of speech is taken away
Limiting what certain roles can say creates fear
Afraid of punishments for saying the wrong thing
Mass hysteria creates power
Individuals become brainwashed by standard conversations, become mindless followers after a while
- Jezebels
- Marthas
- Guardians
- Angels
Again, highly religious references to reinforce theocracy
- Assigned names for Handmaids
Sense of identity is taken, gives feeling of ownership to government
Pre-Gileadean vs. Gileadean
Comparing and contrasting between Offred's memories of her previous life and her current life demonstrates to what extent the government has taken over and how much power they possess over Gilead.
-slang words and profanity are used

-conversations are informal

-free speech is encouraged and allowed for all members of society
-conversations revolve around biblical references

-conversations are formal and often predetermined

- Free speech is prohibited for certain members of society
Pre-Gileadean
Gileadean
Examples from the Text demonstrating Pre-Gileadean Conversation
"Large as life and twice as ugly, Moira whispers back."

"Date rape, I said. You're so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date Rape."

"Chauvinist pig, she'd say." (Atwood 121)




Questions/Discussion
Who does language give more power to, the government or Offred?

Is controlling language (freedom of speech) the most effective way to create/maintain power? Is there a more effective way?

What similarities do you see between Offred and the Commander's conversations and Offred and Moira's conversations?


Examples from Text demonstrating Gileadean Conversation
Moira and Offred
- secular conversing (forbidden for them)
- meeting up in the bathroom
- power is created between them because they can use language in a forbidden way
- having history together gives them the advantage of having a stronger connection through their language
“God, do I need a cigarette” (Atwood 73)
Aunt Lydia and Janine
- Aunts' language is extremely over powering
- they use negative tones towards positive things ex. " Love " (Atwood 220)
- Use language to belittle things like relationships, freedoms, etc.
- very condescending, ex. "What you don't know won't tempt you " (Atwood 195).
- brainwash

- Aunt Lydia tells Janine about Moira's escape
- Janine is given power (knows something she shouldn't)
- Janine passes that power onto the other handmaids by sharing this information (trickle down effect)
"' Under His Eye,' she says. The right farewell."

"Blessed are the meek."

"'Blessed be the fruit,'she says to me, the accepted greeting among us." (Atwood 19)
Commander and Offred
- Scrabble
- Offred is given a form of literature which is forbidden
- She has something she isn't supposed to have, creates power for Offred
- Shared power
Freedom of Thought
-ability to think freely gives Offred power


- the power found in the freedom of thought allows the Handmaids to develop a sense of rebellion and retaliation.

- thoughts also explain how Offred really feels about her situation in Gilead.
Offred and Ofglen
- Before and after effect
- power of the government is still in control
- after "mayday" becomes in effect, a new power is created between them
- able to speak freely

ex. "'You can join us,' she says. 'Us?' I say. There is an us then there's a we. I knew it." (Atwood 168-169)
What did you learn?
- Even when a very small element of your language is removed it becomes very hard to create an effective argument
- Power is lost if you cannot speak your mind

Offred's Rebellious Thoughts
Significance of Quotes
Key Phrases
Mayday
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
- distress signal

- m'aidez

- use of language to form a resistance
- Mayday

- Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

- Use of language in Offred's thoughts to show the power and control Gilead has over Offred

- Comparison of the patriarchal, biblical language with the modernized and critical language

- Language in Offred's thoughts show the power and resistance she still possesses


- form of slang

-a phrase of resistance

- gives Offred a sense of power
" Language, as Atwood's narrator discovers, can oppress as well as express. " (Conboy 350)

"In the novel Atwood brilliantly juxtaposes the feminist project- the desire to 'steal language' of/from patriarchy- and the postmodern critique of language. The novel emphasizes the constraint and limitation Gilead imposes, and the narrators growing resistance." (Stein 269)


- Offred learns that language can both create and take power away from her

- Oppress, meaning the government

- Express, meaning how she explains events and her emotions in her thoughts
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