Language’s influence on control and rebellion in Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale"

Language as a means of power

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The social hierarchy in the dystopian state of Gilead

3. Language and power in Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of power

4. Language as a means of power in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
4.1. Language and governmental control
4.1.1. The Red-Center, a brainwashing institution
4.1.2. Restricted literacy
4.1.3. Restricted oral communication: Forbidden words, fixed expressions, silence
4.1.4. Taking names
4.1.5. Psychological split
4.2. Language as a means of resistance
4.2.1. Reflections on words and meanings
4.2.2. The coexistence of two discourses and its impact on the power relationship between Offred and the Commander
4.2.3. The power of words and naming
4.2.4. A compromised resistance
4.2.5. Resistance through storytelling

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most famous writers and achieved first international critical acclaim with her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The feminist dystopia joins the ranks of a 20th century’s literary phenomenon that protrudes from other genres due to its great discontentment with the current. Typically, dystopias would reverse all perceptions of the ideal of a utopian state creating a near-future scenario “voicing humankind’s deepest fears” (Mohr 28). At the same time, it would indicate close connections between our current society and the dystopic, fictional one, which would be displayed as a “place [...] in which everything is as bad as possible” (qtd. in Butler 45). (Mohr 27-28, 229)

Naturally, there are several characteristics considered prototypical for such dystopic societies. For instance, there is a clear tendency towards depicting states of totalitarianism, which then again maintain their total power by various typical means, such as constant surveillance and violence. According to this, Atwood’s novel applies to many of the typical characteristics, since it takes place in the near-future totalitarian theocracy of Gilead. This fictional state is located in today’s U.S. and is portrayed as the outcome of North America’s present sociopolitical tendencies. Gilead displays clear power structures, which are, for instance, secured by the exemplifying power instruments surveillance and violence. (27, 32-33, 234)

However, it is not only such direct forms of control that help to maintain the social hierarchy within the state of Gilead. Gilead also manipulates, and even redefines language to oppress its people’s resistance and to render power possible. Yet, its new discourse is not able to restrict language in such a way that it would effectively lose its power among all those opposed to the a. Instead, language can also enable the government’s opponents to undermine the authorities.

So, overall, Atwood utilized Gilead’s oppressive manipulation of language in The Handmaid’s Tale to reveal the hierarchical dynamics of power in the theocratic state. Therefore, it is vital to determine in how far Gilead’s discourse is used to maintain the existing power structures, but also whether, and if so, in how far it is used to offer resistance against the state’s rigid hierarchy.

Therefore, it will first be analyzed what Gilead’s social structure looks like, before the highly original thoughts of Pierre Bourdieu on the relations among language, power and politics will be introduced to facilitate a real understanding of the correlation of language and power. After that, a closer look at the concrete content of the novel and particular text passages will give an insight into how the Gileadean power structures are maintained through the use of language. Following this, it will then be analyzed how language also enables Gilead’s opponents, in general, but mainly, the novel’s first-person narrator Offred, in particular, to offer resistance. Therefore, it will first be described how the coexistence of two discourses can be a threat to the system, before it will be dealt with Offred’s main means of resistance: her storytelling.

2. The social hierarchy in the dystopian state of Gilead

As mentioned before, there is a rigid power structure in the theocratic totalitarian state Gilead. Its whole society lives according to a clearly defined social hierarchy, within which one must especially acknowledge the strict segregation of men and women. Just like people of religious faiths other than Christianity and people with a non-white ethnical background, women are strictly marginalized within Gilead’s patriarchal system. (Mohr 234-235)

While men, who, in general, monopolize all power, do have a certain upward mobility, women can only be moved downwards within the highly stratified social classes. Id est, the Guardians, who belong to the lowest social class among all male citizens, have a good chance to become Angels, then Eyes and, ultimately, even Commanders one day. In contrast, women are assigned to certain social functions, which they are supposed to perform for a lifetime. Only those, who fail to fulfill their purpose will be downgraded to become an “Unwoman”. That is, they would then be deported to the Gileadean Colonies, where they are supposed to clean up toxic waste. Their life expectancy would shrink to only four more years. (245)

The ideal that the theocratic state wishes to achieve through these structures is the “imitation of the biblical land of Jacob and Laban, where Jacob restored hope and fertility with the help of a few Handmaids” (Steals 455). Namely, because the “Gileadean society was under a good deal of [demographic] pressure” (Atwood 315), it tries to counter the threatening low birth rate by controlling its people’s reproduction completely. Hence, Handmaids, like the protagonist and first-person narrator Offred, must undergo a monthly penetration ceremony to then serve as surrogate mothers for the infertile or sterile social elite.1

All in all, women’s specialized social functions are ascribed to them according to their fertility and are clearly marked by the color of a their uniform. While the sterile Commander’s Wives, who must be considered the female part of the social elite, wear blue uniforms; the unmarried, elderly Aunts, who indoctrinate and train the Handmaids, wear brown. The fertile Handmaids, whose only purpose is to bear children for the Commanders and their Wives, however, wear red. Furthermore, widows are dressed in black, Unwomen in grey, and Marthas, who are responsible for domestic chores, are assigned to wear green. In turn, the striped dresses of the Econowives, the poor, low-class women, indicate the different reproduction abilities within this social group. Here, the uniform clothing already displays how much the state of Gilead fosters collectivism for to minimize any sense of individuality among its citizens. (Mohr 245)

At the same time, any kind of interaction between the social classes comes with a certain threat. Friendships count as suspicious and communication between the individuals is limited by “the total codification of human interaction in Gilead” (Cojocaru 255). The individuals are isolated, communication between the various social strata, especially between those of women, is deliberately discouraged. (255-256, Mohr 246)

This highly stratified system with its collectivism and isolated individuals is not only maintained due to governmental means such as the strict segregation of the sexes, surveillance and public rituals of violence against state offenders; also, media propaganda, brainwashing and a special linguistic code help to perpetuate the totalitarianism of Gilead. Therefore, in chapter 4.1. it will be analyzed further, in how far the hierarchal society is established and sustained due to language and discourse. Yet, before, it is certainly useful to first enable a better understanding of the correlation of language, power and politics in general. Therefore, the thoughts of the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu will be introduced in the following.

3. Language and power in Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of power

Unlike many other linguistic approaches, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of power emphasizes that “language is not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge, but also an instrument of power” (qtd. in Thompson 1984, 46).

Accordingly, Bourdieu states that the structure of each linguistic market - that is, of every space in which “two or more speakers exchange expressions” (49) - is basically “a certain state of the relation of force between the agents or groups engaged in the struggle; or, more precisely, a certain state of distribution of the specific capital” (49). The capital within a linguistic market is referred to as linguistic capital, which Thompson defines as “the competence to produce grammatically well-formed expressions [and] the capacity to produce expressions [...] for a particular market” (50). (49-50)

Furthermore, Bourdieu claims, that a linguistic system and its pertinent linguistic differences reveal, in fact, the prevailing system of social disparities. That is, speakers differ in their linguistic capital, which displays their social position within a class-divided society. So, for instance, the use of certain vocabulary is socially marked, and indicates the speaker’s social role. (51, Thompson 2017, 223)

The more linguistic capital a speaker possesses, the more he can “exploit the system of differences to [his] advantage and [...] secure a profit of distinction” (Thompson 1984, 51)2

Thus, Bourdieu claims that speakers do not only acquire the usual linguistic competences, but also the so called practical competence, which enables them to exploit language in such a way that it serves various functions and can, for instance, be adjusted to create a certain relation of power between interlocutors. (46)

One strategy, facilitated by one’s practical competence, would, for instance, be the strategy of condescension, in which the speaker negates any objective relation of force within language and thereby exploits the linguistic hierarchy for his or her own profit. (Thompson 2017, 224)

Another strategy worth mentioning is the strategy of gift exchange: The more powerful subject makes a generous gift, to which the recipient cannot offer an appropriate counter-gift. Thereby, he creates an obligatory relationship and promotes his own power over the interlocutor, while disguising it as an act of generosity. (230-231)

So, naturally, he does not achieve this power by using any form of overt violence, but by so called symbolic violence. “Symbolic violence [...] is the exercise of domination through communication in such a way that the domination is misrecognized as such and thereby recognized as legitimate” (Thompson 1984, 59). That is, the exercise of power relies on the common belief in the discourse’s legitimacy of those, who have established the linguistic norm and those, who benefit least from it. The latter ones express their consent, submit themselves to the symbolic violence. (Thompson 2017, 229)

They do so, for instance, when they take certain power constellations into account before or while expressing themselves in front of others. They try to evaluate the given balance of power and then, accordingly, modify and correct their utterances and style. - They practice self­censorship and, thereby, clearly acknowledge the linguistic hierarchy’s legitimacy. At this point it must also be mentioned that, especially in case of major discrepancies, it takes a great effort to evaluate what can be said, and what must be censored. (225-229)

Moreover, according to Bourdieu, symbolic force is already reproduced as soon as speakers, who do not possess the standardized code, collaborate by adopting some of its criteria to assess their own and other’s linguistic expressions. And even those who are condemned to silence due to not possessing the official language, obviously recognize this language’s legitimacy. After all, by not speaking, they submit to the given standards. (Thompson 1984, 45-46)

Furthermore, Bourdieu states that symbolic violence is often sustained by institutions such as educational systems, which additionally foster the misrecognition of the symbolic violence as such. Thus, symbolic force can easily be kept invisible as it lies in its nature that it can only work with “the complicity of everyone involved” (56). (56-57)

4. Language as a means of power in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

4.1. Language and governmental control

Many, if not most of Bourdieu’s thoughts can be applied to Gilead’s social system and its linguistic standards, too. However, it must be kept in mind, that unlike most official languages, Gilead’s discourse did not simply develop over time but has been established deliberately for the use of propaganda and brainwashing by the Gileadean regime. Id est, in Gilead language is actively manipulated to be abused as an instrument of power that helps to oppress and to silence.

“The governing discourse of the absolutist state is an artificial, so-called Biblical speech. In the theocracy, a metaphysics of truth reigns that conveys the full presence of meaning in what is said to be the Word of God” (Steals 457). The newly legitimized meaning system replaces all polysemous linguistic units by homogenous elements, so that there is never more than one meaning connected to one word.

4.1.1. The Red-Center, a brainwashing institution

Naturally, with the new state of Gilead special institutions have been created to further the misrecognition of symbolic power within its society. The most important of these institutions is the so-called Rachel and Leah Re-education Center (in short: Red-Center), which is responsible for the reeducation and training of the Handmaids.

Here, brainwashing practices like “Testifying” are performed, in which the Handmaids are coerced into the self-accusation of having committed sexual crimes like rape or abortion. Mainly, their confessions are provoked and accompanied by the repetitive chanting of the other

Handmaids; for example, when Janine confesses that she was gang-raped: “Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams. [...] She did. She did. She did.” (Atwood 82), they verbalize and believe, as first-person narrator Offred admits: “We meant it, which is the bad part” (82). Here, the effects of Gilead’s propagandist reeducation mechanisms become evident. The Handmaids internalize their doctrines, come to truly believe them. According to Bourdieu, these strategies must be understood as intentional means to further the misrecognition of the state’s symbolic power. After all, this “gentle [...] form of violence” (Thompson 1984, 56) can only exist if everyone involved is an accomplice. (Mohr 247)

4.1.2. Restricted literacy

Mostly, the biblical teachings, which built the basis of the theocratic state and, thus, are the core content of brainwashing practices, are imparted by audiotapes that play prayers and biblical passages read out to the women. This auditive approach is vital since there is a “gender-specific restriction [imposed] on literacy” (Mohr 33). After all, reading and writing generally foster independent education processes and communication between the individuals, and are, therefore, considered a direct threat to the misogynist totalitarian system.

So, while literacy is already highly hierarchized among men, and only Commanders have full access to it, it is actually criminalized for women. Only the Aunts, who collaborate with the patriarchal system and lead the Red-Centers, are allowed to read if necessary. Preferably, however, they would also rely on audiotapes. (234-235)

Accordingly, in the early years of Gilead, reading materials such as books and magazines have first been heavily censored, then burned in order to render reading and writing impossible. All former written signs have been replaced by pictograms, and even the Bible, the holy book on whose literal interpretation the theocratic state is based on, is locked away. Only the Commanders have access to it and read it out in the Nights of Ceremony.

As already mentioned, the Bible is read in its most literal meaning, and biblical contents are - just like any other sources of information - manipulated in such a way that they support Gilead’s ideological premises and legal framework. “The state cynically selects the texts which it privileges to authorize its political control, and promulgates religious rituals” (Stein 62). So, for instance, the passage of Genesis 29-30, the story of Leah and Rachel, is deliberately decontextualized and serves as justification for the “state-sanctioned rape, [and] the impregnation ceremony the Handmaids must undergo each month” (61).


1 This practice is based on the biblical passage Genesis 29-30, on which the theocratic state is built upon: “Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (qtd. in Atwood 99). Jacob’s two wives Leah and Rachel are competing over who will bear him the most children. For to outperform the other, they both coerce their handmaids to function as surrogate mothers. (Cojocaru 253, Steals 455)

2 “The modes of expressions which receive the greatest value and secure the greatest profit are those which are most unequally distributed, both in the sense that the conditions for the acquisition of the capacity to produce them are restricted and in the sense that the expressions themselves are rare” (Thompson 1984, 51).

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Language’s influence on control and rebellion in Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale"
Language as a means of power
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Language, power, Handmaid's Tale, Handmaid, Handmaids Tale, Tale, Atwood, Margaret, Canada, author, control, rebellion, red-center, red, dress, social hierarchy, social, hierarchy, Pierre, Bourdieu, words, silence, names, psychological split, psychology, resistance, storytelling, tolan, resist, rebell, submission, submit, dystopia, gilead, feminism, internalize, offred, ofglen, of, and, love, commander, go, but, could, exploit, importance, linguistic, speech, read
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Ronja Thiede (Author), 2018, Language’s influence on control and rebellion in Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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