Control, Resistance and Hypocrisy in Gilead

Summer Pearce
Slide Set by Summer Pearce, updated more than 1 year ago
Summer Pearce
Created by Summer Pearce about 4 years ago


Overview of some of the key contextual factors within Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale.

Resource summary

Slide 1

    Control and Resistance
    Gilead is a highly stratified and ritualised society where the individual is tightly controlled by a totalitarian regime.  There are various ways in which Gilead controls its citizens, which are detailed in the following slides.

Slide 2

    Examples of punishment within the novel include the ritualised mass execution such as Salvaging (savage + salvation) and particicution (execution + participation), exile to Jezebel's or the Colonies, torture, or 'disappearance.' There is also the threat of cattle prods carried by the Aunts at the Red Centre and the guns carried by the Angels (note the irony of these names). Some of these punishments are intended to remove people from Gilead who are openly hostile to the regime, but many serve the double purpose of also acting as deterrents to the other rebels.  However, despite the exile to Jezebel's supposedly being a punishment, Moira says that she in fact prefers being in Jezebel's than to being a Handmaid.

Slide 3

    Rules and Routines
    The life of a Handmaid, in particular, is tightly structured and highly regulated. From Offred's descriptions, a typical day in the life of a Handmaid includes eating simple meals, perhaps going food shopping with a partner, and filling empty time, usually by taking a nap. At the most fertile point of a Handmaid's menstrual cycle, they are expected to participate in the Ceremony, where their Commander attempts to impregnate them. The Republic of Gilead also hosts Salvagings and Particicution ceremonies, which are compulsory for Handmaids to attend, as well as the mandatory Birth Days, when a baby will be born. The other citizens of Gilead, including those of high status, are also expected to conform to the certain routines and rituals, for example, the Wives must attend the Birth Days and Prayvaganzas as well, and the Commanders must also be present for the Ceremonies. In spite of the number of rules and regulations in Gilead, many of these rules are actually broken, ironically, often by those who are most influential in their establishment and enforcement. 

Slide 4

    All uniforms, by definition, identify groups of people but deny individuality. In Gilead, all its citizens, including Marthas, Wives, Handmaids and Commanders, are all given uniforms to wear. These groups of people also have a set of rules and regulations that they must follow at all times, under threat of extreme punishment, so in effect, the group they are a part of, which is identified by the uniform they wear, dictates how they must behave and what they are allowed to do. There is a detailed description of the Handmaid's uniform on page 96 (Vintage, '96 edition). Each item of clothing has a particular function; for instance, the headdress is 'to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.' The overall effect of the Handmaid's habit is that of a 'Sister, dipped in blood.' This is a particularly powerful image, as it reminds us of the religious influence and importance within the novel, but also that something is not quite right. The reference to the blood could be a representation of the threat of violence that all of Gilead's citizens are under if they behave incorrectly. This could also be an indirect referral to the importance of the menstrual cycle to the Handmaid's lives.

Slide 5

    Gilead has a strict hierarchy; Marthas, Commanders, Wives, Daughters, Unwomen, Handmaids, Guardians, Angels and Aunts all have to behave accordingly to their role and status.Higher status Commanders - head of the household, must partipate in Ceremonies and produce children, given authority (unclear about what) Wives - to produce children Aunts - to discipline and re-educate the future Handmaids Angels - guard the Red Centre, and ensure that Handmaids do not escape Guardians - posted at barriers, run shops, main function is crowd control Daughters - to marry and produce children once they reach 14 Marthas - to cook, clean, and run the household Handmaids - to produce children for a Commander and his Wife Unwomen - to clean up dead bodies and burn them (after battles) in places contaminated by radiation, perhaps some Colonies do agricultural work

Slide 6

    The Bible is used a means of justifying the Gileadean regime and its practices. e.g) the story of Rachel and Jacob is outlined in the first epigraph and is referred to throughout the novel as the basis for the relationship between Commanders, Handmaids and Wives in Gilead Another example is where Wives are allowed to hit Handmaids because there is a 'scriptural precedent' set for this. In fact, a lot of Biblical sayings are taken out of context, altered slightly or completely invented to justify Gilead's practices. However, the Handmaids themselves are not able to check the authenticity of these sayings because they are not allowed to read and 'the Bible is kept locked up... it is an incendiary device.'

Slide 7

    Subordination of Women
    The notion that women are inferior to men is central to Gilead's ideology and aspects of the Bible are used to justify this view. The Handmaids are valued only because they are able to reproduce (and they are blamed when they do not conceive because of their Commander's infertility). Note that they are often referred to as vessels or containers rather than as human beings. The use of patronyms in Gilead (Handmaids are only known by their Commander's names e.g. Of-Fred and Of-Warren) denies the Handmaids their own unique identity, making them literally anonymous and reinforcing their low status in Gilead. Perhaps Atwood is also satirising the practice of women being referred to as their husband's wives, rather than their names.

Slide 8

    Control of Communication
    Communication is tightly controlled in Gilead. The widespread use of propaganda and censorship means that the information that the Handmaids receive about war, amongst other things, is limited and unreliable. The written word is outlawed in Gilead for women and opportunities for Handmaids to talk other than in prescribed greetings and phrases (e.g. 'Blessed be the fruit', 'Let the Lord open.') are limited and closely monitored.

Slide 9

    Control of Relationships
    Mixed-sex relationships in Gilead have to be based on procreation rather than love. Having a homosexual relationship ('gender treachery') is punishable by death. Handmaids are not permitted friendship either with each other or with other character groups such as Marthas. The relationship between Wife, Commander and Handmaid is tightly regulated and focused on the monthly 'Ceremony' but is obviously still the cause of conflict, envy and bitterness for many.

Slide 10

    The Red Centre is a nickname for the 'Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre.' This is where the Handmaids are trained for their future role and indoctrinated into the ideology of Gilead. How are the Handmaids further indoctrinated in the houses of the Commanders?

Slide 11

    Obliteration of/Rewriting the Past
    Gileadean authorities respect only the parts of history which support their ideologies. Other aspects of history and even the Handmaids' personal experience are destroyed, ignored, or re-represented. For example, compare how the Aunts describe the freedom which the Handmaids supposedly had in 'the time before'; "There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't  underrate it." On page 128, Atwood describes the types of movies the Handmaids have to watch in the Red Centre, and what the Aunts say about them; "Consider the alternatives, said Aunt Lydia. You see what things used to be like? That was what they thought of women, then."

Slide 12

    There is an entire network of surveillance in place at Gilead which is partly made up of the men employed as Eyes (spies), and partly of the way the Handmaids are encouraged to spy on each other through the way they are partnered when not in the Commander's house. The description of Offred's room in Chapter Two also suggests that she is being watched. For instance, describes the ceiling; "a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the space in a face where the eye has been taken out." The 'blue irises' painting could also have a double meaning (irises of an eye as well as flowers). 

Slide 13

    Resistance in Gilead
    Resistance in Gilead takes place on many levels. Clearly the Mayday underground movement of which Ofglen is a member is the most organised, and possibly most effective form of resistance in Gilead, but there are also other, more subtle (but still risky) ways of resisting the regime which Offred herself carries out; Offred deliberately wiggles her hips in front of the Angel at the beginning of the novel; "It's like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach." She steals a daffodil to press under her mattress. She keeps butter to use as hand cream. She secretly meets Moira in the bathroom at the Red Centre.
    Arguably, the most important way in which Offred survives the restrictions of Gilead is through her mind which allows her to preserve her memories of her life in the time before and mock Gileadean authorities even though she can only do this freely in her head. Humour, story-telling and love are also important ways of resisting and these are vital to Offred's survival and sanity. Each of the characters has different ways of resisting Gilead: Ofglen is heroically part of a bold resistance movement, whilst Moira simply refuses to conform. Atwood is perhaps making the point that we would all react in different ways if put in the same harrowing situation. These women are going through something that is immensely restrictive and difficult, not to mention disturbingly harrowing, so they may be doing things that otherwise they might not. This links in with the epigraph excerpt from Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.

Slide 14

    Hypocrisy in Gilead
    Ironically, the Commander, who is presented as so important in establishing Gilead and its means of control, seems to break more of its rules than any other character in the novel. For example, he has secret meetings with Offred, where he allows her to play Scrabble, has a secret store of banned magazines, is able to get hand cream for Offred and takes her to Jezebels where sexual relations between men and women can take place for pleasure as opposed to procreation. When he takes Offred to Jezebel's, he says that although it is officially forbidden, "Everyone's human, after all." (page 248) He doesn't know that the Handmaids have their rooms searched regularly, when he gives her the hand cream. This shows that he does not fully understand the restrictions placed on Handmaids. 
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