Power in The Handmaid's Tale

The effects of power

In the nineteenth century, Lord Acton remarked that:

‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

In many ways The Handmaid's Tale could be seen as an examination of power - who has it, how they gain it, how they use it and misuse it. The most obvious form of power in the novel is the régime of the Republic of Gilead. We are led to believe that it came into being through violence - the assassination of the President and the machine-gunning of Congress (see chapter 28). Offred describes how there were protest marches but: 

‘the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started.'

Using a phrase with chilling undertones, Offred says the public were told, ‘Everything is under control.'

Violence and war

Violence is one of the régime's most effective weapons. Atwood does not spare us the details. We see the way Moira is tortured at the Red Centre and we see the victims on the Wall. We witness the Salvagings and the Particicution. But the régime also knows that fear and uncertainty are just as useful in controlling its citizens: spying, whether by the Eyes or by one's associates, is expected and, as Offred realises, the destruction of trust is one of the régime's greatest crimes. Another is the way in which it destroys love and family life: the taking of Offred's child haunts her endlessly.

But it is not only at a personal level that the state exerts power: Gilead is constantly waging war against other countries, communities and sects. War is all about power, and we are never allowed to forget that Gilead is a military régime. From the title – Commander - of the most important of the hierarchy that we actually encounter (those who really run Gilead are never revealed), to his wife's knitting of scarves for troops at the front line, everything in Gilead centres on its military activity.

Power through language

The régime also uses and misuses language to control its citizens. Since it likes to pretend that its oppression is beneficent:

  • The women who control the Red Centre, using cattle-prods and steel cables, and who run the Particicution, are called by the apparently kindly name of ‘Aunts'
  • The state's soldiers are called ‘Angels'
  • Shops are named after quotations from the Bible, such as the ‘Loaves and Fishes'.

Gilead sees itself as a fundamentalist Christian régime, and the Bible is often cited - but very often the quotations used, for example by the Aunts, are subtly altered or perverted. More pervasively, education is strictly controlled, books and magazines are banned and women are not supposed to read or write, unless they are workers on state activity, such as the Aunts. Gilead knows well that language is a very powerful tool. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.)

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