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Language as a Tool of Power in the Handmaid's Tale

  • Date Submitted: 06/26/2011 09:19 PM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 59 
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Language as a Tool of Power in
The Handmaid’s Tale


When asked to describe a glass filled with water, some people will say that the glass is half empty and some people will say that the glass is half full. The ability for people to adapt language to fit around certain situations allows them to portray something in a positive light or in a negative light, as in the glass is half full or half empty respectively. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Offred is a young woman trapped in a dystopian society where men attempt to gain back control by subjugating women. Throughout the novel it becomes clear that language is used as a tool of power. Through alterations in the English language, officials in the republic of Gilead are able distort old societal practices and therefore suppress women.
The Republic Gilead creates a system of titles to rank the position of women in society. Women are categorized into Aunts, Marthas, wives, and handmaids, which puts a large amount of emphasis on the social hierarchy. Through this ranking women are stripped of all individuality and are solely defined by their role. Through adjusting the terms used to refer to women, Gilead is able to take control of how women are perceived.
A separate way that the Republic of Gilead attempts to control language is by outlawing certain words. “Sterile” is one of the words that is never meant to be said. While undergoing her routine check up, Offred’s doctor offers to have sex with her so that she can conceive a baby and complete her task as a handmaid. As the doctor’s hand slips in between Offred’s legs, the doctor acknowledges that most of the Commanders “can’t make it anymore…or they’re sterile” (61). Offred is immediately taken back by his liberal use of language because the doctor has “said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially.” In the republic of Gilead “there are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s...

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