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Theme of Women and Communication in Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

8 pages
1959 words
Middlebury College
Type of paper: 
Research paper
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The choice of communication form is an important factor that any author has to consider before passing his or her message to the audience. Communication forms help authors share and relate to their audience and ultimately pass message and perspective through their literal works. Therefore, by analyzing the communication form used by an author, one can understand some pertinent issues addressed by an author. For instance, how men and women use non-verbal communication form speaks volumes about the societal and cultural perception of gender in the society addressed by the author. Different genders use different forms of non-verbal communications such as body language, tonal variation appearance, and environment to pass a given message about the societal expectations of that specific gender. Also, the non-verbal communication help in the expression of feelings and perspective of that gender within that society. The literary scene is awash with many examples of how authors have used non-verbal communications to advance their themes, but none has managed to do more subtly as Margaret Atwood in her dystopian novel Handmaids Tales. Throughout the novel, Atwood uses the non-verbal form of communication to portray the silence enforced on Women by the misogynistic Gilead institution. Also, the non-verbal communication is evident in her quest to address the lack of dialogue and narrative in the social set-up of Gilead, where women rights are suppressed. The work is thus a feminist attempt to speak about the gendered outfit symbolized in the book through non-verbal communications in the book.

One of the main features that define any authoritarian or totalitarian system is its fascination with injustice and suppression of the truth. Dissidents are treated with contempt and utmost brutality. They are expected not to air their voice on issues happening in the society. Margaret Atwoods Handmaids Tale depicts the Gileadian society as no different from any totalitarian authority. According to Dvorak (p.36), the subjects of Gilead have no chance to question any word from the authority. They have to take in whatever answer provided by the authority without thinking or seeking alternatives. Theirs is a sacrifice of not speaking or voicing dissenting opinions on how the society should be governed. This is the reason why women, who happen to be the most dispossessed lot of the Gileads subjects, their rights are greatly trampled but have no chance to question anything. This explains why Atwood focuses on a different form of communication to enlighten her readers of the gendered outfits that symbolize this society; non-verbal communication. For instance, the Gileadian society has a way of stripping women of their individuality by assigning them roles and functions that serve to subjugate them even further. They wear uniforms based on the roles assigned to them by the society, and each uniform has its color that signifies this role. Even the most privileged women are not exempt from these misogynistic rules (Dvorak p.39). This is evident in the case of Offred who looks into her owned role, Wife. She contrasts this role with her former role as Serena Joy, a former televangelist who advocated for the rights of women to make their own choices; she doesnt make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesnt seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that shes been taken at her word (Atwood p.56). The contrast though delivered in monotone serves to depict Atwoods use of non-verbal communication to point out at the subjugation of womens rights in the totalitarian Gileadian system.

Dialogue has no chance in the Gileadian society as depicted in Atwoods use of wordplay that describes the suppression of language in the Gileadian society. She uses Offreds fascination with playing with words to depict a sign of trespass into uncharted courses. This is evident in the description of the illicit Scrabble board that reminds Offred her former past as a televangelist, who used her celebrity position to push for a shift to traditional women roles. The mere fact that her former speeches are no more becomes speechless-ness; and this reflected by her life as a wife at home. The womans life she formerly passionately advocated as a televangelist pinpoints the irrelevance of agreeing to the Gileadian misogynistic system, which gives dialogue no chance. Her cause is now ironically as she is taken at her word (Timonen p.28). This reflects the situation affecting all women in Gilead, the wives, and the handmaids. Therefore, this concludes her observation and applicability of the Freudian pun Pen is envy that relates the dispossession of the power of dialogue/word to the injustices caused by politics of sex.

Another example that shows the dispossession of word communication in Atwoods novel Handmaids Tale is the depiction of how women perceive themselves throughout the novel. According to the book, Offred points at the male-thought process that is dominant in the Gileadian society. Women are mere sex objects, and, objects meant to gratify male sexual desires and pleasures. She goes ahead to point this in her monologue by stating that men only interact with women when they need to satisfy their pleasures; this is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Wastes not want to (Atwood p.3). The quote advances the use of literary techniques such as metaphors and imagery to express the ideas held by women in Gilead of how men in the society expect them to do. The ideas show suppression and subjugation of women in the Gileadian society. By comparing herself and other handmaids in the Gileadian society to decorative arts, Offred communicates to the readers through a descriptive and figurative language of how restrictions within her misogynistic society have impacted on their self-worth as women. It is an idea advanced by other feminist writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi in her book We should all be feminist who decries of the subjugation of women in the society. Women have been suppressed by a societal culture that objectifies them and thinks of them as decorative and pointless objects that should satisfy the male-gaze in the society (Adichie p.4). It is from this aspect that one gets to see how the use of monotone comes in place of dialogue which has been suppressed in the novel.

Non-verbal communication in the novel Handmaids Tale depicts the immediate effects of voicelessness within the pre-determined roles assigned by women. The effects of this voicelessness are depicted through the isolation and loneliness that women find themselves in the society. For instance, using the character of Offred, Atwood brings this into light by pointing at her address to an imaginary audience and even impossible reader. This is a common technique used by feminist writers when addressing their quest and cause to the society. In the case of Offred, the lack of exchange undermines her sense of identity as depicted in the quote: I feel very unreal, talking to you like this. I feel as if Im talking to a wall. I wish Youd answer. I feel so alone. All alone by the telephone. Except I cant use the telephone. And if I could, who could I call? Oh God. Its no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living (Atwood p.205)? This is a similar case to that of Adichie in Chimamandas book, who feels her society does not understand the problems women face in a world that undermines them. Any woman who stands to fight for her rights and make known her quest for equality is isolated by men and women alike (Timonen p.31). This leaves them in an isolated world like that of Offred. The only hope that characters such as Offred and Adichie have in championing their cause is by faith. Faith in the hope that someone will understand their plight and relate to it. For instance, Offred has faith that there is a distant reader as she tells later, I tell, therefore you are (Atwood p.268). The use of non-verbal and isolation effect of the reader requires the existence of imaginary readers and writers who will co-operate and understand the perspective shared by the author. This calls for a collaborative effort in helping advance the message shared by authors such as Atwood and Chimamanda.

The communication channels between men and women are highly restricted and denied open space throughout the novel. And the only communication is allowed is if its stretched out, turned sideways or without sound. This is depicted in Offreds desire for meaningful conversation and contact with other women. This is highly forbidden in the Gileadian society. Atwood amplifies this desire in the novel by pointing at the instance where Offred is taken by the Commander to Jezebel, and here she admits openly What Id really like to do is talk with the women. However, she notes that there is scant chance of that (Atwood p.249). The other instance where this is evident in the case where Cora lies about spilling Offreds breakfast on the floor. The conspiratorial partnership between Offred and Cora please her as it offers her a chance to communicate though not in verbal means. It pleased me, that Cora was willing to lie for me, even in such a small thing, even for her own advantage. It was a link between us (Atwood p.160). Their conversations are reduced to imaginary conversations which are highly denied by the station. Therefore, the use of imaginary conversations by Offred, Rita and Cora is an indication of the exploration of shared experiences which they have been denied by the Gileadian society and Atwoods commitment to addressing the minimal dialogue in the book.

The form of communication language used by Atwood helps in advancing Atwoods feminist agenda in the novel. Her main message is that women should break free from the yokes of subjugations set out by oppressive regimes like those of the Gilead system. She uses the character of Offred and her experiences in the Gileadian system to point at the gender speciation and outfits symbolized in the society (Timonen p.47). For instance, the language used by men and women accentuates the divisions between the two genders. This is evident in the manner in which Offred in one passage offers the grammatical distinction between the terms lay and lie: Lay is always passive, she tells the audience; Even men used to say, Id like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, Id like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I dont really know what men used to say. I had only their words for it (Atwood p.47). This brings in the readers perspective of the divisions between the two genders and their unshared world imposed on them by the system. Also, it points towards a gender-based society whose language women like Offred have limited access to. Therefore, she has to speculate how males in the society would verbally construct their political and sexual relationship to women as the society does not allow her to access. A careful analysis of this aspect depicts Atwoods subtle way of informing the world through the lenses of Offred of the problems women go through in societies like Gilead.

Throughout the novel, Atwood uses an assertive tone that shows defiance of social constructs set out to undermine and subjugate women in the Gilead society. This shows her commitment to the feminist cause that advocates for equality of gender equality in the society. For the simple fact that men and women are put into specific roles as advocated by the society and expected to fit the gender-specified roles, Atwood uses Offreds feminist perspective to quash that notion. She is in much similar to Adichie in Chimamanda Ngozis book Everyone M...

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