Jerry Wang11/21/2017Mr. Michael Kline Identity and Names in The Handmaid’s TaleNames have the dual character of being a person’s individual character as well as marking one’s social identity, and it is foundation of kinship and power in many societies around the world, which makes it the ideal target for a dystopia that seeks to control its populace.
Names of events, characters and location are cleverly manipulated by Atwood in the Handmaid’s tale to demonstrate the degradation and objectification of everything and everyone by the government of Gilead, as well as the loss of personal identity and purpose that individuals have. In a society where women lost their individual names, the names that Gilead gave them is evermore the representation of their identity in this new dystopian society, as they mark the woman’s role, subordination and power in the world of Gilead. Names of the social brackets that make up the pyramid society of Gilead are often taken from biblical references, which is fitting for a nation that seeks to return to a Puritan religious hegemony.
For example, Women who are referred to Marthas are servants, and their name is derived from the biblical passage “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40). The later half of this passage is also a reflection of the disdain and jealousy the women working as Marthas have for handmaids as a handmaid’s only job is to produce offspring, so many Marthas choose to distant themselves away from handmaids.
Women who are incharge of reeducation are called aunts, both to infer a sense of authority and a sense of familiarity, with names that relate to pre-Gilead products that are well known by all women to further instill a sense of conformity with new women. One such prominent figure is Aunt Lydia, whose name can also be seen in the bible in the passage: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”(Acts 16:14). Since Aunt Lydia is so much of an educator to Offred in the new society of Gilead, we can regard her of somewhat of an apostate of God (Gilead) that was amongst the first to accept His teachings. The handmaids do not have any individual names, and instead their name is composed of a man’s first name and a prefix “of” denoting ‘belonging to,’ so it is like ‘de’ in French or ‘von’ in German, or like the suffix ‘son’ in English last names like Williamson.
(Atwood) This naming convention is clearly to rob all handmaid’s of their prewar identity, as a person’s name are used to map family connections and identify individuals, so therefore Gilead’s attempt to take away names sheds light on the characteristics and importance of names. Offred appears in many ways as a sympathetic narrator, an every woman who, in the pre-Gilead world of the contemporary United States, was an ordinary sensual woman, with a college degree, a husband, a daughter, a job in a library. She lost all those blessings as a result of the coup, and is now in a terrible and terrifying bind, a Handmaid in a powerful and repressive dystopia. Offred does try to retain some sense of herself as a distinct individual different from others, but that self breaks down in the end.
At first she refuses to call the room she sleeps in “mine,” because it is at best a temporary way station for her (Chpt 2). But eventually she labels it “mine” (Chpt 8) precisely when her private life is being compromised. Then she joins herself to the community of the Commander’s household that she sees as “ours” (Chpt 20). Eventually even her skin becomes “ours,” as the Commander watches her putting on the skin moisturizer during one of their late night furtive meetings (chpt 25). Finally, near the end of the tapes, she accepts Gilead: “Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I’ve resisted, comes flooding in… they can do what they want with me.” (Pg.
286). Offred also recognizes the need for others to be individuals. “Their heads are zeros’ but if you look and look, you can see the outlines of the features under the cloth.
Each thing is valid and really there. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions” (Pg 34). But we see here that the men in Gilead society does not necessarily share that view. For example, the doctor sees her as nothing more than “a torso only”, and the Commander sees her only “as a whim” (Pg 159).This dehumanising allows brutal murders by the régime to be carried out. “This is what you have to do before you kill. You have to create an it.
” (Pg 192). Defined in terms of her reproductive potential, she is little more than a set of ovaries. Prevented from social interactions and communications of any but an extremely limited and repressed amount of information, without privacy and scope for her own will, and lacking any socially sanctioned purpose or self beyond her reproductive organs. Each Handmaid, like Offred, must struggle to maintain any sense of her identity as she faces empty days and lonely nights, without anyone to rely on. To suppress individuality and maintain the regime, Gilead rewrites history, asserts governmental control of television newscasts, forbids books, magazines, and newspapers, and leaves only gossip (a combination of accuracy and disinformation) as the only source of knowledge.
Gilead simplifies and manipulates language, eliminates the written word where possible, generates its own forms of “Newspeak”, prevents women from writing, and keeps books locked away, inaccessible to most people except for those in power. The woman’s identity is built out of the isolation of each woman and the men that dominate her social world. In turn, the government reconstructs the women into the mold that is modeled after a totalitarian Puritan society. In Gilead, personal identity formation and relations are so weakened and degraded that domination and control of physical force, political power, conflicting individual interests are the way of life for most living underneath the regime.
Friends and enemies are interchangeable, as one’s identity is dictated by constantly changing social circumstances that promotes sacrificing others to save one’s self. This is very much a characteristic of a totalitarian dictatorship. In Gilead, the modes of personal identity formation and social relations are so weakened that many of the horrible subjugation, violence, misery, power, betrayal, paranoia and control are internalized by those who are subjected to the regime. Within this environment of fear and vulnerability, a contrast of times spent doing menial chores and labor and intense interactions with powerful, mind altering entities, the Handmaid ultimately fails to maintain her identity. From the perspective of a handmaid, she is caught in the powerful grasp of the dystopia: Gilead’s political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, utilizes repressive laws and politicOffred shows how even the toughest of individuals could be worn down in an environment that depreciates a human being of their name, identity and character, and how perseverance could be manipulated to surviving on only the most meagre of information and happiness. Through showing the link between the dystopia of Gilead and the present, Atwood effectively creates a setting with characters that shows how the privileges we have today are fragile, and in order to protect our rights we must constantly question our feeling, actions and judgement. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale E-Book (Kindle) .
Houghton Mifflin, 1986.Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar.
html.Real, Willi. Biblical Influences in The Handmaid’s Tale in Class: a Lesson Plan for a Double Period. 14 July 2003, www.heliweb.de/telic/breuer.htm.