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Thesis Project The handmaid’s tale. Haley Parent and Molly Kelly UCT 1011: Writing Through Literature Period D November 4, 2010. Thesis.

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thesis project the handmaid s tale

Thesis ProjectThe handmaid’s tale

Haley Parent and Molly Kelly

UCT 1011: Writing Through Literature Period D

November 4, 2010



“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, female characters struggle to maintain their identities in the oppressive Gilead society that forces them to conform to stereotypical female roles; the protagonist Offred rises above the conformity in both her obvious and subversive actions.

obvious rebellion
Obvious rebellion
  • Offred finds conscious ways to rebel against the Gilead society in her physical actions.
    • Playing scrabble with the Commander
    • Saving her butter from dinner and putting it on her dry skin
    • Reading the Latin etching inside the cabinet: “Nolitetebastardescarborundorum” (52)
    • Her secret communication with Offglen through “May day” and their walks.
quote 1
Quote #1

“We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valence. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.” (Atwood 139)

quote 1 explanation
Quote #1 Explanation
  • In the Gilead society, women cannot write or read and some words are banned – for Offred to be playing Scrabble, she is blatantly contradicting society’s edicts.
  • On a second level, she is wrongfully fraternizing with a man, something she should not do especially since he is of such high standing. In being with the Commander she is violating not only law but Gilead moral code, as well as defying Serena Joy directly.
tensions and language tensions language
Tensions and Languagetensions- Language-
  • In this excerpt, there is the two obvious tensions- Offred is breaking the law in her reading and writing but also in her time spent with the commander. This violates Gilead law and moral code. This tension is resolved because of Offred’s violation; it is through Offred’s insubordination that she is able to maintain who she is and rise above the ‘female’ role that the strigent laws had set for her.
  • Offred’s use of language creates a deep, sensual description of what feelings vocabulary evokes for her. Her dramatic lavishing over every word she spells proves the importance to the reader of how something so seemingly mundane could be such a luxury and rebellion.
  • Her use of similes in comparing the feeling of words to ‘real’, physically textures and feelings proves the forbidden delight this act brings to her.
subversive rebellion
Subversive rebellion
  • Offred rebels against the oppressive Gilead society through unseen, unconscious, subversive manners as well.
    • Her keen memory and constant flashbacks offer both a source of sanity and identity for Offred when all else seems lost.
    • Her clear-cut distinctions between memories and reality and old and new keep the truth clear (the ‘red smile’).
quote 2
Quote #2

“I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. Te tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.” (33)

quote 2 explanation
Quote #2 Explanation
  • Quote #2 exemplifies how Offred is not outright rebelling, but rather is subconsciously rebelling. These distinctions are her way of existence, of refusing to fade into the background in the role assigned to her.
  • She makes distinctions between what her life used to be and what it is now.
tensions and language tension language
Tensions and LanguageTension- Language-
  • There is tensions in the similarity between the ‘red smile’ and a red tulip- a red tulip is beautiful, and signified growth and healing of the petals to Offred.
  • The red smile, on the other hand, is that but an outline of blood which is a symbol for death and pain.
  • These are stark contradictions and create tension in the passage, just as Gilead and Offred’s past world are contradictions. It is through Offred’s subversive, meticulous mental divisions that this tension in resolved. Offred succeeds in holding on to her identity as well as her sanity through these divisions.
  • Offred’s descriptive language artfully compares two starkly different views in terms of the memories she holds on to. Offred’s use of the term ‘red smile’ creates a dark irony that Offred must steer clear from.
  • It is through her language and the distinctions in it that Offred keeps the lines of her mind from being obscured.
literary criticism
Literary Criticism

“Yet, although Offred cannot be considered a more obvious traditional hero like Moira, an examination of her more subtle rebellion against the oppressive totalitarian regime which governs her life illustrates the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.” (Novels for Students, Vomume 4, 127)

literary criticism cont
Literary criticism cont.

The main idea of this criticism is that Offred is a successful character; although not as outrageous as Moira in her obvious rebellion, her blatant defiances as well as her subversive rebellion enable her to rise about the totalitarian Gilead and escape the conformity. This literary criticism is useful because it states the success of Offred’s obvious and subversive actions, especially her success in defying the totalitarian Gilead society through mental methodology.

connection to other text
Connection to other text
  • In “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, AzarNafisi and her students obviously and subversively rebel just as Offred does in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Nafisi and her students refuse to conform to the Republic of Islam, which is misogynistic in its treatment of women like Offred’s Gilead society.
  • The women rebel in obvious manners by displaying locks of hair outside of their veils, painting their nails and wearing make up (which are all acts contra banned under extremist Islam decree.) These actions are physical and blatant, and resemble Offred’s law-breaking.
connections continued
Connections continued…
  • Also similar to Offred, Nafisi and the girls (Mashid, Manna, etc.) overcome the molds that are forced upon them through subversive means- their escapism through literature and how they relate it to their own lives is a subconscious rebellion. Through literature, the women refuse to let their minds be shackled by the laws that otherwise trap their bodies, and in doing so remain free and maintain their identities as individuals.