An initial reading of Margaret Atwood’s1 novel will allow you to identify some relatively straightforward ways that Offred is dehumanised:
- her name, Offred, removes any sense of her past or present self, identifying her as a possession of The Commander, Fred;
- her uniform immediately identifies her as a handmaid and removes any individuality, so much so that Offred herself fails to notice immediately when Ofglen has been replaced;
- her role as handmaid – a position entirely devoted to reproduction – also dehumanises her, and she is presented as something like an an animal in heat from which one can breed saleable animals;
- her treatment by others reduces her to the state of an animal, such as the Aunts at the Red Centre that carry cattle prods, or the graphic yet entirely impersonal events of The Ceremony.
These are all interesting and important, but what I find more intriguing is the way that Offred gradually dehumanises herself through her own narrative. This, I think, is Atwood at her best, and it begins in the very first chapter.
When describing The Angels, Offred tells us that they are objects of fear but that, in her forlorn hope, ‘something could be exchanged…some deal made, some trade-off, we still had our bodies’ (p.14). Here, then, Offred is already beginning to see herself as having a particular monetary value in her society – something that can be traded and bartered. You can already see how the societal views of Gilead are beginning to permeate Offred’s mind and language; she is just repeating what she has been told about herself, echoing Serena Joy’s description of her arrival as ‘a business transaction’ (p.25). Offred herself realises that her replies are said in the ‘voice of a doll’ (p.26) – something that resembles a human but is far from one.
This is also true for her perspective on her clothing at various points. She describes the oversized collars of the handmaids’ habits as ‘blinkers’ (p.40) as if she herself is like a horse that needs controlling. This is, arguably, not far from the truth given her desire for some kind of freedom. Yet she also sees the costume the Commander makes her wear to Jezebel’s as dehumanising, suggesting that she needs to be ‘serviced’ (p.266) before The Ceremony that follows, like a car.
The effect of this perspective promoted by the hierarchical Gilead is also reflected in Offred’s views of others. She describes Ofglen as taking ‘short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs’ (p.29) and the Guardians as ‘like store mannequins’ (p.225). She even goes to the extent of describing the bodies hanged during The Salvaging as being ‘like chickens…like flightless birds’ (p.289) and finally describes the Guardian offered to the handmaids to tear apart as ‘like an unknown vegetable, a mangled bulb or tuber’ (p.290). It is perhaps during The Salvaging that the effects of Gileadean society’s dehumanisation of the people – and the handmaids in particular – is at its strongest as the characters unknowingly act like the animals they have been made to believe they are. Offred states that she wants ‘to tear, gouge, rend’ (p.291) and describes ‘a low noise like growling’ (p.291) before finally accepting that ‘he has become an it‘ (p.292). Here, not only does Atwood use Offred to echo the language of Gilead, she also reflects the dehumanisation promoted through her perspective. The people to her are no longer people, and Gilead wins.
It is no surprise that shortly after this Offred convinces herself that she’ll ‘become a chalice’ (p.298), an empty vessel to be filled with their lies and hatred. A symbol of their control.
1. All references are to the following publication: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage, 1996)