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Themes and significant ideas in The Handmaid's Tale » Individualism and identity in The Handmaid's Tale

Establishing identity

The novel is entitled The Handmaid's Tale, not A Handmaid's Tale, so although we can never be entirely sure of the identity of this Handmaid - or, as Pieixoto points out in the Historical Notes, of her existence at all (even allowing for the fact that she is of course an invention of Atwood's) it is clear that we are focusing on one individual. And this is a significant part of Atwood's message. Whoever the Handmaid is, she is to be viewed as an individual, a person who is important in her own right. This means acknowledging her unique personality: Pieixoto and his colleague, Professor Wray, say that ‘our author was one of many.' They insist that they have tried to ‘establish an identity for the narrator', but in fact the core of her real identity - her thoughts and feelings - are ignored by them. Yet the novel focusses largely on her inner life: seven of the fifteen sections are entitled ‘Night' and Offred tells us, at the start of chapter 7, that: 

‘The night is mine... the night is my time out.'

In these sections, Offred explores her inner self, and her most personal memories. As Atwood has said in her book Negotiating with the Dead:

‘Every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.'

Her name

Although Offred does not reveal to us her real name, that name is of great significance to her. There are hints at several points that it may be June (see chapter 1) but Atwood never tells the reader. However, the narrator is clear that she does not see herself as Of-Fred: the name that Gilead assigns her makes her merely the property of a man, and one whom she does not choose herself. That identity has nothing to do with her as an individual: there have been Offreds before, and we see in chapter 44 that a Handmaid can be replaced at a moment's notice; Ofglen becomes a different Ofglen as soon as the régime decrees.

But our Offred tells us (in chapter 14 ) that:

‘My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden.'

She adds that,

‘I tell myself it doesn't matter... but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.'

Her need for love goes with her need to be recognised: ‘I want to be held and told my name,' she says in chapter 17. It is when she tells Nick her name (in chapter 41) that she feels a real relationship has started: ‘I feel that therefore I am known'.

Loss of individuality

Clothing

Gilead has attempted to remove the individuality of its citizens in many ways. Everyone is classified into a rigid hierarchy, with different uniforms in specific colours to denote their role within the state organisation. Without a choice of clothing, the differences in individual appearances are minimised.

Naming

In addition, names are limited. Although we know that the kitchen workers at the Commander's are Rita and Cora, his name is never given, and the Handmaids are specifically forbidden their own names: they are only known by the names of their ‘owners'. Handmaids are also identified by a number tattooed on their ankle, just as prisoners in Nazi concentration camps had a number tattooed on their arms. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Hitler and the Nazis.)

Economic status

For women, individual power is even more restricted, as they are no longer allowed to work in professions. Some of the women now at Jezebel's were once ‘a sociologist.. a lawyer.. in business, an executive position'. They cannot have bank accounts, or ‘hold property any more' (chapter 28). Every woman must be under the control of a male.

The importance of being an individual

In chapter 29, the Commander laughs at women's supposedly poor mathematical ability. ‘For them,' he says, ‘one and one and one and one don't make four.' But in chapter 30, Offred sees this as a great truth:

‘One and one and one and one doesn't equal four. Each one remains unique.'

Throughout the novel Offred makes various attempts, even if only in small ways, to assert her individuality and the fact that she is a unique person. To begin with, she refuses to say ‘my' room (chapter 2) and later, when she does say ‘mine' (chapters 8 to 9), she asserts her right over it:

‘There has to be some space, finally, that I claim as mine.'

Dead daffodil, photo by Doug88888 available through Creative CommonsShe creeps downstairs to steal a dead flower (chapter 17) - an apparently pointless gesture, but one which asserts her idea of herself, and reminds her ‘of what I once could do'. For Atwood, being recognised as an individual, a fully acknowledged self, is vital; she has aptly summed this up in her poem This is a photograph of me, where she at first appears to be describing a landscape, but then tells us that, if we look closely enough, we will be able to see her.

Seeing others as individuals

In asserting this need for herself, Offred also recognises the rights of others to be seen as individuals. Seeing the bodies of victims hung on the Wall, their heads covered to conceal their identity, she observes that ‘their heads are zeros' (chapter 6), but tells us that ‘if you look and look', you can see the outlines of the features under the cloth.' She goes on to say that:

‘Each thing is valid and really there. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions.'

In contrast, when she goes on her regular visit to the doctor's, (chapter 10), she is aware that he sees her as ‘a torso only', and that for the Commander she is ‘only a whim' (chapter 25). Worst of all, is the deliberate dehumanising which allows brutal murder by the régime: as Offred realises (in chapters 30 and 43):

‘This is what you have to do before you kill. You have to create an it.'