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language and totalitarianism

-totalitarian regimes have always tired to control the language of their citizens
--> Nazi greeting 'Heil Hitler'

-Both Hitler and Mussolini invented titles to suggest at a power previously unseen

-In Orwell's 1984 'Newspeak' imagines a government limiting language so far that it becomes impossible to even think subversively


Naming in Gilead

- as names only exists for social purposes (if there was only one person, they wouldn't need a name) controlling names means controlling social roles

-the naming of Handmaids extends our patronymic system (where kids and wives take fathers name)
--> derive their identity from whichever commander temporarily owns them


re - employing words

Neologisms e.g. salvaging and prayvaganza
--> hard to distinguish between biblical language and advertising jargon

'It's genius was synthesis' - redefinition of meaningful terms erodes Offred's ability to recall ideas from the past that could help her resist


manipulation of the bible

-Jesus scolds Martha for prioritizing household chores, yet this is exactly what Gilead want their martha's to do

-Offred only has access to degraded theology, so has a difficult relationship with faith

-thought of amazing grace could be a spiritual moment, but she forgets the words and moves on to a pop song


the risk of speaking

-saying anything in public is risky (tourists)

-Offred is unwilling to resist the state publicly or physically - rebellion restricted to her mind

- controls what she sees and hears, but not how she interprets them. She seeks subversive and alternative meanings (waste not want not)


Small subversion

-Moira's fierce swearing
- finds beauty in the face of a hanged man
- mental escapes (from blood of the hanged to flowers)


Link to Hamlet

-both pun compulsively in their private thoughts to negotiate an oppressive state

-Offred slips between meanings and symbols to avoid the states imposed meanings, but this alienates her from the world around her
--> must make conscious efforts to reconnect with reality



-if merely speaking is dangerous, playing with language becomes thrillingly taboo

-ultimately brings out Offred's subjectivity so she is mentally present in the ceremony
--> she sees him as a person rather than a rank and role


Limits of language

-in the end her escape must be physical rather than linguistic

-can only truly escape when the narrative ends, and Atwood lets her slip in to silence, historical uncertainty and freedom


American's puritan past (17th century)

-Mary Webster is a symbol of hope, she was wrongly accused and her neighbors stood and watched as she survived a hanging

- particiutions and salvaging


The Dystopian genre

-imagined societies that reflect some of the social and political realities of the times in which they were written

- historical notes highlights links to real society

-link to Orwell's narrative approach, but with a new inflection (female P.O.V!)


Religious fundamentalism in 1980s america

-Ronald Reagan as president
-rigth wing backlash against growing liberalism of the 60s and 70s

-Christian religious fundamentalists called for the banning of certain books and tightening on abortion laws

-Gilead crushes the liberal 60s and 70s
-Moira coming out
-pg 82 - the commander reading the bible


Iran and Islamic fundamentalism

-1979 global crisis, American hostages held at US embassy in Tehran

-pg 169: blame on islamic fundamentalism


rise of feminism in 60s and 70s

- the pill (pg 299)
-divorce more common
-women demand right to work and equal pay
- Offred's mum (pg 113)


1980s - second wave feminism

starting to question the thinking of early feminism
--> pg 120 "you wanted a women's culture"


Michel Foucault

marxist philosopher who wrote about gender

highlights the relationship between language, power and sexuality

-argues that societies built on surveillance and linguistic control strip women of their sense of self


postmodern novel

-structure: historical notes. audio recorder.
-ties in to dystopia

-experimental. Plays with the conventions of genre. Night 8 --> imagining what happened to Luke


concerns about the impact of human activity on the environment

-1971 - Greenpeace founded

-impact of pesticides and fertilisers on human fertility

-pg 299
-pg 104-105


Fears of nuclear war and nuclear disaster

explosion of nuclear power plant in 1986 - Chernobyl

-description of colonies


1990-2009 response to novel

-USA and Canada: challenges to inclusion in curricula
- too explicit, profanity/blasphemy, suicide, illicit sex


More recent responses to the novel

-seen as anti-islamic or anti-christian
-never been out of print
-a film, opera, play, ballet and series


modern protests

-2017: Tennessee ban on late-term abortion
- 2018: Irish referendum legalizes abortion
- 2018: Golden globes
- 2019: US states


context of production

-1984 west berlin
-Born in 1939. Novel explores how stability can be overturned overnight
-chillingly plausible, does not include anything that is not in the contemporary readers world


Atwood on utopia

"real reason that people expect so much... it set out to be a utopia"


what inspired the handmaids outfits?

illustration on 1940s Dutch cleaning product for sinks


Handmaids names

remove identity and individuality
-sense of ownership
-emphasizes role


wives names

illusion of individuality and power


Gilead as a setting

false theocracy
women regarded and resources
background of conflict
rituals and ceremonies give false sense of power
ostensibly founded to address fertility issues



present (tension, vulnerability, insight)
limited (low status)
focus (on handmaids)