Language and Storytelling as a Means of Resistance in A Handmaid's Tale

By Elena Morgan

Morgan cover image

Victoria Pickering, "Filming of The Handmaid's Tale at the Lincoln Memorial," 15 Feb. 2019

Dystopian novels often focus on ways that individuals in an oppressive society defy their governments through acts of resistance. In The Handmaid’s Tale, resistance takes on many forms—theft, conversation, infidelity, and more. Since the novel’s publication, the narrator’s various attempts to fight back against Gilead have been subject to analysis by many critics. Some of these critics have viewed her as solely a victim of society, arguing that the novel is therefore anti-feminist in its portrayal of women. Others, however, like Rob Luzecky and Wendy Roy, have begun to recognize and identify the different ways that language can also serve as a valid means of resistance. As a result, these critics have begun to view the narrator as a “revolutionary feminist figure” because of her use of language (Luzecky 438). Ultimately, language and storytelling become the narrator’s primary and most effective methods of resisting Gilead. Through her storytelling, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale obtains the power to reclaim her identity and rewrite history, allowing her to become the most influential rebel in Gilead’s time.

The act of storytelling itself reveals the narrator’s hope, one of the primary means of resistance in a dystopian society that intends to dismantle all forms of ambition. The narrator’s decision to tell the story of her life demonstrates that she can imagine a future where society has changed and where there’s someone listening to what she has to say. Early in the novel, she reflects on her belief in a future audience. She recognizes that “if it’s a story, even in [her] head, she must be telling it to someone” since “you don’t tell a story to yourself” (39-40). Much of her narrative involves explanations of Gilead’s customs and rules, so it seems that the narrator imagines her audience to be far-removed from the present. She speaks with the hidden hope that they cannot remember Gilead or the world before it. She believes in the possibility for change in the world, which is a dangerous belief to have. Thus, the narrator has already proven herself to be more than a victim. As critic Rob Luzecky claims, her willingness to tell the story “in the most adverse of worlds […] is her success in overcoming the retrograde concept of female as a demure other” (Luzecky 451). She may not have the “ability to start a generalized political revolution,” but she does have the bravery to carry out “the expression of this revolutionary hope” (Luzecky 445). Because her actions are so dangerous, though, the narrator remains cautious and hesitates to ever explicitly define who her audience is. She instead spends time wondering at the size of her audience and imagining that her “you” could “mean thousands” of future readers who have escaped her fate (40). The narrator also reveals her hope through her retellings of the present. She builds alternate realities for those she loves, like Luke and Moira, always maintaining the belief that they escaped the dystopia. For example, she shares that she hopes Luke “will get [her] out, [they] will find her [daughter…,] and [they] will be all three of [them] together” (106). This alternate story “keeps [her] alive” (106), allowing her to cope with her trauma and resist Gilead.

After making the initial decision to share her story, the narrator further resists Gilead by telling it in her own unique style and thus reclaiming her identity. All of the Handmaids in Gilead are supposed to be replicas of one another. They all wear identical red capes meant to hide their faces and bodies, or any source of individuality, from the world. They are supposed to embrace the present and forget the past versions of themselves. For the narrator, this would mean leaving behind the part of herself that worked in a library, a place filled with the power of words. However, she rebels against this expectation and chooses to hold onto parts of her past identity by manipulating language. She expresses her intelligence through unique word choices, creative puns, and vivid descriptions within her story. For example, before the Ceremony begins, she reflects that “The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81). In this short reflection, she simultaneously manages to explain the Commander’s role in Gilead, play with the word “household,” reference wedding vows (a thing of the past for women in her current position), and critique the system by calling it “hollow.” This creative use of language ends up being a way for her to maintain individuality while also demonstrating that she has some power, even if that power is limited to her mastery of words. She herself hints at this in another moment of contemplation about word choice. She notes that there’s a “difference between lie and lay” because “lay is always passive,” before continuing on to say, “I lie, then, inside the room” (37). She intentionally takes on the active role even if only through her language. After this quote, the narrator transitions to telling stories about her life before Gilead, using language as a way to escape and remind herself of her old identity. She resists Gilead’s push towards uniformity by remembering what makes her unique.

Language not only allows the narrator to preserve her previous identity, but it also enables her to create a new one according to whoever she wants to be in the audience’s eyes. Names, in particular, end up being a crucial component of one’s identity in Gilead. The leaders of Gilead renamed everything, using words as a subtle but powerful way to exert influence on all aspects of citizens’ daily lives. They even gave all the women new names directly tied to their Commanders’ names. For example, the narrator’s assigned name was “Offred,” or “of Fred” since she was the Handmaid for Fred. Since names are used for self-identification, taking these away from the women was another way for the government to steal their individuality and redefine them as property. However, there was a flaw to this plan: all of the women can still remember their original names. The narrator uses this fact to her advantage. She recognizes that although it may seem unimportant, having control over her own name “does matter,” so she “[keeps] the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure [she’ll] come back to dig up, one day” (84). Once again, language is the one aspect of her life that she can fully control. Her secret ownership of her name represents an act of resistance, along with her willingness to trade it, like “treasure,” as a way of revealing her true identity to those she trusts. Notably though, she chooses not to reveal her name to the audience. This gives her power to redefine herself completely. In her story, she’s no longer a handmaid or even Offred, since we know that’s only her government-assigned name. Instead, she takes on the identity of a narrator. Gilead wanted to reduce her to her body, but she rebelled and gave herself a new, omniscient status through language. She illustrates this power when she claims that her “self is a thing [she] must compose, as one composes a speech” (66). These lines provide another example of her skill with words. Primarily, she’s saying she has to collect herself and calm herself down in preparation for the Ceremony. In this case, though, “compose” also refers to her ability to create a new identity, one that she’s entirely in control of as long as she continues to tell this story. The narrator has the freedom to do this secretly, as the government cannot access her thoughts, so she can continue opposing the dystopia without being caught.

On a larger scale, the narrator’s storytelling gives her the power to reject the government’s narrative and to rewrite all of Gilead’s history. As literary critic Wendy Roy recognizes, some of the power in the narrator’s words lies in their ability to “resist both authorized accounts of personal stories and official records of historical events” (Roy 202). Gilead’s government tries to define their actions as noble, claiming that the women are being given “freedom from” sinful behaviors rather than having their freedoms taken away (24). Had their records of history lasted, the leaders likely would have found a way to justify their coup of Gilead. In this case, the narrator could have used her voice to undermine any of these claims about their regime by revealing the truth of her experience and reclaiming autonomy over her position in history. It turns out, though, that her story is one of history’s only lasting accounts of Gilead. Consequently, her words not only shape her own role in Gilead’s history, but they allow her to shape the entirety of history itself. The audience realizes how much power this gives her when the narrator comments on her story being entirely “a reconstruction” of her experiences (134). She notes that, in her reconstruction, it will be “impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out” (134). The narrator has the upper hand; she knows more about Gilead than anyone else, including the historians and even the audience members who only know what she chooses to share. She is one of the only ones who experienced everything, and that now gives her the power to modify or “reconstruct” history however she sees fit (134). It’s ironic that a woman accomplishes this despite all of Gilead’s attempts to quiet women’s voices. Her use of language allows her to make that transition from having a censored and hidden voice to having one of the most invaluable voices in history. She, not any of the Commanders or leaders, becomes the most influential member from the society. Her ultimate victory against the patriarchal forces behind Gilead translates to success for all women, contributing to her status as a feminist icon.

Although the narrator succeeds in her resistance to Gilead’s government, Atwood maintains realism in her novel by choosing to end it with a warning about the persistence of the patriarchy. The historical context chapter reveals the impact of the narrator’s story, but it also reveals that the value of her voice is now being evaluated by a group of men. These men, particularly Pieixoto, constantly belittle the narrator’s character and her story. They exert control over her work by choosing their own name for it, an action that’s reminiscent of the tactics of Gilead’s government. Their title, The Handmaid’s Tale, is meant to be humorous because of its play on “the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail” (Atwood 301). This attempt at humor only mocks the severity of the story’s content. The men even hesitate to hold the leaders of Gilead accountable for their actions, arguing that they “must be cautious about passing moral judgement” since Gilead had been “under a good deal of pressure” (302). As a result, the audience is left grappling with the realization that Pieixoto’s character could challenge some of the narrator’s power to tell her own story. He found her tapes, arranged them in an order that was “based on some guesswork” (302), and then transcribed her spoken words to writing. This raises questions about how much of the storytelling is truly the narrator’s and how much belongs to Pieixoto. This complication—and the fact that the novel ends with his voice, not the narrator’s—serve as glaring reminders of the patriarchy’s constant attempts to silence women’s voices. However, while this last chapter does challenge the narrator’s authority, it does not discount all of the work she did to resist. Her efforts to resist were still effective, and she still left a more lasting impact on the world than any of the men in Gilead. The audience should also remember that Atwood remains the overall author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the one writing and telling Pieixoto’s story. With this in mind, it does not seem likely that Atwood would include the Historical Context chapter with the intention of acquiescing to the patriarchy or implying that men will always triumph. Rather, this final chapter serves as her warning to women about the patriarchy’s inclination to silence their voices and tell their stories for them. She reminds women to stay on guard so that they can maintain control over their own narratives.

Hidden within her haunting dystopia in which women are reduced to their bodies, Atwood writes the hopeful story of one woman’s success in rebelling against the oppressive forces. Whether through her decision to tell her story, her creative manipulation of words, or her ownership over her own identity and name, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale finds numerous ways to resist Gilead. All of these methods of resistance rely on her skill with language and storytelling. The narrator ultimately uses her voice to reclaim control over her own life and all of Gilead’s history, making her the hero, not the victim, of the story. Despite this success, Atwood chooses to maintain realism with her shocking ending. She reminds readers that the patriarchy persists and remains ever-present, whether overtly in Gilead or more subtly in our everyday lives. Consequently, her novel becomes a call to action, inspiring women around the world to continue resisting the patriarchy, building their own identities, and telling their stories against all odds.