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My High School Story

The Handmaid’s Tale Chapter 5 – Power in Gilead

The nature and power of the Gileadean regime are developed and established in this chapter.

Largely, the totalitarian regime exerts control through its language – Aunt Lydia, who is essentially a mouthpiece for Gilead, describes ‘freedom to and freedom from’, justifying the strict control over women (even over time) by commenting on the fact that, before Gilead, ‘women weren’t protected’; were, in fact, ‘dying of too much choice’. Not only does the rhetoric of Gilead reveal some of its justifications, but the restriction of language is another means by which the regime can control women. For example, the clothes shop ‘Lilies of the Field’ has had ‘the lettering… painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation’. Evidently, all aspects to life – even something as mundane as a shop sign – is restricted; the totalitarian state seeks to truly dictate every aspect of life. Immediately after, this is juxtaposed by a description of an old movie theatre where Offred remembers seeing women with blouses that ‘suggested the possibilities of the word undone.‘ This implies promiscuity – and the connotation of ‘undone’ is about downfall and ruin; thus making a link between the two.

By dryly interjecting lines from Aunt Lydia, Offred makes it clear that she does not agree with this rhetoric: she says “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you”, but Offred goes on to describe that there used to be a university with doctors and lawyers – but who are now gone. This links back to the suppression of any possible opposition, and the depiction of the centre of Gilead as quiet, ‘where nothing moves’ adds to the ominous mood. There is the feeling of being watched that is so fundamental to Gilead’s power, and the fact that Gilead ‘knows no bounds’ is simply marking the totalitarianism. But the contrast of the regime’s rhetoric and Offred’s memories is arguably a means of resistance, as Offred largely maintains her previous identity through snippets of her husband and daughter that she allows herself during the ‘Night’ chapters. The juxtaposition of past and present narration is a method of retaking control for Offred, as her personal identity in the all-controlling state is what provides strength – linking back to the concept of Sufism and finding strength within you. Ironically, this parallels Lydia’s claim that ‘Gilead is within you’.

The motif of the double also relates here – with the separation and juxtaposition of her past and present selves, Offred fictionalises Gilead as a coping mechanism. She recounts a fairly normal memory of a lazy Sunday; she describes this freedom as ‘weightless’, connoting the weight she now bears in her oppression and her role in society. Typically, in literature, the double is when a character sees themselves reflected in another. This motif can also be seen in Offred’s predecessor – who is perhaps a reflection of what Offred could become if she succumbs. By commenting on some of the recognisable dangers of running at night, or entering a laundromat alone, there is the suggestion that instead of the threat of men (or assault), there is the threat of the regime and punishment. There will always be some form of threat, but this never stopped women from living their lives.

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