How is power distributed in Gilead? Give examples from your reading of the first 15 chapters of the novel.

  • the Eyes – create the feeling of being watched, that you cannot trust anyone. Nick winks at Offred, she does not respond for fear that he is testing her. Offred also says ‘mayday’ to the new Ofglen and is immediately worried about having revealed herself.
  • Echoes of religion: the idea that an all-powerful body (such as God) sees everything is similar to surveillance in a totalitarian regime. The idea is to not take risks because there is always someone watching you.
  • Eventually, people begin to internalize the values of the regime and ideology called ‘panoptical design’. In the beginning, Offred resists internalisation by dryly interjecting quotes from Aunt Lydia: ‘Gilead is within you,’ ‘there is [the] freedom to and freedom from. Do not underestimate it’ etc
  • Clothes show power – not just in colour categorisation (such as the Handmaids in red to symbolise their fertility) but in the wings too; Offred can see straight ahead but not on either side, limiting her ability to observe her surroundings. The motif of vision/the eyes are also a powerful symbol of being watched – and when Offred first makes eye contact with Ofglen in Chapter 27, she comments on the feeling of danger. It is about making that human connection that is so strictly forbidden, but also about power (who can do what to whom and get away with it).

Focus in particular on punishment for ‘dissension’: examine the description of The Wall on pp43-45 and p53 (p55).

  • One of the means of enforcing good behaviour is by having The Wall – with bodies remaining there sometimes for days at a time. They have placards around their necks with a symbol of their crime.
  • The Handmaids walk past it every day on the way to the shops to reinforce it. The bodies also remain there for days so everyone has a chance to see it.
  • There are plastic bags over the bodies’ heads, making them appear like dolls or scarecrows (which, in a way, is what they are). It is dehumanising, keeping the focus on the crime they committed rather than their identity.
  • The fact that their crimes are ‘retroactive’ (45) doesn’t matter – they are still sins. Shows the extent of power that Gilead seeks. (Gender treachery, abortions, Priests)
  • Offred feels ‘that [she] must not feel’ looking at the Wall; not letting herself fear Gilead, because then they have power over her. By fictionalising her life (pretending it is a story – it will come to an end) to keep control, to stay sane, to convince herself into surviving.
  • When Ofglen starts crying, Offred also questions if it is real. This suspicion is part of how Gilead maintains control; people are too scared to converse, share emotions etc. (Human connection breeds strength)