Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a disturbing novel that displays the presence and manipulation of power. This is displayed throughout the novel and is represented significantly in three ways. As the book takes place in the republic of Gilead, the elite in society are placed above every other individual who are not included in their level. Secondly, men are placed at the top of the chain and they significantly overpower women in the society (elite or not). Finally the individuals within the elite society also overpower each other and have their own separate roles.
This can be interpreted as a chain. Men of the elite are placed at the top, the men who less elite are placed after then comes the women who are at the bottom. This distinguishes the ‘level’ of authority each group has which evidently shows the corruption in the structure of the society. The society was formed in the near future within the United States borders. The plan began with a false terrorist attack that assumingly murdered the president that overthrew the United States’ government.
This lead access to electronic banking that was manipulated to strip the rights of all women and the ‘undesirables’. After manipulating the middle class society it was then reorganized to be an unfair hierarchal environment. As the members of the elite in society obtain power from this manipulation, they are placed above any other individual. This is evidently shown as each position of authority is distinguished by colour (dress code) and a certain title that separates the elite from the women and the ‘undesirables’.
The majority of the elites are men and they are divided into five categories, four of which are considered elite and one that is considered an ‘undesirable’. While the women are divided into nine categories, five of which are considered legitimate and two that are considered illegitimate. However, all in all, legitimate or not the majority of women are still inferior to the majority of men. Also, the women and the men who committed a crime or who are excluded in the elite society are either executed or sent to the ‘colonies’ to die a slow death.
These were the ‘unwomen’ and the gender traitors. For example, in the novel, it was stated that ‘there are three new bodies on the Wall’ (the ‘Wall’ was referred to where the freshly executed bodies were displayed). Two out of the three ‘have purple placards hung around their necks [that read] Gender Treachery… [not to mention that] their bodies [were] still [dressed in] the Guardians’ uniform’ [pg 53]. As this routine continues the cycle is kept running in order to keep the elite society ‘pure’. Therefore, those who are considered as ‘contaminating’ the elites must be eliminated.
Secondly, as stated before the men in the elite society are placed higher than all women. Despite being classified into different groups, women seemed to be placed at the bottom as they are once again stripped from their own independence and rights. This is shown in the book as the women are reassigned to their former jobs as tools for reproduction, cleaning and cooking. They are categorized through their duties and they all serve the men of the elite society, particularly the commander. Thus in creating this arrangement, women are completely inferior to men and have almost no power over them.
However, in some cases it is different. For example, Serena Joy who is the wife of a commander has a higher status than someone like Nick, the commander’s chauffer or one of the ‘Guardians of the Faith’. Never the less, the ‘Commanders of the Faithful’, the ‘Eyes’, the ‘Angels’ and the ‘Guardians of the Faith’ have more privileges than other women in terms of more freedom and more authority. But yet, the novel also indicates that each individual, women or men has power over other individuals within the elite society and the ‘undesirables’ including men and women.
The novel addresses specific people with a certain title indicating that this particular individual has some sort of importance that contributes to the elite group. Each title has a specific gender and colour to distinguish their role. However, note that for the women, they wear veils that are in their assigned colour. For example, the wives of the commanders are dressed in blue. Serena Joy was first faintly introduced as the commander’s wife who was sitting in the garden ‘her knees on a cushion [with] a light blue veil thrown over her wide gardening hat’ [pg 22].
Another example is the commanders. They are dressed in black and they are placed in a higher position than the wives as well as any other member in the elite society. The colour could imply that black overthrows every other colour symbolizing the position of the men and the power held against the women and the lower graded men. Also note that each character somewhat holds power over another character. For example, in the novel it is very evident that the commander has shown great interest in the novel’s protagonist, Offred.
It was mainly because Offred was ‘Handmaid’ and could give the Commander what he wanted, children. This started off when the Commander asked Offred if she could ‘play a game of Scrabble with [him]’ in one of their meetings. After the games, he asked her to kiss him indicating that he still held authority over her. However, at the end of the chapter, he was clearly disappointed. His words were ‘not like that…as if you meant it’ [pg 150]. This was the sign shown indicating that Offred had the Commander hooked and a power of some sort over their unorthodox relationship.
This became more evident when Offred scolded the Commander because he tried to touch her in a certain way when his wife, Serena Joy was present [pg 171]. She had enough power to manipulate him to receive an apology. It was when Offred and the Commander had another one their meetings that displayed the control she has over the Commander. The meeting started off as a friendly chat like the previous, Offred was reading a book but requested to talk. It was during this talk that she was able to manipulate the Commander.
Starting the conversation friendly about general things she gradually got the Commander to tell her ‘what’s going on’ subtly [pg 194 – 198]. Overall, it is known that the elite society of the Republic of Gilead is placed above any other individual who either committed a crime or are excluded from their level. Those who commit a crime will be executed or sent to the colonies. Secondly, the majority of men overpower women. This is so then the women wouldn’t be able to overpower the men and they were reassigned their formers duties of being tools for reproduction, cleaning and cooking.
Oddly enough, in some cases, certain types of women have more authority than some men. Finally each individual within the elite society have different levels of authority against each other. But yet, each character possesses their own level of power over another character. The corruption in the structure of the society is shown evidently through a chain. It is categorized by the ‘level’ of authority each group has. The elite men are placed at the top, followed by the lower graded men and then the women of the society. These are the ways in which the presence and manipulation of power is presented in The Handmaid’s Tale.