Examine how Atwood presents Offred’s sense of self in “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Sense of self can be defined by the “roles, attributes, behaviours, and associations that we consider most important about our selves”.1 Atwood wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale” during the 80s; (1986 to be precise) an era of ‘power-dressing’.A key icon of the ‘power-dressing’ was the wife of the American president, Nancy Reagan, who wore outfits with huge shoulder pads, making her look more masculine.
Famous women like her encapsulated what the women of the time aspired to be: rich, beautiful, intelligent and powerful. In “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Offred constantly refers back to her old life and the way she used to style herself in comparison to the way she looks now. She remembers, “Makeup”3 and “bathing suits and platform shoes”4, “sheer pantyhose against the skin”5, and “the smell of nail paint”6. All these things relate to the image that she once aspired to obtain, and this constant regression shows how she longs to return to her life before the regime, when she was secure in her identity.
The air of desirability Atwood gives these things reflects how Offred desires them. However, this does not mean that Offred needs these things to regain her sense of self; Atwood simply uses them as symbols of Offred’s true identity which she attributes to herself and her life before the regime. In contrast, Atwood uses negative language to describe the red dress Offred now wears. The phrases, “a nondescript woman in red”7 and, “the colour of blood, which defines us”8 hint at Offred’s contempt towards her red dress.
This shows how Offred recognises that her obligatory red dress is not a reflection of her personality (as clothing should be) but a barrier between her and the rest of the world; in this dress she is Offred, a Handmaid and nothing else. Even her name, “Offred” is evidence of the regime taking away her identity because it can be interpretated as, ‘Of-Fred’ meaning that she is Fred’s (the Commander’s) possession. This concept supports Simone de Beauvoir’s comments that, “she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not with reference to her”9.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale” the name Offred does not tell the reader anything about Offred as a person, it only tells them that she is a Handmaid who belongs to the Commander, Fred, her actually identity is not referred to at all. Our names become a part of who we are and we are identified by them; after losing her name, Offred feels the need to remind herself of it, to ensure her true identity is not lost, “This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. 10 The words, “aura”, “amulet” and, “charm” create a semantic field of mystery and magic which reflects Offred’s feelings towards her name; now that she is not allowed to use it, she views it as something to be in awe of, something she must “treasure” and, “dig up, one day”11. The word, “amulet” refers to something that protects you from danger; the danger for Offred would be to completely lose her sense of self so Offred refers to this name in order to connect with her ‘self’ because she recognises that she is not actually part of this regime at all; she remembers her real name to separate herself from it.
However, the importance of Offred’s real name in the redevelopment of her sense of self is accurately demonstrated when she tells Nick, “I tell him my real name, and feel that therefore I am known. “12 Offred’s real name is extremely personal to her, before she felt as if she was simply a Handmaid with no other identity but once she tells Nick her real name she feels as if she is telling him who she really is, apart from the regime. Atwood also uses the character of Nick as a literary tool to develop Offred’s sense of self, through the development of her sexual identity.
Nick becomes a recurring theme, representing masculinity; he is described as having forearms which are, “tanned but with a stipple of dark hairs”13, whereas Offred imagines that the Commander has a,”white, tufted raw body”14which makes him sound like the absolute opposite of Nick, undesirable and unattractive; and subconsciously Offred rejects him showing that she still has the power to chose who she falls in love with or feels emotion towards.
Offred’s emotions are unique to her and therefore define part of her identity; during the conception ceremony Offred’s narrative includes very little emotion and her tone is detached,” One detaches oneself. One describes”. 15 By referring to ‘one’ in general and not specifically to herself shows how Offred is using denial as a defence mechanism to avoid the shameful truth that she is actually having sex with the Commander; she even says, “what he is fucking is the lower part of my body”16.
Atwood uses this detached tone to illustrate how Offred has become accustomed to how her body has been violated, but the expletive, “fucking” shows that she does not agree with it and is angry at this violation. She wants the reader to understand that throughout all this, Offred is trying to retain her sense of self and is still ‘herself’ in her mind. In contrast, Offred’s forbidden sexual relationship with Nick is a loving relationship which creates a parallel with the similar forbidden relationship she had with Luke, before the regime.
Offred used to view herself as Luke’s lover, then eventually his wife, these were roles that were important to her and roles that she attributed to her identity, “Can I be blamed for wanting a real body to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied. “17 The rhetorical question shows how confused and alone Offred feels and the word, “disembodied” highlights Offred’s need to feel loved in a physical relationship because she defines herself through her interaction with others, but in the dystopian society in which she lives this social and emotional interaction has been removed.
When Offred finally does sleep with Nick he becomes a substitute for Luke, “I went back to Nick. Time after time on my own, without Serena knowing”. 18 Atwood uses short sentences to give the reader a blunt and concise account of what happened; the fact that Offred slept with Nick is irrelevant in comparison to the implications it has. The small, insignificant rebellions Offred has executed throughout the novel come to a climax at this point in the story, where Offred shows that she is willing to sacrifice her life and social standing in an attempt to express her true self.
The phrase, “on my own” draws attention to Offred’s new found confidence and independence and the fact that Serena does not know about it symbolises her freedom from the regime. Atwood uses personal pronouns, “I tell, therefore, you are”, which enables Offred to personalise the listener/reader whom she is narrating to. Her references to the unidentified, “you” is ironic, because in a way she is talking to herself, about herself. She is becoming introspective and generates a sense of self pity through creating this other person.
Atwood is trying to make the reader feel included in the novel; she is also giving Offred a way of coping with her loneliness and isolation. This notion supports Helene Cixous’ belief that, “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her. “19 By telling her story Offred portraits a part of her personality and therefore, a part of her identity in her story, and because she cannot freely express her personality in the society in which she lives, she resorts to living in the memories of her nameless audience.
Offred’s storytelling also supports Mallik’s opinion that Atwood includes, “basic victim positions”20 in her novel, because she tells her story to her ‘audience’ in order to regain a part of her identity which she realises has been taken away from her; and as the novel progresses she becomes more willing to rebel to reclaim it. Atwood uses the narrative tone to reflect the emotional state of the narrator.
At the beginning of the novel Offred is confused, “like a sleepwalker conceiving disjointed perceptions of its surroundings,”21 but by the end of the novel, “the narrative voice assumes a fully engaged emotional tone” which reflects Offred’s emotional development, and mirrors how she is no longer a passive entity but an active woman who is willing to fight for what she wants.