Words of Condemnation

Throughout the book The Handmaid’s Tale, we see the author Margaret Atwood emphasize the decay of words when it comes to describing censorship within the tyrannical rule and dystopian setting of the book. This intent shown through Atwood’s writing helps the reader understand how words affect the concept of freedom for an individual or a society as a whole. In the following paragraph, these moments will be decrypted and magnified. We’ll also see later on that this case of censorship is not just special to The Handmaid’s Tale.

During the beginning chapters, the narrator Offred voices this standard of living: “Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” (Chp 2, pg 8). This happens as the narrator describes her surroundings, as she refuses to explain why things are laid out the way they are. From this quote alone, it can be inferred that thinking outside the given outline provided by the current society is forbidden. And thus, if the narrator puts any meaning to the things around her, she has failed the spiritual values imposed on her. The things that happen around her are a matter of fact. The people in power allowed it. That’s all that can be thought of it.

Jumping off of that, there are moments where the narrator does think. A thought of the times before. One such example of a thought of the times before is during a specific section of the reading where the narrator reminisces about a love song. After it, she would say the following: “I don’t know if the words are right. I can’t remember. Such songs are not sung anymore in public, especially the ones that use words like free. They are considered too dangerous. They belong to outlawed sects.” (Chp 10, pg 54). Here, it’s important to mention that a song is a body of words. With this understanding, we can simplify this quote as saying that these bodies of words are considered too dangerous. Furthermore, it can also be inferred that these bodies of words (love songs) aren’t dangerous in the sense that they are a threat to human safety, but rather that they are a threat to the religious ideologies, or thinking practices, held by the tyrannical rule in place. To add onto the banning of songs, we can also look into the burning of magazines, an action very similar to a specific country in the past: “They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time” (Chp 7, pg 38). And so, all this has nothing to do with preventing human detriment, but all to do with preventing thinking that goes against a belief.

Among all that, Offred, later on, acknowledges that those higher in the hierarchy, in this context, the commander, has the word: “He has something we don’t have, he has the word.” (Chp 15, pg 88). From this quote, the reader may oftentimes be misled into thinking that the word simply means power, but it has a double meaning. Not only does it mean power, but it literally means what it means – word. The commanders, who’s higher in the hierarchy than the narrator, not only have more power, but the ability to think on a larger scale. Not intellectually, rather among the rules that the narrator has to follow, the commander will have less in total, but also have the ability to know beyond the narrator’s current understanding of the setting. Previously mentioned, the narrator refuses to give meaning to her surroundings. In reference to the commander, he’s able to describe the reasonings; meanings. However, he’s not the one who gets to place those meanings, he only gets to describe. This is largely because the author implies that there is a higher power, higher to that of the commander – possibly Angels, Eyes, etc – which I’m unable to fully describe as of now.

Now, why are these scenarios not just special to The Handmaid’s Tale? This is because it has real world connotations. For example the previously mentioned concepts in the historical context of the real world can be found in the following: Nazi Germany[1], the North Korean Government[2], and the Chinese Government[3]. Nazi Germany, as we know, examined the flow of words by controlling the press, whether it be newspapers, radios, or newsreels. Previously I mentioned the burning of magazines, but I never clarified what country took a similar action. It is undoubtedly Nazi Germany. They burned books they consider to be un-German – Jewish authors and non-Jewish authors that conflict with Nazi ideals similar to Gilead. Furthermore, they banned Germans from listening to radio’s foreign to their own. The list goes on for Nazi Germany, so what about the North Korean government and the Chinese government? They are about the same. North Korea is stricter than China, of course, but both oversee the media and dispose of media that go against their beliefs. From personal knowledge, China, instead of Youtube, has other platforms to share only ITS content. So, from these three real-life sources, it’s easy to acknowledge that communication, which relies heavily on words, of multiple perspectives are condemned by the highest group that places the meanings – the governments.

And what do people do when it is condemned, with no possibility for expression? Much like the narrator, they get used to it. They forbiddenly make sense of it: “But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.” (Chp 2, pg 8). For an individual under these pretenses, they’ll stop thinking and begin to wander as if they are nothing but corpses. And, as humans do, they’ll find a way to justify their sense of living through the words of its controller.

“For survival may be, freedom (words) is (are) unseen (unsaid).” — They say.


[1] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/nazi-propaganda-and-censorship

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-16255126

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/26/business/china-censored-search-engine.html