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Survival of the Ambiguous: Exposing the Passive Heroine in Atwood's Handmaid

By Edited May 21, 2016 0 0

With The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood pushes the reader into the futuristic realm of Gilead, which is based on a satirical extrapolation of past and present reality. As Offred is submerged in this hypocritical atmosphere where opposing views of politics, religion, and feminism have been fused together, she tells the reader in her faulty "reconstruction" how she survives by learning that she must not ignore her surrounding world, but should pay much closer attention to it (Atwood 56 and 134). Through the observations Offred makes of her politically feminist mother, whom is now cleaning toxic waste in the Colonies, and of her rebellious lesbian friend Moira, whom escapes life as a handmaid only to wind up working in a whorehouse, she realizes that "to survive, . . . one must surrender" (Atwood 238). Though I do not agree that she gives in completely, in a way, Offred does surrender. As she decides to be obedient to the rules and regulations of the Gilead regime to avoid becoming a victim, she is only victimizing herself further. Offred's seeming complacency, which I claim is a survival tool, should not, however, be equated to the act of submitting to the theocratic hypocrisy of the Gilead regime. According to my interpretation, she is still far from giving up her desire to live in a free society and her will to live, in general. I assert that Offred is actually participating in this battle for a free life, but rather than actively attacking her oppressive society, she is implicitly striving to survive by observing and partaking in the use (or misuse) of ambiguous language, words that can have various meanings depending on "context" (Atwood 144 and 192). By noticing the differing connotations of words and the connections that they have to the past, present, and possible future of life in Gilead, I argue that Offred's strongest tool for survival lies in her own ambiguity. Using her observational skills, linguistic knowledge and personal ambiguousness to her advantage, Offred lives to tell her tale (through taped recordings) to future generations (Atwood 301). As her story is told in caution, she implicitly warns the reader (and listener) of falling into the traps of a society where one can only stay alive by having watchful eyes. In the course of surviving to share this caveat with others, I propose that Offred is exposed for who she truly is, a heroine through passivity.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. 1986. New York: Anchor, 1998.

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