The Handmaid's Tale

Offred and Words-Please see description for details

Throughout the handmaid's tale Offred considers the multiple meanings and connotations of specific words. What might Atwood be suggesting about the flexibility or lack of specificity of language? What does this obsession with words convey about Offred's character or situation?

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One of Atwood's most intricate and well-integrated themes is that of the power of language. The idea of storytelling is woven throughout Offred's tale. She explains that everything is a re-interpretation of something else; nothing is an exact description of the truth. She considers possible themes for her story, pointing out that she has attempted to improve the tone of her story by adding in things like "flowers". She apologizes for the presence of so much violence and pain. As the historical notes point out, Offred's narrative is quite dissimilar from a straightforward historical account. She talks about different things, asks different questions, and provides different answers.

Another interesting use of language is found in the manner in which Offred thinks of words and analyzes them, using them to distract her from her reality and to help her survive. For example, at one point she thinks of the word chair and its many meanings, from a method of execution to the French word for flesh. When she and the Commander play Scrabble, she uses the search for words to distract herself from her fear and confusion.

Of course, one of the major changes to language enacted by the regime is that the use of language has become illicit for women. On the one hand, this lends words and language even more power. On the other hand, it renders the illicit use of language almost sexual. Offred may think so fiercely of words and take such solace in the repetition of memories because doing so helps her to retain her knowledge of language. When the Commander allows Offred to read or plays Scrabble with her, she realizes they are practicing a kind of "kinky" sexual act.