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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 948
  • Category: Poems

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The Handmaid’s Tale, on the surface, is a feminist text. However, it employs other themes and literary devices in driving forward the themes of patriarchy and gender suppression. One of such themes is the power of language. As seen in the novel, language can be used both as an instrument of suppression and as a tool for liberation. The scrabble game in Chapter 23 and the events surrounding it, when viewed in the context of the authoritarian state of Gilead foreshadow a notable shift in the development of the plot. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to explore the inherent symbolism it carries, I will also explore the words Offred spells out during the game and conclude by highlighting the significance of those events to the plot of the novel.

Atwood’s use of scrabble as imagery in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is by no means isolated. Her poem “Spelling” begins with a similar sort of symbolism. “My daughter plays on the floor with plastic letters” she writes, going further to state that “A word after a word

after a word is power”. This bears a close semblance to Offred’s narrative in Chapter 23, “I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it”. This shows that Atwood’s choice of scrabble was not for the want of an arbitrary game, it fits into a recurring theme of the power of language in Atwood’s work.

The game of scrabble, though forbidden in Gilead, is available to high-ranking officers. Language has been seized by the authoritarian government, with religious terminology used as labels in the dystopian state. The patriarchal society has removed names of department stores, invented names for absurd ceremonies such as “birthing”, “the Salvaging” and “The Ceremony”. The game of scrabble itself represents a form of resistance to a society where all forms of reading by women had been banned. The ability to create words represented a core freedom which Offred was willing to exploit.

The words Offred chooses to spell are also symbolic and deserve deeper analysis. “Larynx”, also known as the windpipe, where the voicebox lies, could be interpreted as a metaphor for self-expression.

“Valance” is a type of window covering, also denoting the illicitness of the relationship she was having with the Commander.

The word “quince” however provides an interesting meaning. Although the Bible does not specifically name the specific type of the fruit that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, some ancient texts suggest Eve’s fruit of temptation might have been a quince.[1]This seems to fit perfectly into the continuous use of language with religious overtones in The Handmaid’s Tale. The word could also be seen as the use of sarcasm to emphasise her freedom to display wit.

The word “Zygote”, a fertilised egg, has obvious connections to her role in the society of Gilead. The choice of the word could be a reflection of the fact that she was still a part of that society and therefore governed by the social expectations enforced upon her. The lack of ambiguity in the choice of this world could also imply a sort of boldness, seeing as the Commander could easily understand it.

There is some irony in the fact that the supposedly radical act of playing a scrabble game only manages to take away the clarity of Offred’s feelings about her surroundings. First it led her to find a bit of humanity in the Commander. She develops an illusion of control, “Men are sex machines” she thought, “You must learn to manipulate them for your own good”. She begins to empathise with him and for a moment, these feelings were extended to his wife Serena joy. “Partly I was jealous of her…I also felt guilty about her”. This confusion in her thoughts is a result of a false-consciousness, she admits herself that there was a danger of falling in love with the Commander. Later events, like the death of Offwarren served to rid her of this illusion.

The significance of the game however goes beyond Offred’s inner thoughts. In one scene, she had, with the help of the scrabble board, articulated way more thoughts than she had in any of the other chapters. This explains the reason why Scrabble had been presented with an entirely different status in this society. “This was once the game of old women, old men, in the summers or in retirement villas.” What was a game of innocence in the past is now forbidden. The scrabble game is a satirical view to Atwood’s new society, highlighting the ills of censorship and suppression. It also presented an irony, exposing the hypocrisy of the state of Gilead and making a mockery of the proponents of conservative gender roles in society.

The understated irony however, is seen in Offred’s first comment on the credibility of her storytelling. “As I said, this is a reconstruction” Offred stated, leading the reader to doubt of her account of the events. The reader never finds out if the scrabble game was real or whether it was wishful thinking on her part. To further buttress this point, the origin of the word “scrabble” means to “to grope frantically”[2], leaving a chance that the Offred’s record of the event was snide sarcasm. What we do know however, is that whatever happened in the room with the Commander led to a change in Offred’s perception of Gilead, and moves the direction of the plot away from the long introduction to Gilead she had being giving in the preceding chapters.

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