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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood's use of diction to depict the stripping of women's rights and the women's reality in Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale


Margaret Atwood uses stark, oppressive diction in The Handmaid's Tale to depict the stripping of women's rights and their harsh reality in Gilead. Words like "forbidden," "possession," and "subjugation" emphasize the loss of autonomy and the brutal control exerted over women, reflecting their reduced status and the totalitarian regime's power.

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How does Margaret Atwood use diction to depict the stripping of women's rights in The Handmaid's Tale?

Ways in which Margaret Atwood uses diction to portray the stripping of women's rights in The Handmaid's Tale include stripping personal identifiers of the narrator and other handmaids.

The book opens with the sentence, "We slept in what had once been the gymnasium." This leads the reader to wonder to whom "we" refers. The author does not answer the question at this point. There are no names supplied for the handmaids.

In the beginning paragraphs, the only names we learn are those of Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth, and we soon recognize that the "Aunts" have more rights than the handmaids in the pecking order and therefore deserve to be identified by name.

Conversely, the handmaids are merely commodities. One is easily replaced by another and they therefore do not warrant individual names. This theme is supported by identifying the handmaids merely by the names of their respective commanders. However, the handmaids themselves recognize the importance of retaining their individualism and the chapter ends with, "we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June."

Other ways Atwood uses diction to create the dystopian nature of Gilead's society, where women's rights have been eliminated, include using sentence fragments and sparse language. For instance, chapter 2 opens with, "A chair, a table, a lamp."

This is not a complete sentence. The structure helps to portray the jarring environment. Moreover, in keeping with the handmaids' lack of individual identity, we are not given information that would make these items stand out, such as color, shape or size. We sense only a generic chair, table, and lamp. In fact, the narrator herself notes, "Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder?"

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What specific elements of Atwood's diction in The Handmaid's Tale convey the women's reality in Gilead?

Try and think of diction as the vocabulary an author uses to tell a story or make a point. Different authors might use different kinds of words to convey different ideas or emotions, and paying attention to an author's diction can help you better understand their writing and meaning.

In The Handmaid's Tale, the diction used by Margaret Atwood conveys the harsh reality of women's lives in the dystopian society of Gilead. The language is often bleak and oppressive, reflecting the limited freedom and agency of the female characters. For example, the handmaids are referred to by their assigned commander's name and are not allowed to use their own. This serves to strip them of their identity and reinforce their objectification and subjugation. Additionally, the use of religious language and terminology serves to justify the oppressive and discriminatory rules of Gilead, further highlighting the lack of choice and autonomy for the women living within this society.

It is worth noting that Atwood's diction also serves to illustrate the resilience and resistance of the female characters. Despite the oppressive circumstances, the handmaids—including the protagonist, Offred—find ways to resist and subvert the rules of Gilead through small acts of rebellion and the maintenance of their inner selves. This serves to emphasize the strength and humanity of these characters in the face of such adversity.

Overall, Atwood's use of diction in The Handmaid's Tale effectively conveys the reality of the women's lives in Gilead and serves to highlight the oppressive nature of the society as well as the resilience and resistance of the female characters.

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