Under His eye: prescriptive language and The Handmaid’s Tale
‘Blessed be the fruit’ – so goes the standard greeting in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has recently been adapted for television with the final episode airing the UK this weekend. Living in a post-apocalyptic, authoritarian society in which birth rates have fallen to almost nothing, fertile women – or ‘handmaids’ – are assigned to Commanders and their Wives in order to bear them children. Rule-breaking is monitored by the Big-Brother-esque Eyes and Guardians. And, as Nineteen Eighty-Four taught us, an authoritarian regime goes hand in hand with a heavily-prescribed language. Let’s take a look at some of the terms used in the story…
Where do handmaids come from?
The role of the handmaid has its foundations in an Old Testament story from the Bible. Rachel, unable to have children, says to her husband Jacob: ‘behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her’. The Handmaid’s Tale follows the life of Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss in the TV series) as she learns to survive in the new Republic of Gilead, and this ‘Ceremony’ is recreated once a month by Offred; her Commander, Fred Waterford; and his Wife. But what is a handmaid?
If we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, we can see that the first sense denotes ‘a female personal attendant or servant’; very much like the role of Bilhah in Genesis. The second, however, refers to ‘an abstract or immaterial thing considered as auxiliary to another in a subordinate capacity’. Although not abstract or immaterial (at least not in the biblical sense), Offred’s role as a handmaid is very much that of ‘an auxiliary to another in a subordinate capacity’.
The handmaids have no identity other than that of belonging to their Commanders; they have relinquished their names from the time before Gilead, and instead use names that are formed by combining the possessive of with the name of their commander. Thus, Offred is Of Fred; her shopping partner, Ofglen, is Of Glen – belonging to Glen. Names are of huge linguistic significance: they are often the first thing we learn to write, and one of the first things we are taught when learning a new language (‘What is your name?’/ ‘My name is…’). By removing their given names, Atwood creates a society in which the handmaids no longer have an identity of their own.
Marthas and Jezebels
And it is not just the role of a handmaid that is of linguistic interest. Rita (played by Amanda Brugel) is the Waterfords’ housekeeper, or ‘Martha’. In a passage in the gospel of Luke, Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary. While Mary sits to listen to their guest, Martha hurries to do domestic duties; thus, a Martha is ‘an active or busy woman, usually one occupied with domestic affairs’.
Likewise, Offred’s friend Moira has been given a position in a secret club (kept a secret from the women in Gilead, at least) for the Commanders known as ‘Jezebel’s’. There, women work as prostitutes and dress in clothes and make-up from the time before Gilead’s inception. More commonplace in English today than Martha or handmaid, Jezebel remains a term for a ‘shameless or immoral woman’. Again, this has biblical origins. Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, worshipped false prophets and, in some interpretations, painted her face with make-up; an activity historically associated with prostitution and sexual freedom. Although not frowned upon today, cosmetics are very much forbidden in Gilead (at least for the majority of women), and sexual freedom is unheard of. ‘Jezebel’s’, although seemingly of the ‘time before’, is still tightly monitored by the patriarchy: the women who live and work there are shameful ‘Jezebels’, whereas the men who visit the club remain moral, high-ranking Commanders.
Reading and the Red Centre
As anyone who has watched the series so far will know, women are forbidden to read in Gilead. When Ofsamuel sees Offred’s Commander in the news, she says: ‘I didn’t read it. I promise. I just overhead my Mistress…’, worried about what will become of her. Even the shop signs are illustrated pictorially rather than lexically: we see the (again biblical) ‘loaves and fishes’ of the grocers, from the Feeding of the Five Thousand; ‘daily bread’ of the bakers, from the Lord’s Prayer; and ‘all flesh’, the butcher.
And let’s not forget ‘the Red Centre’ – or the Rachel and Leah centre, as it is more formally known. Again, its name is biblical in origin, and you can read the full passage in Genesis 29. Jacob marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. He loves Rachel more, but she cannot have children, whereas Leah, whom he does not love, has three sons with him. It is a particularly pertinent name for the training centre for handmaids; their purpose is to have children but not be loved.
Hellos and goodbyes
When the residents of Gilead meet, they great each other with the very biblical ‘blessed be the fruit’, the addressee replying ‘may the lord open’. The salutations of this theocratic society again have their origins in the Bible:
If you fully obey the Lord your God […] The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock […] The Lord will open the heavens […] to bless all the work of your hands.
This greeting reveals the founding principles of Gilead: in a society in which people have not obeyed God’s will, but have lived ‘immoral’ lives, fertility and children have become scarce; by creating a very authoritarian, theocratic society in which a woman’s work is very domestic, the leaders hope to create more children.
And to finish here: what of goodbyes? Although the ‘goodbye’ we use is probably a shortened form of the friendly ‘God be with you’, there is no such subtlety in Gilead. Instead, Offred and her companions use the more overt (and much more ominous) ‘under His eye’. The masculine ‘He’ – be it God, the Commanders, or the Eyes themselves – is always watching.