Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Construction of the Human Subject

PR & Marketing Officer Natasha Hemmings examines the human subject within Margaret Atwood’s classic novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. 

Discourses are “structured systems of language around particular areas of knowledge” (Burke 222). Foucault argues that the power-knowledge relationship within a discourse is inseparable and that it creates subjugation because discourse is how “modern societies intervene from day one to shape, train, and normalize individuals” (Leitch 1471). Although Foucault’s notion of discourse and Althusser’s concept of ideology differ, Foucault was Althusser’s student and therefore it is unsurprising that their theories have similarities concerning subject construction. Althusser states that ideology is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (1350), meaning ideology masks the material conditions of a society. According to Althusser, ideology is used to the advantage of ruling classes in order to maintain domination whereas Foucault’s understanding of discourse “does not make discourse the product of a particular class or a set of class conflicts and conjunctions” (Bové 56), and therefore discourse is not in the service of that status quo. Nevertheless, discourse can support hegemony and act as a delivery system for ideology because “discourses and their related disciplines and institutions […] are power’s relays throughout the modern social system” (Bové 58) and power can entail domination. Althusser and Foucault demonstrate how the subject is constructed by the carceral system, normalization and self-regulation or self-recognition. I argue that dystopian fiction often reveals the aforementioned ways in which a subject is constructed within a discourse which is exemplified in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The way in which social institutions mould human subjects within a discourse is explored by Foucault in his discussion of the carceral system and through Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses. For Althusser, Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) allow hegemony to continue: RSAs comprise the violent wing, whilst ISAs are private institutions which act more subtly on the individual by teaching them “‘rules’ of good behaviour” (1337), of the unified ideology and creating obedient citizens. These mechanisms of subjection are often explored by dystopian literature and are implicitly revealed in The Handmaid’s Tale. This argument is endorsed by Stillman’s assertion that “the narrative utilizes many fundamental elements common in dystopias […] those who do not fit the society’s norms are re-educated, expelled or executed” (71). Indeed, Althusser’s ISAs would be used for re-education and RSAs for expulsion and execution. Re-education plays an extremely important role in Atwood’s dystopian society, Gilead. Construction of the Handmaids as subjects is highlighted by the protagonist’s recurring and often involuntary recollections of the Rachel and Leach Re-education Centre. For example, when Offred thinks “Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said […]” (Atwood 18), it is clear that her perception of freedom has been moulded by her education. The educational ISA is most important for Althusser and is why the Handmaids accept a patriarchal, totalitarian theocracy. Furthermore, it appears that RSAs have an even greater necessity in a dystopian society because the ideology of the previous discursive regime remains. Therefore, the “[s]tate apparatus secures by repression […] the political conditions for the action of Ideological State Apparatuses” (Althusser 1344), which can explain why Offred is taken to and held at the Red Centre by force. Similarly, Foucault states that “the carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpetual observation” (1499), and that the institutions which constitute individuals work in the same ways as prisons because “submissive subjects are produced and a dependable body of knowledge built up about them” (1491). This knowledge entails power because having knowledge allows those with power to increase their domination over those with less. Foucault discusses institutions such as schools and the public health sector and “in each case, an institution moulds behaviour according to a norm, subordinates individuals to institutional demands, examines and watches over all subjects, and punishes deviants” (Leitch, 1471). This is exemplified in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the state has power over all aspects of the Handmaid’s lives. Offred recounts that she is “taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests […] the same as before, except that now it’s obligatory” (Atwood 69), which allows the state to have greater knowledge of the condition of her body and fertility so they can decide how to use their power over her, either banishing her to the colonies or allowing her to remain in her positon. For Foucault, “a panoptic (all-seeing) power keeps subjects under constant surveillance” (Leitch, 1471) and this is explored in The Handmaid’s Tale where Offred describes Gilead’s Secret Police, the Eyes, and how “the windows of the vans are dark-tinted, and the men in the front seats wear dark glasses: a double obscurity” (Atwood, 31). This notion of vision corresponds to Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican, used by Foucault, which is a circular prison with a tower in the middle so that a single guard can observe all the prisoners but they are unable to see him, thus subjecting the prisoners to constant surveillance. As The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates, institutions create subjects within a discursive regime through ideological conditioning and obtaining knowledge of subjects.

Another way subjects are created in The Handmaid’s Tale is through the normalization of the individual. Stillman writes that “Gilead is a hierarchical society with highly differentiated roles, status-rankings and activities” (71), which supports Foucault’s argument that “through language various bodies are assigned to various categories […] and various actions are designated in relation to norms as praiseworthy, deviant, punishable, or criminal” (Leitch 1472). In “The History of Sexuality,” Foucault explores the classification of deviant sexualities during the nineteenth century and how power discursively created the label of homosexuality resulting in the fact that “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual now was a species” (1517). This displays how categorization is used within a discourse to create specific identities for the individual and in doing so this increases their subjection by increasing state knowledge. Therefore, we can see “normalization as a technique of power” (Rouse 98) which is demonstrated through the subjects of Gilead who have “their status and purpose made evident by their uniforms and their names” (Stillman 71). As categorization is relative and arbitrary, these categories are specific to Gilead. For example, Handmaids are named after the Commander (male leader) of their household with the addition of ‘Of’ at the start of their name so the narrator, Offred, is literally “Of Fred,” belonging to the Commander, and they wear red to signify their position as breeders. Gilead has also reduced Offred’s identity solely to her reproductive status, by categorising her as fertile, so that she perceives a loss of individuality, thinking of herself as “a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear” (Atwood 84). Although normalisation is generally seen as negative because it endorses subjection, sometimes these categories can be liberating and uniting as they create a shared identity. Nevertheless, normalization is predominantly negative in The Handmaid’s Tale where some individuals, such as Moira, even attempt to resist it. Offred had the choice of rejecting her categorization as a Handmaid but this would only result in a more dangerous classification because she would have been declared an “Unwoman” and sent to the colonies. Hence, either in acceptance of the prevalent discourse or in opposition to it, naturalization and its role in the construction of the subject is inescapable in Atwood’s dystopian society.

One of the most important ways that the subject is constructed within a society is through self-regulation and self-recognition, which is particularly important in a dystopian regime as it can be seen as the subjects’ acceptance of or at least adherence to hegemony. Peter Barry states that one of the areas where Foucault and Althusser agree is that “power is internalised by those whom it disempowers, so that it does not have to be constantly enforced externally” (170). Althusser writes that “ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects” (1357), showing that we do not really ever have a choice in our subjection and consequent lack of individuality. Interpellation is, for Althusser, our self-recognition of being hailed as a subject and also entails that the subject has been infected by the dominant ideology so that they learn obedience to authority. For example, the Handmaid’s self-recognition of their place within Gilead is evident in their participation in the aptly named “Particicution” (Atwood 291), where the Handmaids persecute a wrongly accused man and they willingly beat him doing “as the government would wish” (Stillman 76). Foucault also theorized self-subjugation and argued that we become useful within a society because people actually police themselves. Undeniably, by the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred has completely permitted her subjection to the dominant discourse or ideology of Gileadean society, just as she had done in the US society before it was overthrown, admitting that “I resign my body freely, to the use of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject” (Atwood, 298). She accepts that she has no individuality or freedom.

The Handmaid’s Tale shows how, according to the theories of Foucault and Althusser, the subject is constructed within a discourse through social institutions, naturalization and self-subjection (which affirms the success of the former devices). Self-subjection is arguably the most important element in the construction of the subject because without it the discursive regime would be faced with greater dissent and resistance. Stillman argues that “Gilead as an imagined dystopia in Atwood’s fiction is a warning to present-day readers about how perilous is their present” (81), because the construction of subjects demonstrates exists in today’s societies. The current fascination with dystopian fiction attests that we are abhorred by the ultimate subjection demonstrated by such societies but are not always able to detect it within our own.

Works Cited

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