Atwood uses word play in this dystopian novel to reinforce themes and ideas and to create the implication of and foreshadow ideas without direct allusion to them. Atwoods character Offred also uses word play to both remember her past and as a conscious resistance to her present.
The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the USA. The country is both at war and undergoing Ethnic Cleansing. Due to pollution and other factors the birth rate has declined below the line of zero replacement. Puritanical and Biblical influences on Gilead are evident throughout with womens roles based upon Biblical precedents. Such as the Handmaids which mirror Genesiss Rachael and Leah. All unmarried women with viable ovaries are held in bondage to a Commander for the sole purpose of procreation.
Atwood alludes to the purpose of the Handmaids early in the book: Waste not want not. I am not being wasted, why do I want? I am not being wasted is effective in its implication that Offred is viewed as a possession or object rather than an individual, it is also effective in intriguing the reader by building suspense, how is she not being wasted and why does she want? This early intimation foreshadows the knowledge that Offred has a purpose beyond her individuality that she is not satisfied with.
There is much sexual implication throughout the book, effecting a 1984-like state where sexual instinct is repressed with only the high powered Commanders legally permitted to procreate – with sexual energies redirected into hatred and war. In chapter four Offred makes eye contact with a young Guardian. She imagines touching his face in defiance of the law thinking: Such moments are possibilities, tiny peepholes. The imagery in the word peepholes is of voyeuristic, illicit sex: which has the effect of enhancing the theme of taboo and illegality of recreational sex.
Offred also describes the Guardian and his companion as Standing to attention, stiffly taken literally, this shows the respect with which Handmaids are treated: however the phrase also has a sexual connotation. This double entendre again highlights the illegality of casual sex in Gilead by the use of a mischievous tongue-in-cheek remark rather than direct reference.
In this way Offreds passive, yet very real, resistance begins to be shown. Offreds opposition is also revealed in her thoughts and daydreams. She remembers her past life and plays with words. I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It also means the leader of a meeting. It also means a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is French for flesh. Offred studied at university and was a librarian: therefore the illegality of reading and writing is keenly felt. These litanies help Offreds mind stay active and maintain her remembrance of the past. They also effectively show us the mental starvation that the Handmaids have to deal with.
Whilst playing an illegal game of Scrabble with the Commander Offred uses words which both refer to her situation and poke fun at him. The words played such as zygote and rhythm indicate her dehumanisation as a tool for sex and procreation. Larynx and Prolix can be taken as comments on womens lack of voice in Gildead whilst Men have relative freedom of speech. She also implies that the Commander may be sterile or impotent with the word limp. Though none of these implications are verbalised by Offred or the Commander the insinuations are clear. This shows us not only Offreds resistance to the regime, but also her mental resilience as she maintains both her sense of humour and her intelligence.
Offreds indoctrination and unconscious acceptance of her role are highlighted by her thoughts on Ceremony Night. I wait for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have & to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship, Hollow. From this we see that Offred thinks of herself in the terms of the Republic: a walking womb, currently empty. Her recitation of till death do us part also reminds us that if a Handmaid fails to conceive she is reclassified as unwoman and sent to the colonies to clean up toxic waste and, inevitably, die.
This death motif is continued with the Biblical reference to Rachaels Give me children or else I die. Other Biblical references are used throughout the book to show both the Puritanical influences and the perversion of the Gileadean society. Aunt Lydias Gilead is within you is also a perverted phrase from Genesis: The Kingdom of God is within you. These Biblical misquotes show us that the society is a sham and their treatment of women perverse.
In conclusion Atwood uses pun and wordplay effectively throughout the book to foreshadow later developments or revelations and to help us understand the passive resistance of Offred to the regime. They also enable the reader to empathise with Offred who is obviously intelligent with a dry sense of humour, which she is strong enough to maintain throughout her ordeal, most noticeably in the scrabble games.
This is a very brief examination of this excellent novel; I would recommend this for both entertainment and a serious study.