Power, Language and Protective Confinement in The Handmaid’s Tale and selected poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton
Virginia Woolf argues that “in a hundred years…women will have ceased to be the
protected sex”, suggesting that women would have power in their own right by the twenty-
first century. How do three texts we’ve studied in this unit represent women’s power, or lack of it?
When Virginia Woolf referred to Women as the “protected sex” (Woolf, 2014) she alluded to a future reality that holds the potential for both the empowerment and the victimization of women when they lose their protected and shelter status, but she also paints a picture of the stranglehold this protection has on the liberty of women still under the rule of protective restrictions. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Atwood, 2017) defies Woolf’s vision of the future by taking the protected status of women to an extreme state, depriving women of knowledge, language and self determination under the guise of protection of both the “handmaids” themselves and the future sustainability of a semi-fertile society. The protected and confined status of the women at risk is also demonstrated in the poem “Tulip” by Sylvia Plath (2015) in which she is entombed within the sterile walls of a hospital, and “Self in 1958” and “Honour and Obey” by Anne Sexton (2015) in which she depicts the domestic sphere as the place of imprisonment. An adjacent theme to protection as a form of forced confinement is the lack of access to language, and the restriction of access as a mode of control as highlighted in the works of Atwood, Sexton and Plath previously referenced but also explored in the harsh light of historical atrocity in Plath’s poem “Daddy”(2015).
When tracing the thread of power through the works of these three authors it is necessary to acknowledge the unique relationships each text has with the notion of power and by extension the notion of freedom and self determination. All of the discussed texts show the narrator deprived of their freedom or autonomy in some way or another. Starting with perhaps the most obvious; The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood, 2017) shows very real and overt methods of control exercised over Offred, the narrator, who is entirely restricted and watched in her life as one of the fertile handmaidens. She is protected to the extent that not only does she not have the power of self governance but the government of Gilead has effectively deprived her of selfhood and identity as demonstrated by her removal of her real name and her new label, which will serve as a name while she is in the commander’s household;
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.
The totalitarianism of the government of Gilead and the dystopian nightmare that Atwood has created, in which women are so inherently focused on survival that it might “preclude resistance”, has the opposite effect meaning that the mere act of resistance makes the practicalities of survival bearable (Hansot, 56). The link between power and resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, with Offred acknowledging that oppression necessitates rebellion, “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” (Atwood, 115). Offred’s helplessness in the face of the patriarchal regime, and the reality that meaningful lasting resistance necessitates the help of sympathetic men, is a result of the dystopian environment in which women have become lower class, moving the progress of feminism back to a pre-second wave state, where women are no longer able to focus on micro or macro level oppression, but are simply preoccupied with getting through the next day (Harnois, 135). There is hope for the plight of the handmaid’s as implied by the “historical notes” section of the novel, a time when being treated as a walking womb to be discarded when no longer useful is again an absurd notion, indicating that perhaps patriarchal tyranny is unsustainable and doomed to failure (Ketterer, 212).
By contrast the threat to Sexton’s selfhood is more difficult to pinpoint, but it has the same sense of the woman as just the sum of her biological and domestic functions. She is forcefully confined to the domestic and deprived of any power, including the power of language, in order to voice her resistance. In “Self in 1958” (Sexton, 2000) the narrator is so subject to the will and power of others that she is an inanimate doll (Sexton, 2). In her allusions to women’s role as the protected, fragile, infantilized automaton of the 1950’s Sexton pre-empts second wave feminism views of macro oppression at play in everyday society (Waters, 383). The narrator describes herself as “walled in” (Sexton, 23), imprisoned by the artificial expectations and demands of domestic oppression, constructed by Sexton with the use of appliances (Sexton,22), advertisements (Sexton, 10), nylon stockings (Sexton, 9) and most importantly the entirely idealistic doll house (Sexton, 11). She is kept isolated in this artificial space for fear that her actions, if left to her own devices might run contrary to the societal ideal of the 1950’s housewife (Waters 383). This confinement to, and imprisonment in, the doll house or domestic sphere as a theme is also key to Sexton’s “Honor and Obey” (Sexton, 2000).
The confinement of the narrator in “Honor and Obey” by her role as a wife is highlighted by the urgency with which she flees from the stranglehold of matrimony. The power the husband has over the narrator is likened to the servitude of a farm horse with terms such as “bind” (Sexton, 1), “fettered” (Sexton, 2) and “harness and yoke” (Sexton, 12) peppered throughout her description of the conditions of her marriage at the beginning and conclusion of the poem. In this poem her treatment as a work horse deprives her of all autonomy and it is her escape from servitude that provides her with the ability to regain selfhood and humanity, tying into Atwood’s symbiotic relationship between resistance and power. Without the initial oppression of her situation she would not experience the frantic escape and subsequent blissful anonymity (Sexton, 10). There are also references to confinement, imprisonment and institutionalization with the use of “the lunatic, screaming in her cell” (Sexton, 12). Sexton’s uses her newly liberated prisoner to challenge the boundaries of what is palatable in the conventional social circles of her time, in a society still struggling to come to terms with the idea of women’s empowerment in a post war environment (Gill, 425).
In “Tulips” by Plath (2015) the narrator is also confined and powerless, but instead of being powerless to a husband figure Plath’s narrator is powerless when confronted with the faceless medical institution in which she is confined. The only semblance of humanity being the nurses who “pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps” (Plath, 12), they are there to observe, not engage. She is prevented from experiencing external stimuli as she is forced to learn “peacefulness” (Plath, 3). It’s not an unwelcome seclusion, in fact Plath refers to it’s soothing qualities, but she finds her sense of self slipping (Plath, 22) lost in the protection and powerlessness of her role as patient in the institution. Willingly giving up her identity and freeing herself of the inevitable accountability that comes with the power of self determination she is no longer a mother or a wife (Plath, 20) but a passive faceless patient (Plath, 48). Unlike the narrators of the other texts she finds peace in becoming a mere “pebble” being smoothed an manipulated (Plath, 15) by the institution as it tries to guard her from further harm. Plath’s narrator is confined and protected from her own mental illness, she lies vulnerable and exposed (Waters, 386), reminiscent of Offred’s situation in the conception ceremony of The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood, 104-106) reminding the reader of the role of female sexual vulnerability in the masculine and institutional assertion of power (Harnois, 136-137).
In “Daddy” (Plath, 2015), however, Plath has an individual being to resist against, albeit one who has long since past. The spectre of the narrator’s father is tied to the Third Reich lending it an air of power, totalitarianism and brutality. There is no passive powerlessness in “Daddy” rather a reclamation of lost power and selfhood. She talks of his death depriving her the power of realising his fallibility and culpability (Plath, 7). She is deprived of communication with him, deprived of the use of his language (Plath, 26-30) with which to assert to him her identity and empowerment from his legacy. Her father’s power over her is based in fear and a lack of linguistic understanding (Plath, 24), with his German nationality not just creating a language barrier but also carrying with it the fear associated with fascism, including intimidating uniforms in the form of the “boot in the face” (Plath, 49), symbology in the form of the swastika (Plath, 46) and atrocities (Plath, 16-20). Whilst it fear and language hold the key to her father’s power over her, it is her anger and language that is the key to her resistance. The language she uses to reclaim her autonomy includes ascribing a series of negative labels to really drive the point home that she is rejecting the hold that her father has over her; “fascist” (Plath, 48),”brute”(Plath, 49- 50), “bastard: (Plath, 80), “devil” (Plath, 54) and paints to him as vampiric with her allusions to a vampire “who said he was you” (Plath, 72-73) and the “stake in your fat black heart” (Plath, 76). She associates herself with what he hates (Plath, 31-35) allying herself with the victims of his war crimes, she rejoices with the villagers (Plath, 77-79) at her father’s loss of power over them. She positions herself as the murderer rather than her previous status as victim (Gerbig & Müller-Wood, 84) overcoming his domineering legacy and rejecting her role as the inadequate and adoring daughter of a war criminal and establishing her individualism and self determination (Strangeways & Plath, 373).
The power of language features heavily in the works of these three authors and whether it is through the spoken or the written word suppression of language leads to the loss of autonomy, and a devastating power imbalance. The governing body of Gilead use the power of language to further define and separate class, with those confined to the lower classes, such as the handmaids, completely isolated from the written word. Offred and the other handmaids regain some of their lost power with secret usage of the spoken word; “There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power” (Atwood, 222), echoing “Daddy” (Plath 48-54) in their use of insults to resist the restrictions and controls imposed upon them. Offred’s retelling of her own story in itself is an act of defiance observing that “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…” (Atwood, 49). She has the ability to tell the truth or lie as she sees fit and the Republic of Gilead has no control or censorship over her words. She is muted like the “plaster doll” (Sexton, 1) of “Self in 1958”, unable to resist verbally, textually or physically.
Power is depicted in the texts as wielded ruthlessly by the German father in “Daddy”, the religious oligarchy of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and the husband in “Honor and Obey”, however they are overthrown from their brutal reign over their victims, with resistance playing a key role in the power dynamics at play within the texts. Under the guise of protection Offred (Atwood, 2017), “Self in 1958” and the narrator of “Tulips” are confined and kept from exercising their autonomy for fear that their action will run contrary to the societal narrative. In order to further restrict women in “Daddy”, “Self in 1958” and The Handmaid’s Tale the lack of access to language is key to the oppression of victims. However, language, in it’s role as a tool of resistance, allows the narrators in “Daddy” and The Handmaid’s Tale to shed their victimhood in some way. The power to withhold language and text and the isolation of confinement conspire to further subjugate victims of patriarchal control. Granting these narrators the means to access language and freedom leads to a disruption of the power structure in place and is key to feminine resistance.
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