The idea of power is very complex and profound, making it both a challenging yet intriguing topic. This is particularly true in Atwoods dystopian novel,The Handmaids Tale, in relation to the unstable nature of the Gileadean society. Power is a major theme in the novel, in this case specifically the desire for it. Atwood allows the reader to see how, within any society, the desire for power can be both explicit and implicit. Power has many forms; military power, the influence over something or someone, the authority of a person or body or the ability/capacity of someone to do something.
Originally The Handmaids Tale was written as a warning to society of the misuse of literature. Atwood exploits the idea of power, warning of its misuse and danger: represented in the novel in the form of the theocratic rule of Gilead using it as an example of what abuse of power could result it. Atwood is essentially stating that there is a fine line between democracy and dictatorship.
In The Handmaids Tale it is easy to see the relationships between characters and the craving or desire for power, however small or limited that power may be. The idea of power can be seen throughout the novel, from the Aunts in the Red Centre to Serena Joys domains and the secret meetings of the Commander and Offred.
Power can be observed throughout the novel: who has it, its many forms, how its used and how its misused; the latter is especially emphasized.
Most people associate the desire for power with a desire to have authority, specifically the government, and the entity with the most power in the novel is exactly that, the theocratic regime of Gilead. The regime comes to power through a violent revolution. Violence is arguably the regimes preferred and most effective weapon, seen through the torture of Moira at the Red Centre, Aunt Lydia and her steel cable. She enjoyed that you know.; the victims hung on the walls, This smile of blood is what fixes the attention, finally.; as well as events such as the Salvaging where the Handmaids are manipulated by the Aunts into committing violence, [Ofglen] pushes him down sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times. In Atwoods observation of the antithesis between smile and blood she emphasises the sick irony of those who pursue power through violence and reiterates how frightening this is for those who are, supposed to look. Fear is effectively exploited by the regime to control its subjects. The regime successfully spreads fear in the integration of government spies, Eyes, into society; they interact with citizens on a daily basis but their true identity is kept secret. The only thing the people know for certain is that they exist, and as a result they have to be beware of the prying Eyes. This destruction of trust towards one another plays effectively into the regimes hands, fulfilling their desire for power.
The first the readers see of power in the novel is when the Aunts are introduced. The Aunts are in charge of the Handmaids training. Their very appearance exemplifies power, though it is slightly ironic that this power was granted to them by the male dominated patriarchy, the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. These Aunts were derived from infertile women, unable to reproduce and become Handmaids, they sought power and an alternative from working in the colonies, eventually volunteering for the position for an Aunt. Atwood is suggesting that in a society there will always be a desire for power and that it plays a significant role in society. From the outset, the Aunts are presented as stern and traditionalist as their conduct is very strict and warped, an example being their electric cattle prods, which they had slung on thongs from their leather belts for the purpose of disciplining anyone who transgressed in their view.
Immediately after Atwood introduces the reader to the Aunts, we can observe the desire for power in the Handmaids, specifically when they touch each other by [stretching] out [their] arms during the night, whispering their names to each other, an act which directly defied the Aunts order and authority emphasized by Offred …when the Aunts werent looking . Here we see human nature at its finest, our need for love and we get a glimpse of the possibility that the desire for power in an integral part of human nature.
Not all forms of power involve violence or an oppressive regime, despite being filled with them in the novel. We see a new type of power; manipulative power. The Commander approaches Offred concerning their future secret meetings. He stands in the hallway and communicates with Offred, though not with words, but a simple nod- inclines his head. Here the Commander is seen breaking customs- he isnt supposed to be here, he peaks into Offreds room and interacts with his Handmaid which is prohibited. This demonstrates the Commanders power, as he is transgressing boundaries set by the regime. There is also a certain irony in place, the Commander represents the regime and yet he is the one transgressing the boundaries and laws set in place by the same regime, ie himself. This hypocrisy makes the reader consider if the acquiring and chase of desired power could lead to a long process of self-destruction. The Commander, through Nick, instructs Offred to meet him in his study, in the middle of the night, clearly breaking the rules and in the process showing that the laws do not apply to him, or at least not to the same degree as other people, indicating his powerful position within the infrastructure of the regime. In all likelihood the Commander, in the past, must have had a desire for power considering the position he has attained within Gilead, and seeing that such positions are rarely occupied by someone unambitious, which again means that the Commander was a visionary at some point in his life. But at the time we are introduced to him he is presented as dull, and very complacent. Regardless, since he became an important figure within Gilead he must have fulfilled his desire, yet it leaves him unsatisfied in the end, even Offred notice this pointing out that his motives and desires werent obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words. When he is with Offred he does focus on her but he still seems slightly absent minded, as if his mind wanders to some distant places. This indicates that he is now desiring something else, most likely in Offred. When Offred asks him what he wants he gives a rather sad reply, stating that he is looking for love and a companion. When he tells her to kiss him, as she complyingly does, he disappointedly says Not like that…As if you mean it, implying that even the The Commander, with all his power, is still lonely and desires to fill that loneliness, as any other human. And again his humanity is shown along with his desire for a companion, when Offred asks him why he chose to show her all these things and he replies Who else can I show it to?, later admitting that even his own wife didnt understand him. Again, the reader is forced to consider that although there might be a desire for power at the heart of every human being, Atwood is implying that, even if that desire were to be fulfilled, we as humans we will never be truly satisfied as we constantly desire and chase other things such as money, love etc.
But this creates the perfect scenario for Offred to take advantage of the situation, The Commander wants or needs her, not the other way around. The situation also gives Offred some leverage. The Commander is taking a high risk by participating in these unlawful meetings, which would explain why it happens at night and behind Serenas back. We realize that regardless of his power, he is not completely invincible and could be punished for his actions, as pointed out in the Historical Notes. As a result of this leverage Offred has slight power over the Commander. This is an immensely significant event in the novel and for Offred. For the first time Offred has real power, no matter how small, with something to back it up, since the emergence of the Gileadean regime. Offred manipulates this power, or rather influence, to ask things of the Commander. Initially she begins slowly then gradually asks for bigger things, a magazine, then lotion and eventually asks questions she, under normal circumstances, would never be allowed to ask. However, when this power that Offred for so long had been desiring (since the Red Centre) is achieved, it is not necessarily fulfilling as it, most of the time, leaves Offred frustrated or conflicted.
Offreds close friend, a brave, rebellious strong-willed feminist who is introduced to us first in the Red Centre as Moira-She was brought into the gymnasium by two of the Aunts…her hair was short, shed defied fashion as usual. Atwood shows Moiras rebellious nature when the character describe her situation as a loony bin, something most of the Handmaids would never think of, as they believe acting lethargic[ly] was the smartest thing to do. This way the reader can see that there is a certain authenticity about Moira as she, though being suppressed, clings to her rebellious nature from a time before Gilead compared to Offred who, despite wanting power, is extremely laid-back. Atwood does this deliberately, juxtaposing Offreds apparent passive attitude towards a desire for power with her close friend Moira; the strong-willed feminist who is not afraid to challenge the status quo in a rather overt way. Moira manages to escape the Red Centre but she is eventually captured after which she is offered two choices; prostitution or the Colonies, which is essentially a death sentence. When Offred sees Moira at Jezebels, after choosing the former, it acts as a remainder of the power of the Gileadean regime, as they seemingly managed to break Moiras strong-willed spirit. Atwood cleverly made the reader identify in Moiras strength as she is a reflection of how we want to see ourselves, and when that strength is demolished we can see and experience Gilead for what it really is, ruthless and overwhelmingly powerful. But Moira is soon redeemed as she herself is thought of as a legend among the Handmaids. Not only did she defy the regime but she also got away with it, however short that victory lasted and in this way the reader is also redeemed. This is Moiras legacy, which she left to both the Handmaids and the reader.