Shaping identity is at the core of almost every individual being. Identity defines you as well as separates and shapes each individual giving them the qualities that make them unique in a vast pool of sameness. Generally, people have an undying will to characterize themselves and will go to great lengths to achieve a sense of distinction.
We separate ourselves from the pack with different clothes, make-up, personality traits, language, and even jobs that stamp out an impression of what we become and help carve out our individuality. Chasing individuality does not always come easy and can have disastrous consequences to those who dare to break the mold but generally, it is a pursuit worth risking.
So what happens when these simple privileges are stripped away only to be thrown into a totalitarian state that plans, plots, and carries out your every move, right down to your dress and purpose in life. Margaret Atwood uses The Handmaid’s Tale to showcase the process of achieving identity against the most extreme odds.
Simple acts of revolt often offer a sense of rebellion in extreme oppression that contributes to the ability to achieve individual identity. In the Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead, has taken all the precautions to prevent individualization, however from the very beginning, it has become apparent that there will always be someone that will defy uniformity to assert their sense of self.
The new government of Gilead believes that taking away the women’s identities, names, and ability to communicate amongst each other, it takes away their power. Powerless women fit much better into the new mold of subordinates in a mainly male dominant society. Imprisoned at the Red Centre in Gilead, offered, the narrator and generally all women are forbidden from speaking to the other women captives or using personal names.
It doesn’t take them long to break the rules and assert their minimal power to reclaim a small but significant piece of themselves, their names. “They learned to lip read, [their] heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way [they] exchanged names from bed to bed: Elma. Janine. Delores. Moira. June. ” (pg 4)
Memories, especially images of life prior to Gilead enable offered the ability to reclaim a piece of herself. Although over time, these memories begin to fade. She holds on dearly to these wisps of her past and identifies with every distinct moment as if by losing them she will lose her own existence or identity.
So any alone time that is allowed to offer is spent reliving her past and restoring the bits and pieces of a life that once was. “The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still… But the night is my time out. Where should I go? (pg 47)
These moments eventually give her the power to establish who she was, who she is now, and who she will eventually become. By doing this, she has enough strength to bide her time and keep hope that one day she would be able to once again achieve her own identity.
Acts of defiance against the ruling regime also expose offered as insubordinate. You cannot be a subordinate and an individual as the two are like oil and water; opposites that just do not mix. So, offered definitely asserts her identity by saving small corners of her butter at dinner and plotting and then stealing the withered daffodil from the sitting room.
Both of these offenses would be punishable under the current government for insubordination. “I look for the pat of butter, in the toe of my right shoe, where I hid it after dinner… As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will someday get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire.
We have ceremonies of our own, private ones. “ (pg 120) For offered, doing something on her own that breaks the monotony of her controlled and calculated existence, gives her a feeling of self that is unattainable by following the shepherd of Gilead like a lost sheep.
Executing the heist of the flower is freeing for offered and possibly for the first time since the revolution, she feels alive. When offered says, “I want to steal something… What should I take? Something that will not be missed.” (pg 120) she wants to be “doing something, on [her] own”.
The act of theft pleases the oppressed woman and makes her think, “I like this”. Finally, she is feeling identifiable with herself.
All of the strength and power that she has gathered eventually brings her to a point of no return and there is no longer an inner struggle as she has successfully gained her own identity.