knowledge is power


(I have a different edition of the book, so I apologize that the page numbers are off.)

In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood clearly makes the argument that knowledge is crucial to empowering individuals. Certainly, there is a reason education is such a big deal in our society--we believe that knowledge empowers people, makes them better citizens. It is through knowledge, or rather, the denial of it, that the totalitarian regime takes over Gilead. Even the very first steps towards changing the society, if people had known what was happening they might have been more compelled to doing something about it, resisting the new regime. When Offred is denied her bank account and loses her job, neither she nor Luke has any idea why, so the easiest assumption is that it is a simple and quickly fixed mistake.

On the other hand, there is the undercurrent that they don't actually want to know what is going on because if they do, they will be compelled to do something about it. There is the subconscious denial of responsibility. "What you don't know won't tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say. Maybe I don't really want to know what's going on. . . . Maybe I couldn't bear to know." (252) Of course, simply the fact that she is justifying an Aunt's words makes the reader pause a bit. Yes, "The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge," (252) but who's to say we aren't better off knowing? Who's to say Eden was perfect? Maybe, in fact, Eden was dystopic rather than utopic. (I'm sure there has been literature about this very idea, but I am not well read so can't name anything.)

In any case, the changes made in Gilead seemed rather a Fall themselves (as opposed to a rise, though definitely a return to ignorance)--a fall of democracy, a fall of equality, a fall of freedom of every sort (except freedom *from* certain things). "That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary." (225) I can't imagine anything that would justify suspending the Constitution and yet people knew no better than that it was "temporary" (how temporary?) and knew not how to fight such power. Offred also remembers that "Yesterday was July the fourth, which used to be Independence Day, before they abolished it." (257) The only reason to abolish such a holiday is to say that independence is not good for society, should not be celebrated, should not even be remembered. Perhaps in the later generations of Gilead, when they will not have ever heard of Independence Day, they will not even know the idea of independence. The farther away from knowledge the people become, the easier it is to control them. After all, one cannot miss what one does not know exists.

The totalitarian government of Gilead definitely made sure to keep knowledge away from the majority of its citizens. The women are not allowed to read or write--all signs are comprised of symbols--books and magazines were banned and burned, only an elite few know anything about this war that seems to be going on, and real conversations are generally not allowed amongst the handmaids. What is perhaps the most detrimental to Offred's adjustments and coping is this lack of conversation. Humans are a social bunch, and without anyone to connect to, Offred must stay within the too-tight confines of her mind. There are those, of course, with whom she shares opinions of the new regime, such as the original Ofglen--but there, again, knowledge is the main factor. There is almost no way of knowing those who are "true believers" and buy in to all the new rules versus those who are also wishing there was a way to change things.

Interestingly, I think this is why the novel can be so frustrating at times. Atwood shows us just what it's like not to know what's going on around you by not explaining the society of Gilead for a long time, and then, in implicit bits and pieces. It's really annoying not knowing, and this helps the reader see more clearly what Offred--as well as the majority of her society--is going through.