Language in The Handmaid's Tale

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Language has a powerful influence in shaping how people think, a fact that is fully exploited by the rulers of Gilead. Since this is a theocratic society, the strongest influence on language is the Bible. Terms drawn from the Bible or from the Christian religion are used to create certain impressions in people's minds, which are very different from the reality. Gun-toting paramilitary men at the ubiquitous checkpoints are called Guardians of the Faith, for example, when in truth they are the enforcers of the political power structure. Army divisions and battalions are rechristened, Angels of the Apocalypse and Angels of Light. Racial minorities are referred as the Children of Ham. This is a reference to a passage in the book of Genesis, when one of the children of Ham is cursed by Noah and told that he will be a slave. In Gilead, calling certain groups Children of Ham means that they can be uprooted and forced into "homelands" on Biblical authority. (In recent years this practice of driving ethnic groups from their homes has become known as "ethnic cleansing," which is itself an interesting example of the use of language to disguise what is taking place.) Not all the language used to control the populace in Gilead is Bible-based, however. The most disturbing examples are the terms Unbaby and Unwoman, which deny the humanity of those who have no place in Gilead society. Once this has been done, the authorities can do whatever they like with such individuals without having to justify themselves, since the victims are by definition sub-human. Women in particular are the victims of the way the Gilead authorities exert control through language. The term Handmaid, for example, is a pleasant-sounding Biblical word that completely disguises the fact that the Handmaids are stripped of their humanity, used as virtual reproductive slaves, and forced to commit adultery.
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