The ceremonies and rituals in the Handmaid’s tale are an essential part of Gilead’s theocratic regime. The regime is heavily based upon the importance of biblical values, that are twisted and exaggerated to create a powerfully dystopian vision. The ceremonies and rituals highlight the control which the society has over the people through the restriction of individualism and by dehumanising those who do not conform.
In the early sections of the novel, Atwood explains how almost every aspect of modern identity is constricted by ritual and ceremony. The Handmaids’ existence is carefully controlled and language itself is carefully regulated as a way of restricting expression and, therefore, identity. Upon meeting her partner, Offred and Ofglen exchange the “accepted” greeting and response: “blessed be the fruit” and “may the lord open”. The language of the Handmaids thoroughly reflects Gilead’s theocracy; each call and response resembles a liturgy, reinforcing the power of the state and the surrender of their identity.
Furthermore, much of their language reflects the importance of their procreate roles and is heavily associated with conception and fertility. Atwood shows this by using the word “fruit” to symbolise the women’s fertility, whilst the response could signify God’s blessing of them being able to conceive. Their identity as a handmaid is constantly reinforced by their use of language and acts as a frequent reminder of how entrapped they are within their toles.
As the Handmaid’s hear biblical prayers and readings “every breakfast”, we sense that the ritualistic behaviour has caused these readings to have lost their meaning as Offred’s character no longer takes them seriously; Offred mocks them by saying “blessed be this, blessed be that”, strongly contrasting with the strict moral and obedient tone such language is intended to convey.
Therefore, although Atwood presents a society in which explicit use of language is highly controlled, through the use of first person narration and the ‘Night’ sections of the novel, Atwood is also reminding us that the expression can never be ritualised out of existence; Offred states that “The night is mine, my own time to do with as I will”. The restrictive control of language and the use of language is frequently juxtaposed with the freedom of Offred’s narration and punctuated by the ‘Night’ passages, constantly reminding us that individual identity can never be fully contained.
Moreover, Atwood uses the ritualised aspects of the conception Ceremony to explore different forms of oppression. During the Ceremony, Serena Joy’s “rings of her left hand”, almost certainly her marital rings, “cut” into Offred’s fingers. The verb “cut” implies Serena’s vindictive resistance to her role in the ceremony and her “revenge” on the Handmaid for the humiliation of the experience. Atwood seems to present a scenario where women are complicit in the repression of other women. Serena Joy’s actions, though highly ritualised, become symbolic of how both women are entrapped with the formalities of the conception ceremony. Similarly, Atwood also uses the Ceremony to explore the oppression of the Commander. Atwood describes the conception Ceremony as “serious business”, illustrating the mechanisation of ritualisation of sexuality by formalising and codifying it; taking away pleasure or personal gain. Offred also states that the Commander is doing his “duty”, reflecting his own dispassionate and disengaged role within the intimate and personal. In essence, the conception ceremony becomes symbolic of how both women and men are repressed. Atwood is depicting a hollow society in which ceremonies and rituals are used to eliminate the most basic human emotions, such as desire, and replacing human identity with the collective need to procreate. Ironically however, it is clear from Offred’s later, passionate relationship with Nick that human desire can never be truly contained as she goes back to him “time after time” to “make love”, perhaps reflecting the hopeful view that human passion cannot be contained.
In addition, Atwood uses ceremonies such as the salvagings to explore the role of punishment in the novel. During the men’s salvaging, Offred states of the victim that “he has become an it”, as he no longer possesses a name, gender, or role. Atwood uses the ceremony here to show the dehumanising effect of ritualistic behaviour. The Handmaids are given a form of freedom, however their violent participation in the punishment, ironically transfers responsibility on to them. The Handmaids are presented throughout the ritual as having a collective identity as the “red bodies tumble forward”, “like a crowd at a rock concert”. Atwood, through the depiction of the Handmaids as a unified body, is perhaps, implying that ritualistic and ceremonial behaviour erases individual identity. Moreover, the participation of the Handmaids in the violent punishments inflicted on members of Gilead society make them complicit in the State’s actions.
In conclusion, from the ceremonies and rituals Atwood explores in the novel, the reader can infer that Gilead’s regime stems from the desire to control the people and strip them of individualism by creating a group identity in its place. Atwood explores the different types of oppression within society, suggesting that everyone is a victim in some way. Atwood also uses ceremonies and rituals to show that punishment and dehumanisation come hand in hand; it is inevitable for both to occur.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood, Margaret, Vintage, 1985