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Representation of Power in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Naomi Alderman's ‘The Power’: Compare and Contrast Essay

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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, explores, through the character of Offred, power within the totalitarian state of Gilead – where fertile women are treated as the property of the state, subject to systematic rape and subjugation. ‘The Power’, also a dystopian novel, published by Naomi Alderman in 2016, explores a world in which women become the dominant figures in society through the development of a ‘skein’ that enables them to release dangerous electrical impulses. The theme of power is central to both novels, providing a platform to explore the effects of indoctrination, violence and gender – all of which the writers use to illustrate how power is maintained, propagated and abused. The way in which power is portrayed in both novels has clear links to the contexts of both writers’ and previous events – implying that both writers use their novels as some form of warning to their readers against the dangers of power and their dystopian societies.

Firstly, common to both novels is the portrayal of power as something which can easily corrupt those who have it, as they seek to hold on to it through any means, including oppression and violence. The ease at which power is abused in both Atwood and Alderman’s dystopian worlds presents it as a dangerous entity of which to be fearful. The abuse of power is most explicitly explored through dramatic, uncomfortable descriptions of rape. In ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the handmaids, fertile women, are reduced to breeding vehicles, subjected to systematic, coercive rape to produce children to ensure the survival of Gilead – this is evident through: “The Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing”. The impactful short declarative sentences create a sense of detachment and unease both in Offred and the reader, intensified by the plosive and guttural sounds; effective in that the description is uncomfortable to read and digest. Arguably, Atwood maybe trying to highlight the state’s power and how the roles assigned to people are a means of detachment, created to control and maintain order, as they oppress and strip people of any individuality. Fredrik Pettersson argues that this is “reasonable to say that is it actually the values of Gilead, or patriarchal discourse, which has intruded in Offred’s way of thinking”, highlighting the manipulation and indoctrination that has taken place, allowing Gilead to exert such power. This sense of detachment created can also be seen through the names given to the handmaids, emphasizing how horrifying the position they are confined to is. Offred’s original name, June, is taken away from her, and she instead given the name of her commander ‘Fred’ with the added prefix of ‘Of’, meaning belonging to – her individuality in this sense is completely stripped from her: she is dehumanized, treated like a possession, which will be discarded of when used. Alternatively, Atwood also states that her name has another meaning: “Within this name is concealed another possibility: 'offered', denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice”.

Alternatively, Atwood could be reflecting Offred’s psychological power – the feeling of emotional detachment implies that she is successfully able to distance herself from the regime, giving her some sense of freedom from the power of the state, and also possibly a sense of victory as she is refusing to submit. This idea is supported by Callaway who states that “detaching from her body enables her to detach from her emotions”. As a feminist, it could be argued that Atwood is spreading an empowering, positive message of resilience against oppression to women in her contemporary society to stand up against their subjugation. Past events can clearly be argued to have impacted on Atwood’s narrative with the systematic rape of fertile women in Gilead to increase birth rates, eerily reflective of the Lebensborn program in Nazi Germany. Germany, in 1935, similar to Gilead, had declining birth rates, so Himmler created a breading program where SS members ‘mated’ with suitable German women to create an ‘Aryan future’.

Similarly, in ‘The Power’, the abuse of power is explored through shocking descriptions of abhorrent acts of rape and violence. Alderman has, in her dystopian matriarchal world, flipped societal expectations and stereotypes of rape by making men the common victim, as contextually in modern society men are responsible for the vast majority of sexual violence. Alderman, like Atwood, uses impactful, declarative sentences, evident in “…jolts him fiercely, right through the scrotum. It’d feel like a glass spike, driven straight through. Like lacerations from the inside”, during her description of rape to emphasize the sickening, disturbing nature of what’s going on. This furthered through the use of sibilance, creating a sense of sinister and evilness, and the abrupt, powerful monosyllabic ‘glass’, ‘jolts’, ‘spike’ and ‘straight through’ possibly reflecting the ‘jolts’ and pain the innocent man is subject to. Furthermore, the fast pace created implies the helplessness of the man in this situation, highlighting his inferiority and powerlessness. Rape is also evident elsewhere in the novel when a random woman attempts to rape Tunde - the uncomfortable and sinister sibilance of “She licks her lips. He can see her skein twitching at her collar bone, a living worm”, whilst creating energy and pace when reading furthered by the assonance, again creates a sense of evil and possess a threatening nature. The metaphor describing her as a ‘living worm’ not only emphasizes her animalistic nature, implied through ‘licks her lips’, but also maybe her persistence, as when cut in half worms are known to survive. In deliberate choice of sentence length and sounds, emphasizing the wickedness of what these women are doing and how they are using the skein to gain power in this situation, Alderman is successfully highlighting the power imbalance of the scenario creating empathy within readers, not only for this man, but men in general in the novel. Published in 2016, a time when feminist movements were as strong and relevant as today, yet before the #MeToo Movement, Alderman’s portrayal of men as victims is shocking and thought provoking. The #MeToo Movement has arguably sidelined males, almost showing women as the only victims. In reversing societal expectations and stereotypes of rape, this juxtaposition is perhaps designed to open the reader to how easily power is open to abuse by anyone – the destructive and controlling impact of this connoted by the effective use of violent language.

The presentation of power as easily corrupting and open to abuse is effectively explored by both authors. Arguably, Atwood is more successful in achieving this through her straightforward and unembellished account of the abuse handmaids suffer as reproductive slaves. The simple, emotion lacking description of rape highlights the indoctrination by the state of those in society to see this as normal, in contrast to Alderman’s description, which implies rape still as explicitly and clearly wrong. This sinister image of totalitarian regimes is powerful to readers as we fear a future society ruled in a similar way.

Additionally, both authors use different narrative structures in order to highlight the impacts of power on their characters and the wider society. Atwood’s choice of a palimpsest, fragmented structure is effective at exposing concurrently Offred’s current bleak existence, as well as her painful memories. It is unique and successful in showing the before and after of the powerful, totalitarian regime, whilst also echoing the sense of shock and disorientation Offred experiences. Furthermore, Atwood’s choice of a first-person narrative is effective as it allows Offred’s story to be more personal in emphasizing the power that the regime holds over her as readers are given a greater insight into her emotions – furthered by a sense of a personal connection between the reader and Offred’s character created by the storytelling nature of her account. For example, the excessive use of personal pronouns in “By telling you anything at all. I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being” not only creates a bond and effectively includes the reader, but the role of storytelling as an act of resistance is also explored. The personal pronoun of ‘you’ could symbolize Offred reaching out as a form of survival, whilst also showing her hope for escape. Readers are guided into their role as participants in Offred’s subjective account and survival, and therefore it could be argued that the lack of power she experiences is exacerbated in our eyes because of such an involvement. By Offred giving an account, she is automatically challenging the rules of Gilead, where the sight of letters and words is deemed to be ‘too much temptation’ for them.

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Atwood’s use of first-person narrative is also significant as, from a feminist perspective, it could be argued that Offred, who serves as an intradiegetic narrator, is writing on behalf of other women who are lacking such a voice, further emphasizing the notion of storytelling as a form of survival. Some may interpret the novel as a cynical comment by Atwood on the patriarchy that defines Western society which holds centrally the denigration of women. In this sense, a feminist viewpoint may then see the narrative structure in terms of the stories of many women’s voices, protests and oppression, supporting the idea that Offred is the voice of many and not solely herself.

Contrastingly to Atwood, Alderman writes in transparent third person narrative allowing for a wider look at the impacts power has on society. Written through four different character narratives, whose stories eventually come together, allows for Alderman to view the effects of the skein globally, as well as from both male and female perspectives. This idea furthered by Jenna Todd who states that “Alderman’s structural style of telling the story from the four different narrators is a clever tactic to gain a broader view of the epidemic”. Impacts of the skein are effectively reflected through the narrative structure of ‘The Power’. For example, with Alderman focusing on a shift in power balance, three out of four of the main protagonists are women, and thus they dominate the narrative. Schonewill states how “this exemplifies how the social role of women has turned around drastically: from women being objects in a male-dominated social reality, to women now becoming the leaders of the narrative”, and as such they can reshape how history is experienced and therefore told. Through this third person narrative, a more descriptive, less emotional account of Alderman’s new fiction society exists, and the story is arguably more reliable.

The different narrative structures employed by both writers create different effects and serve to highlight varying aspects of their story. Despite Alderman’s use of narrative structure, allowing her to show the effects of changing power structures on a global society, Atwood’s first person is more personal and therefore it could be argued that a greater connection to the reader is created. She also allows for Gilead’s impact on others, and not just Offred, to be relayed through Offred’s narrative and her questioning of others experiences, allowing readers to gain a greater and more personal insight into the effects of oppression.

Further differences in the presentation of power can also be seen. In ‘The Handmaids Tale’, power is presented as fiercely destructive and dangerous and, whilst also arguably the same in ‘The Power’, it can also be said initially to be presented as a somewhat natural and iridescent force. Semantic fields and symbolism of nature effectively employed throughout ‘The Power’ almost allude to power as natural and a necessity, contrasting greatly to the forceful and brash nature of power alluded to by Atwood. For example, when describing the skein, Alderman through the third person narrative states: “She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm…There is a long red scar: it’s patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches”. Whilst a threatening force, the skein (and therefore power) through simile is presented as natural and delicate. Perhaps Alderman is juxtaposing its harm with her tender description to either hide its power or to reflect how its being repressed by those who possess it. This is furthered by the use of commas, which effectively slows down the pace, implying reflection and some sense of delicateness. Furthermore, through effective comparison to nature, the idea of the skein as a power which can grow and develop is created, allowing for possibilities of it to become as fiercely destructive and dangerous as that in ‘The Handmaids Tale’. As a result of the successful use of a lexical field of nature, the notion of power as a positive is cleverly suggested. Nature is good and pure: ‘fern’ and ‘budlets’ are signs of growth and health, and maybe Alderman is suggesting that when used graciously, power can be positive and beneficial. In terms of the novel, power, though the skein, is setting women free and allows them to grow and distance themselves from the oppression they once faced. This idea is further supported by Michael Burton who states that “this concept is central to the novel” with us wanting “to believe, so deeply, that power is and can be used for good. The novel’s speculative what if is, in itself, a reflection of that”. Reference to power as a positive force is evident today through feminism. Through power, created by a want for change evident in society, feminism has enabled the emancipation of women and greater equality – for example in the UK through the 2010 Equality Act. Power in this sense has been used for the good. Despite the hope of power as positive – implied by Atwood in her novel – it instead becomes a force for evil; not rebalancing previous gender and power inequalities, but swapping one extreme for another. Maybe Alderman is reflecting on the corruption of power, seen throughout history in Stalin, Hitler, Mugabe, etc., that is so evident in our society today, and in this sense her novel can be seen as a warning.

Contrastingly, power in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is presented as a dangerously brutal, oppressive and destructive entity, also achieved through an effective use of symbolism and lexical field. The color ‘red’ is prominent throughout the novel, whether stated to or alluded to, for example, “red umbrella”, “my face is red”, “red gloves” and “the color of blood.” Atwood utilizes this lexical field to explicitly expose the force of Gilead and its dangerous power dynamics as red, being commonly associated with blood, suggesting danger and pain, thus implying death and torture. Alternatively, red is linked to blood, and thus the female menstrual cycle, childbirth and fertility. In this sense, such prominence of the color red in society and the lives of the Handmaids, for example, how “everything except the wings around (their) face is red”, serves to emphasize how the Handmaids can’t escape being reminded of their singular position and role in the state. It is implied through this that their fertility is the only thing significant about them to Gilead – this idea is supported by Diemer Llewellyn who states that “the power structure refuses to see women as human”. However, Roland offers a different interpretation of Atwood’s use of red in her novel, highlighting how “it seems that the government forces the handmaids to wear red to showcase their power to control others”. So, it could be argued that not only is the use of red to remind the Handmaids of their role and the ease at which corrupt power can oppress, but also to warn others of the state’s power. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) was written alongside the rise of the New Right Movement in America, a religious right-wing fundamentalist movement which endorsed strict conservative ideas about women’s place in society. The movements influence can be seen in how pro-life and new right campaigns lead to the failed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982, furthering this notion of women as solely existing for pro-creation and sexual reason. Such anti-feminist views and conceptions of the role and rights of women are clearly mirrored in Atwood’s fictional Gilead – perhaps through Offred, Atwood is providing a warning to the dangers of patriarchy, and therefore the dangers of inequality. She could however be referencing the dangers of extreme views, which target the protection of rights and liberties, and their growing prominence at the time of writing. This idea is further developed by Callaway who states: “By showing us a possible outcome of the momentum of Second-Wave Feminism, Atwood reveals that radical strains of this movement could backfire, with disastrous results”.

In this sense, it could be argued that Alderman is more successful in her presentation of power, as not only does she show it as dangerous through corruption and abhorrent descriptions of violence, as does Atwood, she also implies a more positive interpretation and thus challenging reader’s preconceptions of power.

To conclude, power, all in all, is presented as an evil and destructive force which both authors successfully utilize to create a warning to readers about the corruption of power and the dangers that certain power dynamics create. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, power and its effects are presented as destructive and brutal within Atwood’s dystopian society – emphasized through the striking parallels that exist between itself and past realities and events, with her presentation of power is arguably more explicitly influenced by context. ‘The Power’ can also be seen as a warning to readers about the dangers of continued female oppression and the rise of anti-feminist groups, yet also the risk of the abuse of power. Alderman presents power, similarly to Atwood, as dangerous and brutal through violence and descriptions of corruption, yet also implies that power can be positive. Perhaps she is influenced by her context in this sense, highlighting the need for woman to use what power they have in our current society to fight for equality, yet also for society in general to use power they hold to stand against corruption.

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Representation of Power in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’: Compare and Contrast Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Representation of Power in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’: Compare and Contrast Essay.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023,
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Representation of Power in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’: Compare and Contrast Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 19 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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