Home » 10th Season (2022-2023) » One Viable Option: Examining Composure as a Means of Survival in The Handmaid’s Tale

One Viable Option: Examining Composure as a Means of Survival in The Handmaid’s Tale

By Jonathan D. Hernández, V Form

One Viable Option: Examining Composure as a Means of Survival in The Handmaid’s Tale

Student-Submitted Note: For my American Literature class, students were tasked with submitting a creative project of our choosing (such as but not limited to poem, painting, or video) to take an idea, theme, or motif from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and remake it or interpret through imaginative means. Along with the artistic project, students were required to write a three-page analysis of the idea used and their multimedia project and how the two relate to each other. For my project, I wrote a poem about composure and how in the novel composure is a means of survival for characters such as Offred, the novel’s protagonist. The poem is written from the perspective of a Gileadean scholar and is meant to act as instructions for each member of the dystopian society. It is a reminder of the duty of each member to compose themselves to conform to the society’s standards. In addition to the written poem (after the essay), there is a physical visual representation to better illustrate the theme of composure and duty.

In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood presents a dystopian future where the Republic of Gilead supersedes the United States of America. The new totalitarian state forces its citizens into strict gender roles. Gilead subjugates fecund women to the role of Handmaid, requiring them to serve as surrogates for the Commanders, the Gileadean patriarchs. The new state concurrently pushes sterile women into the roles of Martha, Wife, Econowife, or Aunt. Throughout the novel, the audience interprets life in Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid who remembers life before Gilead and lives through the nation’s reconstruction. Before the Ceremony, a “sacred” insemination ritual, Offred describes that “I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (Attwood 66). While Offred refers to the need to compose herself for the Ceremony, she speaks to the larger issue at hand. She is informing the reader about how in the Republic of Gilead, women must compose their speech, actions, and bodies. They must watch what they say and be mindful to not stray from what is deemed acceptable by Gileadean social norms. Similarly, the poem Composure is centered around the idea of composure in Gilead and is meant to reflect how in Gilead each person is directed to abide by cultural norms in the name of duty. This need for composure, Offred reveals, results from necessity and cultural expectations in the Republic of Gilead. 

In Gilead, Offred composes her speech. She is careful to not say anything verboten and ensures she converses with others at the right time and in the right manner. Offred describes such equanimity in Chapter 5, noting that as she visits the market with Ofglen, they encounter tourists who inquire and ask if the two are happy. Offred notes that “Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak. ‘Yes, we are very happy,’ I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?” (Attwood 29). Offred’s account discloses how the Handmaids compose themselves. They are aware of their own speech but also conscious of their newfound positionality in Gilead. Handmaids such as Offred are aware they must play the proverbial game. They must respond when asked a question and certainly answer with the right response. Their position in Gilead, women without economic or political power, leaves them vulnerable. Without complying with the cultural expectations to give satisfactory responses, the Handmaids could suffer a fate such as death or worse.

In Gileadean society, everyone has a “duty” to fulfill. Women such as the Commander’s Wives are tasked with pleasuring and supporting their husbands. Aunts are to educate and indoctrinate Handmaids to fall within the cultural expectations of the Republic. Marthas must cook for, clean, and work for the household. Club Workers such as those at the brothel named “Jezebel’s” have a duty to satisfy the Commanders and their adulterous desires. The Handmaids are tasked with the consecrated duty to serve as surrogates for the sterile Wives. In Chapter 16, Offred recounts the Ceremony, a sacred event of insemination, noting how she composes herself in the name of “duty.” Offred notes that Serena Joy and herself join as the Commander proceeds to impregnate her. Offred reports how she composes herself throughout the entirety of the event, noting that she must not be aroused by the sex (Attwood 94-95). Her need to compose herself results from Gilead’s cultural expectations. In Gilead, Handmaids are vessels, tools to be used only for the purpose of procreating. It is not permitted for them to take pleasure in nor be used for pleasure nor take pleasure in the coitus. That responsibility is presumably left to the Wives and Club Workers at Jezebel’s. The Handmaids must remain emotionless during the Ceremony so as to not drive a wedge between the Commander and his Wife. The Handmaids, like Marthas, Wives, and Club Workers, must have the composure to comply with Gilead’s cultural expectations. This is what Gilead expects of its citizens and they must act accordingly. For them, it is a matter of life and death. 

However, each member of Gileadean society composes themselves in a different way. Each individual has a different role and duty. The Handmaids must compose themselves in a different way from the Wives and the Marthas and the Club Workers of the World. The poem Composure points out the myriad of ways each member of society composes themselves. It is as if a Gileadean Commander wrote it themself to highlight everyone’s roles and charges to each other and Gilead. It is divided up into various parts, with each section starting with the identification of the various clothes each member of Gilead wears such as “Blue Dress” for Wives, “Red Coat and White Bonnet” for the Handmaids, and “Black Suit” for the Commanders. This is meant to address each member of Gilead, to identify them and their roles in society by their clothes as done in Gileadean society. In each section, the poem gives each individual set of instructions, followed by a reminder of who each is accountable to, whether it be The Republic of Gilead, the Commander, or the household. The poem is propaganda. It is intended to promote the idea of duty to the collective and that everyone in Gilead is accountable to someone. In doing so, the poem speaks to the expectation in Gilead for everyone to compose themselves to fulfill their duty. It is not only an expectation though, but also the law. If anyone is unable to observe the criterion, they are seen as treasonous. Thus, in the visual representation of the poem, there are two distinct panels with representations of women in Gilead: on the left is “ENEMY” over the eyes of a young woman without a bonnet or any distinct piece of clothing, and one on the right with “FIGHTER” with bunny ears and pink underwear. The woman on the left represents a woman without a definitive role or attire. She is unthinkable in the Republic of Gilead, no more than a dream or a relic from the past. Contrastingly, the woman on the left wears bunny ears and has pink underwear, both of which women in the brothel “Jezebel’s” wear. By doing so, she fulfills her duty, she is serving for the collective good, for the Commanders. This visual conveys how the poem, like Gileadean societal norms, praises those who compose themselves and comply with what Gilead expects of them but chastises anyone or anything that challenges the norm by refusing to submit. For some, the ramifications could range from death to laboring in the pollution-ridden colonies. This leaves only one viable option: composure.


Red Coat and White Bonnet
Do not upset the Wife
Do not talk with a man, especially the Commander
Respond, but do not converse

Walk with a partner to town
Do not be alone outside the house
Do not look anyone in the eye
Look, but do not see

Meet with the others
Chat with them
Act congenial, 
Talk, but do not confer

Compose yourself
You are a carrier
Receive, but do not delight
Remain phlegmatic 

Compose yourself 
It is your duty to Gilead

Green Dress
Cook for the household
Clean the household
Manage the household

Serve the Wives
Care for their brood
Care for their Handmaid
Care, but form no bonds

Compose yourself 
It is your duty to the household
It is your duty to Gilead

Blue Dress
You are your Husband’s Wife
You are the rib and he is Adam
You are to serve and honor him

Support Him
Pleasure Him
Talk with Him
But, do not question or conspire against him

Compose yourself
Do not be jealous of your handmaid
She is a vessel, a tool for you 
You are to unite as one flesh

Compose yourself
It is your duty to your husband
It is your duty to the household
It is your duty to Gilead

Bunny Suits, Cheerleader and School Uniforms
Delight the Commanders
Serve them and their cloak-and-dagger desires
Pleasure, entrance, entertain

Be thankful 
Revel in your gracious accommodations
Delight in your freedom
Taste of the forbidden fruit

Compose yourself
It is your duty to the Commanders
It is your duty to Gilead

Black Suit
You are the Commander
You are the Commander of the household, You are the commander of the Wife, the Handmaid, the Martha, Gilead

Be loyal to your Wife
Do not take pleasure in the Handmaid
Do not be alone with the Handmaid

Compose yourself
Command your household
Command Gilead

Visual Representation of “Composure”

Jonathan Davíd Hernández is a V form boarding student from Madison, Wisconsin. Jonathan enjoys studying Chicano/Mexican-American History, poetry, and photography. Jonathan is a home cook and hopes to study Chicano History and Culture in college.

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