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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.