Identity and belonging: the importance of names in The Handmaid’s Tale

Reading Time: 10 minutes

 

If you’re studying this text for A-Level, you can pretty much write about the significance of names for any topic – gender, class, rebellion, politics, personal identity, relationships – even the use of humour can get a good paragraph on the politics of naming.

Names are one of the main ways we signify our identities to other. In The Handmaid’s Tale, like so much other dystopian fiction, characters lose, change or adapt their names as they’re subjugated to the will of others or trying to represent themselves in different ways. Places are renamed too, to fit the new regime of Gilead.
Atwood’s said that she’s into names, writing about how she makes choices:

“I would like not to have to call them anything. But they usually have to have names. Then the question is, if they are going to have names, the names have to be appropriate. Therefore I spend a lot of time reading up on meanings of names, in books like Name Your Baby.” (Tightrope Walking).

So let’s ignore any suggestion it’s not important and delve into why it matters.

The most obvious is the Handmaids themselves – Offred, Ofwarren and so on. The prefix “of” symbolises their belonging to a specific commander. When they change commander, they change name, and when Ofglen is replaced another Ofglen appears in her place. The body of the individual is of no consequence, it’s the relationship to the commander that’s important. He’s at the centre of this little universe. The handmaids understand how important names are to maintain their identity; the opening chapter concludes with them whispering heir names in the dark so at least someone will always know who they are, and they regularly use these secret names when alone together. It’s ionic that the narrator’s name isn’t certain. It’s likely to be June, as that’s in the whispered list and not used elsewhere – but it’s not definitive.

By removing individuals’ names, the regime removes their identity and their ability to maintain a sense of self. Offred loses track of time, of chronology, and her narrative jumps from one idea to another, as though she herself is becoming fragmented. Removing the handmaids’ names demonstrates their powerlessness in the patriarchal regime – they are merely facets of the commander they serve – and their social status as being simply belongings rather than people in their own right.

 

Removing names has historical precedent, usually associated with oppression or genocide. Jews in labour camps, for example, were ‘renamed’ with numbers branded on their arms, and black slaves were renamed wen brought to American shores. Frequently they were named after their owners. Choosing a new name has, therefore, also gone hand in hand with reclaiming an identity, like the black political protestor Malcolm X changing his name from Malcolm Little. This article has some fascinating stories of slaves who changed their names after emancipation and then had problems claiming a pension from the Union Army in the early 1900s (something I’d really never thought about! The article explains how they had to declare that they were the same person in order to get their entitlement).

The Handmaids aren’t the only ones who experienced name changes. Serena Joy, Offred tells us, renamed herself from “Pam”; she chooses Serena Joy first as a stage name to sing religious worship and then when making speeches about the religious roles of women. The Christian qualities of her name are reminiscent of Puritan name choices which were sometimes quite bizarre – choosing a religious name was a way of setting the community apart and so names included Mercy, Praise God, Creedence, Make-Peace, even Sorry-for-Sin. The Wife we meet in Gilead is anything but serene and joyful. In fact, it turns out that her name might not even be hers. The presenters at the historical conference in the Notes tell us Offred might have made it up sarcastically and she’s probably really called either Thelma or Bambi Mae. Both totally horrendous but at least Thelma is more Thelma and Louise than doe-eyed deer. Although Thelma and Louise was a good six years post-Handmaid’s Tale.

The women’s names generally are quite symbolic. June suggests a sort of summer-time innocence, which is both at odds with the sarcastic and spiky Offred-narrative, but also suggests an innocence destroyed. Sara, Elizabeth, Lydia as aunts are all quite classical names found in the bible and ancient Rome. The other handmaids (Janine, Alma, Dolores) have names relating to kindness, the virgin Mary, or nurture of the mother. Moira is an Irish version of Mary, one of the most common and significant of Christian names. I like the way that Charlotte Templin puts it in her article “these names give an almost allegorical dimension to the tale Atwood tells. It is women as women innocent in themselves- who are the victims of a power-mad and brutal society.” By having names that are so common and so suggestive, Atwood positions these women as representing all of us.

The hierarchical roles are given names that support the religious basis of the community, drawing from the bible. The ‘Marthas’ are named for the sister of Lazarus, ‘Commander’ derives from ‘Commandments’ and they control the state absolutely. Although the Historical Notes suggests who the Commanders might have been (and these names are used in the TV adaptation), they’re not in Offred’s narrative. It could be that she isn’t quite sure – she isn’t in a position of power – but it also serves as a constant reminder of the power imbalance between them, and the military-style hierarchy of Gilead. “Unwomen” has a similarly powerlessness, again with the prefix, but this time the added historical reference of “unAmerican”, the dangerous label applied during McCarthyism in the 1950s, when naming someone as unAmerican was basically calling them a Russian spy. Unwomen are not only not women, they’re barely even worth being called people at all. Econowives also uses the slightly commercialised technique of adding the prefix (think I-Phone, and then the adding an ‘I’ to demonstrate anything vaguely technological about it or make it sound a bit trendy.) “Econo” suggests cheap, suitable for anyone who can’t afford both wife and handmaid.

Other hierarchical roles are named with religious overtones. The biblical story of the handmaids is used in the Rachel and Leah Centre, presided over by Aunts. A strange familial relationship in a lot of literature, an aunt is often only one step down from a wicked stepmother. When there’s no mother present, the maiden aunt steps into a maternal role without being maternal, looks after children but doesn’t care for them. She is safe from sexual sin, having never married, and lacks a nurturing ‘instinct’. I find it interesting that she’s often seen as a relatively unthreatening presence to men, more of a nanny/servant than part of the family, maybe a hangover from Victorian ideas of women being a burden to their families but chipping in to do some of the childcare in times of need in exchange for not being kicked out onto the streets. Widows are different – more threatening, because they’ve known sex (see Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath for more on this!) but aunts are guaranteed virgins and therefore don’t have any troublesome sexual urges. They’ve not been switched into sex mode, I guess. Anyway. Other caring titles are similarly perverted in Gilead – the ‘Guardians’ and ‘Angels’ keep the handmaids under control, not under protection.

 

And it’s not just names of individuals, either. Names of locations to create a sense of place are crucial in dystopian fiction. Atwood’s shops reflect a bizarrely commercialised religious fanaticism: Loaves and Fishes; Daily Bread; Milk and Honey; All Flesh (which always seems more like a brothel name than a butcher’s but whatever). They all take their name from biblical quotations. But they themselves are hypocritical. There might be a veneer of piety in the commercial district, but they are still capitalist enterprises trying to appeal to their buyers, taking religious names to appeal to the Commanders and their Wives despite their basic capitalist existence. Nothing really has changed since the Pornomarts and Fleshmobiles that plied their trade pre-Gilead – the shops have just changed what they needed to in order to stay in business in this new religiously-crazed world. Women are sent to “the colonies”, a term now loaded with historical connotations of colonisation by a more powerful (usually Western) force, resulting in pillaging for resources and slaves, destroying indigenous culture and generally using and abusing of the citizens until we leave in a bid to enable democracy which in reality collapses quite quickly because we’ve wrecked it over the last one hundred years. The colonies of Gilead are a wasteland, contaminated by radioactive waste and used as a dumping ground for those who are infertile or refuse to fit in.

I think by now there’s probably enough to fill a forty-five minutes essay to be honest but there’s also the events – Particicution being a blend of “participation” and “execution”, in a delightful portmanteau which symbolises the desire that all the handmaids partake of someone’s murder in order to have an outlet for their little frustrations.

And if you want to show off some really niche knowledge and give the examiner a bit of a knowing laugh, bring in the names of the cars – Whirlwind for the Commanders, a name representing immense, masculine power, contrasting the Chariot and Behemoth that the lesser men drive. In Gilead, a man’s car is certainly a representation of his *cough* power.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the Historical Notes. If you’re studying the Handmaid’s Tale know these inside and out. They’re SO important – they undercut virtually everything that we think we know by the time we get to them, and they’re so ridiculously playful. I’ll write a blog-post on it later, but for now let’s keep looking at the names issue. Firstly, we have Gileadean Studies as an academic discipline, immediately telling us that the regime is over and now seen as a historical event.

The chairing professor is Maryann Crescent Moon, along with Johnny Running Dog suggesting a shift in power to more equal representation of indigenous peoples (or perhaps just cultural appropriation of the names). Several of the names indicate that the prejudices of Gilead have continued (as, indeed, does Prof. Peixoto’s attitude towards Maryann Crescent Moon and his appropriation of Offred’s narrative). Atwood’s a bit tongue-in-cheek about the academics, too – Gopal Chatterjee from India discusses Krishna and Kali’s influence. Given the right-wing Christian nature of Gilead, it seems unlikely there was much of this, so the name’s probably supposed to tip us off that everyone sees what they want to see in history. Atwood also mocks the conference itself, I think – the Outdoor Period Costume Sing Song, dressed as Gileadeans, sounds horrendous (although not as bad as this Halloween handmaid’s outfit, which was a real thing last year).

Another point of interest in the Historical Notes is the re-naming of the aunts;

“Who else among the Sons of Jacob Think-Tankers would have come up with the notion that the Aunts should take names derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them – the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes, frozen desserts, and even medicinal remedies?”

The references are Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, both cosmetic lines, Betty Crocker and Sara Lee dessert companies, and Lydia Pinkham, an American businesswoman in the late 1800s who specialised in “women’s tonics” for menstrual and menopausal symptoms. Again, this suggests the hypocrisy – the religious overtones are in fact masking a very commercial idea, branding the aunts as connected with typically female, maybe even comfortingly domestic, products.

Lastly, here is a table with some of the names from The Handmaid’s Tale, and their associated meanings. Enjoy.

 

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