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Rationalising (and Diminishing) in The Handmaid’s Tale

Rationalising refers to a mental process of attempting to explain something rationally, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s very closely related to diminishing, the act of reducing the amount of good or damage something might have done in one’s mind. This is a key part of the thinking behind the Republic of Gilead and practically every other dystopia. In my experience, only Oceania of 1984 doesn’t attempt to diminish or rationalise its brutality and is the only regime that’s totally honest about its desire to subjugate its citizens for the sake of power. While it’s closely associated with controlling through false promises and gaslighting, rationalising twists the narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale and makes us wonder whether we can trust Offred’s word on how bad things really are.

Before Gilead is born (pun intended), Offred is rationalising in ‘the time before’ when she’s first seeing Luke. He’s a married man and she knows it yet she still goes out with him, even having private time together in hotel rooms before he divorces his wife. She claims that it’s not ‘poaching’ as Moira calls it by (unfairly) countering it with allegations that Moira is ‘poaching’ women and that Luke is choosing to cheat on his wife. In this scenario, she’s only doing as she’s told and it’s all on Luke. Moira even points out that she’s rationalising as she makes excuses for her behaviour and even Offred must finally admit her doubts and that Moira might have a point. In small ways, Offred rationalised risky behaviour during her marriage too. She refuses to throw away plastic bags that she will never use in some hope that she will need them, despite Luke’s reasonable objections about the hazard to their young daughter. This is the sign of an optimist and she admits that she believed in fate, that something so catastrophic wouldn’t happen to her. She lives in ‘the blank pages between the stories’, after all and nothing of the sort would happen to her.

However, catastrophe does strike and her rationalising tendency doesn’t help her when her card was denied and she got fired. She was unable to take in what had happened and her rational mind even came up with the notion that she somehow deserved it. A harmful and unhelpful thought. She wastes a lot of time, grappling with the new reality and trying to make it seem better than it is. If she had been able to confront what was happening to her and what it meant from the start, she might had been able to make a more successful escape. By the time she does act, it’s too late and she’s captured by Gileadian soldiers.

As a Handmaid, rationalising and diminishing becomes an essential part of everyday life. After all, when you can’t stop or change what’s happening to you, there’s no point breaking down emotionally or breaking yourself to pieces trying to resist it. She can’t even face the fact that the Ceremony is ritualised rape. She assaults that notion head on and diminishes it to the point when it is merely an act and pretending that, in some way, she freely chose this and glosses over any hint that she was forced or is regretting her choice. She tries to align herself with the Gileadian idea that what she is doing is ‘a duty’ and not a crime against her. It protects her sanity but it doesn’t stop it from being a bare-faced lie to herself. Perhaps, this is why the television series felt the need to change this as these submissive thoughts. They are rather uncomfortable to read.

However, everyone needs hope, even if it’s small and inconsequential. Offred therefore is led to believe that, because she can hide butter and moisturise herself with it (in defiance of the spiteful Wives), she will have it in her to escape and return to her normal life. It’s a nice fantasy to hold on to but, again, it’s a very obvious lie. She acknowledges that, at the first push, she crumbles and she’s right. As soon as danger flares up, she breaks and vows to submit to every element of the regime if she would just be spared. When she’s given long hours to herself when she’s ‘in disgrace’, she doesn’t even attempt to make an escape or some kind of statement with the match she’s secreted away in the mattress. Moisturising butter doesn’t help at all in this situation.

Nor does it help her when the Commander is closing his grip on her and getting more daring with what he does with her. When she’s taken to Jezebel’s, it never entered into her head that it was nothing more than a ‘crummy power trip’ until Moira points it out. Again, she resists it, trying to find a more rational and kinder explanation. This could be an effort on her part to see herself as little more than a toy or a sexual plaything as no one wants to think they’re in that situation. While it prevents her from falling into despair or doing anything risky with the Commander, it’s still a stubborn refusal to look facts in the face, showing she still hasn’t learned anything from the time before.

In order to hold onto any shreds of sanity, the Handmaids need to rationalise and diminish the harm that’s being done to them. However, it also threatens to make them too passive, too complacent and, when they have a chance to make things better or make a statement, rationalising becomes a barrier rather than a buffer. This is the main difference between Book-Offred and TV-Offred. Book-Offred still can’t or won’t fully take in what is being done to her. Therefore, she is overwhelmed when it all changes again and she is unprepared for any real opportunity to escape. TV-Offred looks hard facts right in the face and, by the time opportunity barges in, she is mentally ready to take action. While hard truths are hard to face and it’s tempting to try and tone it down in your own mind, one must never lose sight of what is going on and definitely not try to explain horrors away. If it’s irrational, do not forget it is irrational and think realistically on how you can prevent it. Butter won’t bring down a dystopia, after all.

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