Within The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood taps into several important themes. It is built around the themes of oppression/rebellion, gender roles, and religion, in addition to rebellion/hope. Other less obvious themes are storytelling and love.
The Handmaid’s Tale Themes
Although it is less obvious than some of the themes in the novel, storytelling is quite important. The story is structured with Offred’s telling of her life in Gilead at the center. There are a few moments in which Offred reminds the reader of this fact, such as when she considers if anyone is ever going to hear her story. This theme is reinforced at the end of the story when Atwood concludes with “Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale”. Here, the professor regards Offred’s story as something very much of the past, but the words he uses and a joke he tells remind the reader that it might not be so far distant.
Additionally, there is the title of the book itself, The Handmaid’s Tale. It is an allusion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the various “tales” that make it up.
If a story is going to make use of one of these themes, it is likely only going to be successful if it uses the other. The women, in all levels of Gilead’s society, are repressed at some level. This does not exclude the wives of the Commanders. The stories that Atwood fears in this novel, through Offred’s narration, are based around the desire to rebel or the act of rebellion itself. For example, Moira’s escape from the Red Center and Ofglen’s work with Mayday. Offred rebels in her own, less obvious way as well. She develops a relationship with Nick and brakes the rules with the Commander.
No discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale would be complete without understanding the importance of gender roles in Gilead’s society. The government is a theocracy, based around religion, and they use that religion as an excuse to oppress and control the women who live within it. The hierarchy in their world is incredibly important. Women have lost control of their bank accounts, their homes, their families, and, most importantly, their bodies. There is a passage in the novel in which the Commander describes to Offred why Gilead was formed and what it was about feminism that offended the male population so fundamentally. He creates an excuse for controlling the women around him, although one he appears to believe, about how he felt as though he lost his purpose in life as a provider and protector.
Analysis of Key Moments in The Handmaid’s Tale
- Offred arrives at Fred and Serena Joy’s home to become their new Handmaid.
- Offred goes shopping with Ofglen; Nick winks at her.
- Offred and Ofglen see the Japanese tourists.
- They go to the Wall where bodies of traitors are displayed.
- Offred remembers Aunt Lydia’s words at the Red Center.
- She spends time recalling her own life and Nick breaks the rules by speaking to her.
- Offred recalls going to the doctor.
- They participate in the Ceremony.
- Offred steals a daffodil from downstairs and leaves it pressed under her mattress.
- She kisses Nick and he tells her that the Commander wants to see her tomorrow in his office.
- Offred worries about what happened to her husband, Luke.
- Offred and the other Handmaids attend a birth and she recalls Moira’s escape.
- The Commander and Offred play Scrabble in his office. He asks her to kiss him.
- Ofglen tells Offred about Mayday.
- The Commander gives Offred a magazine to read.
- Offred recalls attempting to escape with Luke.
- The Commander explains his feelings about gender roles to Offred.
- The Commander takes Offred to the club for commanders. They have sex; she sees Moira.
- Serena takes Offred to Nick so that they might have sex and conceive a child.
- A Salvaging occurs and Ofglen disappears.
- Serena discovers Offred went to the club with the Commander.
- Nick tells Offred that the resistance is there to take her away.
- The Historical Notes from Professor Pieixoto conclude the novel.
Style, Tone and Figurative Language
The tone throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak. Hope and happiness are few are far between and Offred only just makes it from day to day in her life. The entirety of her independence has been striped away from her. There are moments of nostalgia as well when Offred pines for the past and the family she used to have.
Throughout the novel, Atwood uses a nonlinear style of writing. She jumps between the main narrative, that of Offred in Gilead, and Offred’s accounts of the past. These flashbacks provide the reader with the information they need to understand how Offred got to where she is and what happened to her family. The novel is also quite introspective. Offred spends a great deal of time analyzing her own emotions and intentions. She often thinks about the past and wonders what kind o future she’s going to have.
In regards to figurative language, Atwood uses metaphors and similes throughout the novel in order to create the most poignant images she could. One of the most noteworthy is on page ninety-six when Offred says “We are containers, it’s only the inside of our bodies that are important”.
Additionally, Atwood uses numerous examples of allusion. She crafted much of the novel around Biblical principles of how a woman should act. There are also quotes from the Old Testament and direct references to stories. (Such as that of Rachel and Leah). Foreshadowing and repetition are also present in the novel.
Analysis of Symbols
The color red is one of the most important symbols in the novel. It appears throughout the story associated with the Handmaid’s, shame, sex/passion, as well as fertility. Offred even notices it, referring to it as “blood” and connecting it to the violence that Gilead creates. The color appears in the Handmaid’s clothes as well as in Serena’s garden. The tulips are also red.
Makeup is a complex symbol in the novel. It at once symbolizes felinity and the lost freedom that Offred longs for as well as control. The Commander, on the other hand, sees the women as having been liberated from makeup. They no longer have to wear it, nor do they have to think about their appearance. But, despite this, he gives Offred makeup to where to the hotel. Although Offred is not given makeup or even lotion, she does the best she can to take care of herself. She uses butter on occasion to moisturize her skin.
The University is one of the less obvious symbols in the novel. It has been transformed into a detention center out of which the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police, operate. There, bodies hang off the walls that surround the college. The Eyes even put on mass executions in front of the library. Harvard exists as a juxtaposition between the world as it used to be and the world that Gilead created.