Analysis of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"

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Published in1985, Margaret Atwood`s “The Handmaid`s Tale” is not only intriguing but also a controversial dystopian novel.  The book is set in the theonomy of a totalitarian New England era, a regime that had to subjugate the political dominance of continental America.  The primary focus of the novel is given to the travel of Offred, the handmaid. The actual name of Offred is Fred, but because he is accompanying the master, his name expressly bears a reflection of the master's dime, hence the depiction Offred (Atwood 12).  On the one hand, s “The Handmaid`s Tale” extensively explore the theme of how women suffer oppression and social discrimination in a male favoring patriarchal society. On the other, the women fight back to overturn the dogma of an unequal culture, so they eventually attain independence and individualism in their lives.  In “The Handmaid`s Tale,” Atwood has used the literary element of symbolism to express the qualities and ideas that connote mystical states, emotions, and ideas in the novel.  To exhaustively discuss how symbolism relates to the primary theme of social inequality in the novel, this paper does not only explore the symbol of the Bible and religion but also the symbol of flowers.

The Bible has been used as a symbol in Margaret Atwood`s “The Handmaid`s Tale,” because of the many biblical allusions that have been cited across the novel.  One of the references that have been made to the Bible is the phrase "Give me children or else I die"(Atwood 38). The phased has been used from the first book of the Bible; Genesis chapter 30 from verses one to verse three.  This shows how children are important in any family, and without children, a marriage would be considered as a failed relationship in most cultures across the world. Consequently, the handmaid has been brought in to be lain by the master so that heirs can be born outside of the wedlock. The involvement of the handmaid symbolically alludes to the life of Abraham and Sarai in the Bible. When Abraham and Sarai were in their old age, they have no child yet their time was almost over. Therefore the hope for ever bearing children was diminished. However, Sarai, the wife to Abraham, approached her husband and beseeched him to sleep with their handmaid, so that they gave birth to a son named Ishmael (Hammill 523). It is Ishmael who would become the heir of Abraham because he had no child of his own with Sarai.  The symbol of the Bible in barrenness and how men are allowed to go out of wedlock to give birth to children outline the primary them in the novel  “The Handmaid`s Tale,” a phenomenon that connotes how women are primarily viewed as instruments of childbearing, without they would be replaced. Consequently, the female gender does not enjoy equal dignity accorded to humanity as their male counterparts do.

The legal statutes of Gilead are biased, and they discriminate against women because the symbol of the Bible has been used to unfairly advance the culture of patriarchy. While men are absolved to have extramarital affairs in the name of childbearing, the women are condemned and disowned in society once they dare do such behavior. The lack of equal treatment is a biblical connotation of Abraham and Sarai that has been expressly abused in “The Handmaid`s Tale.” Humility and meekness is a desirable character among women, and especially among the handmaid. In Gilead, only one religion is acceptable according to the lawmakers, and this sounds discriminative. People have less access to fundamental freedoms that make life meaningfully.  The leadership of Gilead has compromised the freedom and rights of the common people, especially women who are denied their liberty both in the reproductive sphere of life and within their professional career. At some points where fiction, propaganda, and names are mentioned, allusions are made to the Bible in a symbolic manner (Atwood 67). For example, when the handmaids go shopping, all the recorder stores the former are allowed to do their shopping are denoted by Biblical names, for instance, Honey, Fishes, and Lilies. The other biblical symbol used in the novel “The Handmaid`s Tale” is the idea of calling to a place where whores operate from ad Jezebels. From the Biblical point of view, Jezebel was a prostitute. Therefore, calling a place “the Jezebel`s” is an indicator that prostitution is encouraged at that place.  At this point, women sell their bodies for material wealth in exchange of sex. About the central theme of sexual discrimination, this biblical symbol shows how women are in most cases sexually stereotypes. On the one hand, women that do prostitution are condemned in “The Handmaid`s Tale,” but the men they have sex with are not condemned. For every minor social circumstance mentioned in the novel, a bible verse is accompanied with it. However, much editing has been done to alter the meaning in the biblical verses so that they do not have much impact on the domineering male culture.

The symbol of flowers has been extensively used in Margaret Atwood`s “The Handmaid`s Tale.” The narrator compares women to the flowers whenever he encounters any female character that and a topic of affection arises.  An example is the Serena Joy`s and Commander`s house, which has been symbolically referenced, "watercolor picture of blue irises"(Atwood 4). This quote connotes beauty and elegance. The blue irises are flowers which were mostly used by rich and loving couples. Hence it symbolizes elegance and affluence. Moreover, the narrator`s bathroom has been symbolized with flowers. The washroom is "papered in small blue flowers, forget-me-nots"(Hammill 529).  This is a show of love and relaxation. One expects that a bathroom is a private place where one gets to wash himself or herself, and hence the presence of flowers symbolize self-love.  On the contrary, the decoration in the master bedroom is beautified by "a starry canopy of silver flowers"(Tolan 31). This quote shows how much flowers matter to couples in love. The presence of flowers in the bedroom expressly symbolizes affection. When the commander takes the narrator to the Jezebel`s the place has also been flowered. Because the jezebels symbolize prostitution, the presence of flowers connotes the presence of sexual activities. On the contrary, flowers have been used in the novel to symbolize other extreme things apart from love and affection. For example, the narrator describes the bloody mouth of the hanged person as "red of the tulips"(Atwood 26). The quote is said at the Serena Joy`s Garden. Therefore, the quote shows how flowers can lure those in love and compromised relationships that end up in fatal expense.   In this case, flowers symbolize how women are bought with gifts rather than human dignity and understanding.

Flowers in Margaret Atwood`s “The Handmaid`s Tale” symbolize not only love and affection but also the ability to grow and enjoy fertility as a woman. Therefore, like flowers which can bloom and bear fruits, women have been defined through the use of flowers in this novel as fertile grounds of reproduction.  When older women in the novel embrace flower, it shows how much they value reproduction and fertility, "Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for"(Tolan 19). The quote means that women are willing to do anything to overcome the odds that would compromise their sexual life. The society has compromised the mental and psychological functioning of women, in that they believe that for them to be recognized, they must have flowers on to confirm their fertility.  Serena joy mutilates flowers with joy, and the narrator says, "Was it some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body"(Atwood 25).The quote shows how she perceives sitting in the house like a flower to bear children. Fertility is the adjective in focus. Therefore, flowers have been used as symbols in many ways in Margaret Atwood`s “The Handmaid`s Tale” the symbol of flowers is in line with the central theme of the novel, in that women are seen as instruments of sexuality and childbearing. Just like flowers, women are meant to create sexual attraction and then satisfy men in the patriarchal society that characterize the novel.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Emblem Editions, 2012. Web.

---. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood - Google Books. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986 ISBN 0547345666, 9780547345666, 2024. Web.

Hammill, Faye. “Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale.” A Companion to Science Fiction. N.p., 2007. 522–533. Web.

Tolan, Fiona. “Feminist Utopias and Questions of Liberty: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a Critique of Second Wave Feminism.” Women: A Cultural Review 16.1 (2005): 18–32. Web.

November 24, 2023




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