The Use Of Symbolism In The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

Imagine a society with no ethical human rights, strict, religious, coservative beliefs and bearing a personal identity based solely on a particular role for this society. The Handmaid's Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, follows a woman called Offred, in her transition from a free citizen of the United States, to a handmaid of Gilead. Atwood is an established author, teacher, inventor, poet and women’s rights activist, which can all be seen throughout her works; she works to make statements. For example, in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood specifically uses symbolism to demonstrate the consequences of hegemonic masculinity written within the confines of a controlled society and its effects on the people who live within said society. Various types of symbolism are used throughout the novel to emphasize the dominance of men and how it affects the women in Gilead. Along with loss of identity within social expectations and conformity. Lastly, Atwood uses symbolism to offer insight into a fictional dystopian state where the authoritative bodies are religious extremists and conservatives. She expresses these ideas using symbols such as clothing and colours that determine the caste of the characters along with self reflecting imagery such as mirrors and eyes which show the dominant, controlling authority and lack of identity.

Throughout the novel Atwood uses multiple symbols to display hegemonic masculinity within Gilead. Women are prohibited to vote, banned to read or write, further creating a division of power and segregation from the women and men in Gilead as well as making sure any communication of resistance or opinions are ceased. Throughout the novel, colour is used to symbolize the division of authority between the castes of women. “A red and white shape of the cloth like a kite,” describes the dress of a nun in Gilead. The women in Gilead are separated into castes and reduced to the colours of their clothing. Red is used by the handmaids to symbolize fertility, as well as sin which are at the bottom of the caste, while white signifies purity that the young girls wear. Showing how women’s identity and purpose is reduced to those specific roles for society and some for men; in the forms of fertility. Flowers are also used in the novel to further emphasize hegemonic masculinity. “Think yourself as seed,” is said to women in Gilead. Even though flowers are worn to give extra attention and ‘beauty’ to the women who wear them and should be for the women themselves, they also symbolize fertility. The quote implies women are an object to be planted in or upon reinforcing the subordination of women in Gilead despite the ‘beauty’ of flowers. A more specific connection between the handmaid and flowers is the tulip. The tulip’s colour symbolizes death and function. Showing once again that there is nothing for women to grasp on for individuality, rights or their own beliefs. Furthermore, these symbols display that women exist solely for men's desires and expectations in Gilead and are reduced down to single functions in society.

Women are not the only ones who are affected by the corrupt ways of Gilead. Atwood brings into existence a dystopian state where not only the women are being manipulated into believing their life and worth is solely for the benefit of society. The citizens are also being controlled through not only militaristic enforcement but also by religious and conservative means. Eyes are used in the novel as a symbol of the police in Gilead. They are called the “Eyes Of God”. This shows the feeling of watchfulness. They work for the government and can be found anywhere in the State of Gilead. “Blind plaster Eye in the ceiling,” reincforces the authoritative enforcement which is constantly watching and preaching their customs and laws which control the entire state. The eyes; however, are not the only means of cultural enforcement in Gilead. In the novel, the secret police of Gilead transformed Harvard University into a detention centre. Showing how the state of Gilead and its governing bodies control the public through means of intimidation. The Eyes of God give punishments to the people in the rooms of Harvard and leave hanging bodies from the ceiling. This symbolizes a place once built to gain knowledge and attain freedom, has completely converted into the place for torture. Demonstrating the insight and consequences of living in Atwood’s fictional dystopian state where the authoritative bodies are religious extremists and conservatives.

Not only are the people punished and prohibited to resist their authorities, they are also stripped of their individuality and identity. Women's identities in Gilead are reduced down to their societal roles. Atwood uses the ban of mirrors to symbolize loss of identity for women and people within Gilead. “As in nunnery too, there were few mirrors,” showing not even the religious authorities were encouraged to self reflect. In the novel, mirrors are the source of identity because they represent who we are. Nevertheless, they were removed in the book; since, they could encourage self reflection and rebellion and be broken into fragments and used as weapons. The colours and items of the characters’ clothing also serve a purpose in creating lack of identity. For women, they are also assigned a new name when recently taken into Gilead. “My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter”. Offred tries to distance herself from the new name that has been given to her. She failed to convince herself that her name is separate from her identity or her birth rights. When people are kept from using their real names, they become lesser versions of themselves and start to lose hold of their individuality and uniqueness. When the outfits of women in castes are used to separate themselves in society, as well as the adjustment from their real names, it creates a large lack of identity and uniqueness for the women. Ultimately creating a dystopian society of people who live only for their caste and societal roles and women who exist solely for the men of their household.

Overall, Margaret Atwood successfully uses symbolism to offer insight into the consequences of a society ruled by religious extremists and conservatives; alongside insight into the consequences of extreme hegemonic masculinity and loss of identity. Margaret Atwood has produced many meaningful works and The Handmaid’s Tale is most certainly considered one of them, addressing real life issues allowing readers to perceive them from a fictional, outsider perspective. 

09 March 2021
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