Symbolism, Power, and Perversion in The Handmaid’s Tale

The dominating society of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale persists in the wake of World-War 2, where dropping fertility levels posed an imminent threat to humanity’s continued existence. Radiation disfigured newborns and threatened the lives of those working in the Colonies, a labor camp designed by the government for barren women to atone for their sin of infertility. In the new society of Gilead, Scripture was the law; it was into this society that our narrator Offred was integrated, a Handmaid to the Commander and his Wife, Serena Joy. Her body served as the womb between them, a hope for humanity’s continued survival. Stripped of her identity, Offred clung to colors and flowers, detachment and defiance to maintain her hold on reality and the memories of her old life. With these symbols, she survived. 

Color denounced, evoked, preserved, and chastised. It was a power in itself, a signifier of both social status and humiliation. The red garb of the Handmaid was a display of her place in the household: a striking, silent presence between the barren Wives and their Commanders — repulsive to all, but a necessary intercession. By their blood, the Handmaids were redeemed. In its absence, their purpose was fulfilled. This power dynamic is explained by our narrator through the relationship between flowers and color, by hanging corpses and smiles sketched by long-dried blood. On the Wall the executed hung like snowmen, covered heads like a child’s ragdoll were it not for the stench.

“I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not the reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind” (33).

The red of the tulips was an ever-present reminder of blood, and the blood of Serena’s tulips. They were distinct realities tied together by nothing but color. Towards the stem, a darker crimson suggested they had been cut and are beginning to heal (12). It is this image she sees mirrored in her husband Luke’s beaten face (105); in the nameless corpse smiling down at his survivors, she sees Serena’s tulips. Through these fields of distinct and valid things she struggles to keep her grasp on reality; after time, blood seems more and more like tulips, the oppression of Gilead more and more like the only reality left for her.  

Nonetheless, the society that renounced vanity allowed gardens to survive. They were the only means of agency left to women, a silent display of both power and utter weakness. Offred recognized “something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently” (153). Here, alongside her tulips Serena plants peonies and carnations: symbols of a bashful life, women, and love. In the position required of Handmaids, Offred finds the Commander’s Wife: “Saint Serena, on her knees, doing penance” (153). The Handmaids existed as tangible reparations for Wives’ barrenness; Offred is acutely aware of this small power she possesses. She observes of Serena that “Even at her age she still feels the urge to wreathe herself in flowers. No use for you, I think at her, my face unmoving, you can’t use them anymore, you’re withered. They’re the genital organs of plants” (82). Her body is withered; for this, on her knees, Serena does penance.

The image of a tulip—a chalice—pervades Offred’s understanding of her role in this society. “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136). She exists to be filled, not with God—Scripture was prohibited them—but with children. “What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies…Some of them would get carried away with this. The ecstasy of abasement” (194). The great depravity of the Handmaid’s condition was that it was seemingly freely chosen. She, an unworthy vessel, could be consecrated through the offering of her body to the good of all (218). To do otherwise was a sentence to the Colonies.

Offred’s own choice is reflected in the opening flower. “The tulips along the border are redder than ever,” she observes, “opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards” (45). She is an empty vessel reaching aimlessly upwards until the night falls; in time her petals lose their shape and wither. She is no longer useful. If she does not conceive a healthy child, Offred will be sent to work in the Colonies as an Unwoman. An empty vessel is better than a broken one.

Despite this, flowers were not always symbols of fear. Memories of the old world came in flashes of yellow—the embroidered sunflower on her daughter’s dress, the buttercups held to her chin in her youth (319). She longs for a dandelion, a reminder of the old world (212). Serena’s perfume, Lily of the Valley, is at the same time a rebellion against society’s elimination of vanity and a message of purity. In all their crude subtlety, the orange poppies plastered on the couches at Jezebel’s suggest deep and passionate love. These were symbols of the old world. In their subversive way, their existence allowed for Offred to remember what was lost: both the precious and the damned.

It was this knowledge that the Aunts tried to subdue. “There is more than one type of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (24). In the days before, freedom destroyed virtue. It bred whorehouses and pornographic magazines through which society slowly rotted in its vice. Now, once all magazines were burned, Offred realizes that “What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations…They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love” (157). This freedom is what Offred longed to find in the Commander’s unlawful collection. She was forbidden change, relationships, and love. Without these, she was forced to live in the memories of love, grasping at memories of her little girl, of Moira’s defiance, and nights escaping herself with Luke. In Serena Joy’s house there was a little cushion with ‘faith’ embroidered on it in faded blue, surrounded by lilies. There was no hope or love (57). 

What was left for Offred was faith. Gilead, cemented in its Scriptural perversion, had led her blindly into oppression by taking away her ability to choose evil. What it did not eliminate, however, was the alternative evil that replaced it. As Aunt Lydia explained, they were a society dying of too much choice (25). The new regulations saved sexual relations for procreation. Veiled faces prevented vanity. She notes:

“I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to the material world and you forget about spiritual value. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t say anything about inheriting the earth” (64).

Humility pushed to humiliation constituted virtue for the women of Gilead. Scripture, heavily paraphrased, defined their role and supported cycles of abuse for generations.

Even so, enforced submission did not breed voluntary submission. Gilead operated only by successfully deceiving women into believing that they had a real choice, and that they were virtuous for freely submitting to their abusers. Their willing sacrifice was simultaneously honored and reviled; while the Handmaids were venerated for bearing children, even the house servants were disgusted by them. As Offred recalls of Rita: “Her face might be kindly if she would smile. But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for. She thinks I might be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck” (10). Behind closed doors, Rita contends that she would never debase herself like that; she would rather risk starvation and mutilation in the Colonies with the Unwomen. Of Serena, Offred acknowledges “I am a reproach to her; and a necessity” (13) Such was her state: punished for not bearing children and reviled if she did—reviled even for her presence alone.

It does, however, seem significant that the red of Offred’s dress served as a symbol of her own powerlessness despite strong traditional ties to red as a symbol of the wearer’s power (Roland 4). In the Handmaid’s position, power was reversed. While she bore the power to save humanity from dying out, she also lacked real agency. She was perceived to be the commander of her own body, yet was deprived of all power but submission. As it is written in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (ESV). The redness of sin implied a taint upon the soul that must be washed clean. In respect to handmaids, this taint separated them from the rest of society as unclean and impure. (Roland 9).  

Restructured purity, therefore, was the justification for the use of sex slaves. This was no anomaly; religion and its perversion were the breath of Gilead. The Bible was kept locked up because it was an incendiary device. Who knows what women would make of it if they ever got their hands on it (87)? Instead, Handmaids learned submission through the Aunts, who taught Scripture in the way it had been read to them by men: “It is not the husbands you have to watch out for, says Aunt Lydia, but the Wives…Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. \…You must realize that they are defeated women” (46). Here, Aunt Lydia took the words of the crucified God and used them to forgive the Wives guilty of abusing Handmaids in their jealousy. The only way to successfully subjugate women was to have them subjugate themselves. The only power left to Wives was their command over the Handmaids. In this compromising position—a body pressed beneath the Handmaid and her Commander—Wives held onto every scrap of power thrown to them. And the Handmaids, dissociating under the ceiling’s plaster flowers, were taught to pity the Wives’ humiliating condition.

As Offred learned, obstructing emotion was the only way to survive as a Handmaid. Eyes lifted to the ragdoll bodies, strung ornaments on the Wall, intuition demanded that she must not feel (33). “This is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before” (193). Dehumanization allowed for bodies to be used and disposed of freely. For this reason, Offred treasured her name: the one secret extension of her identity that could not become uniform. “I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day” (84). In the dark, she repeats it to herself.

“I want to be held and be told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me” (97).

She clings to this memory as the last remnant of her former self. “It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (8). Knowledge of her identity and her daughter gave her both a reason to live and an overwhelming desire to hang herself, following the Handmaid before her. The days she remembered her identity were simultaneously the clearest and most dangerous to her.

Like the secret of her name, small acts of defiance were what sustained the Handmaids. Before the reign of Gilead, Offred’s best friend Moira was the troublemaker between them. Without her, Offred longed to imitate Moira’s tenacity through trivial acts of disobedience.

“I would like to steal something from this room. I would like to take some small thing, the scrolled ashtray, the little silver pillbox from the mantel perhaps, or a dried flower…Every once in a while I would take it and look at it. It would make me feel that I have power” (81).

She has many of these sentiments throughout the book, from the match hidden under her bed frame in the first chapters to her overwhelming desire to set the house ablaze in the last. She clings to these small impulses as evidence of her surviving agency. As she discovers, she is not the only one who does so.

“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with” (222).

This she shares with Ofglen, the second Handmaid of Serena Joy and her Commander. “The crimes of others are a secret language among us. Through them we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all” (175). With words whispered between prayers and adjacent bathroom stalls, they keep each other alive.

This, however, was not enough to save them. In order to safeguard the secrets of the resistance and Offred’s affair with Nick, Ofglen hangs herself. “She died that I might live,” Offred understands (286). In shock, she prays:

“Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you’ve let me off, I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself, truly, become a chalice…I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject” (286).

In the end, she was still a victim of Gilead’s tyranny. The price of living was enslavement, whether to Gilead or to the resistance. After escaping the society founded upon the distortion of Scripture, Offred finds herself begging God to spare her at any cost. For the first time, she feels Gilead’s true power.  

Through color and flowers, detachment and defiance, Offred learned to survive. The silent flowers preserved her voice. Her trivial crimes preserved her identity. In the dark, she could convince herself that she had power; in the light, she ran. In the society that forbade love, Offred and Gilead served the same God that led them time and again to the noose. Atwood’s pervading message is that human depravity can flourish in the realm of the sacred. Even a society founded upon religious purity can test the limits of moral perversion. Faith is the foundation of our reality; for Offred, “Faith is only a word, embroidered” (292).

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Arts

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