“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world. ” This is a quote from Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil that speaks of the deeper meaning of things on the surface that often goes unnoticed. It explains the idea that very simple things act as symbols of broader and more complex ideas. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood uses symbolism to portray the themes of individuality and identity, feminism, and the power of language. For women in Gilead there is no sense of individual identity. All women are divided into social classes on the basis of wealth and ertility and dress according to the colour coded wardrobe of their group. Wives – the partners of the wealthy Commanders- dress in “long powder-blue robes” (Atwood 15). The Handmaids, who are fertile women, dress in red ankle length skirts and full- sleeved tops. The Marthas, who are household servants, dress in “dull green” (27) and the Econowives, the wives of “the poorer men” (27), dress in striped dresses of blue, red, and green. Each colour symbolizes the role of the individuals in the group.
The blue of the Wives’ dresses, as suggested by Charles A. Riley’s in Color Codes, may symbolize their upper class status in the religious society of Gilead as “blue is often used to depict heavenly relations” (Riley 298). The red of the Handmaids, which Offred describes as “the colour of blood, which defines us” (Atwood 8), symbolizes their fertility. Blood is often associated with life or sacrifice and the Handmaids both bring new life into the word and Aunt Lydia also refers to the Handmaids as part of a “transitional generation” (138) and knows the sacrifices they “are being expected to make” (138). The dull-green of the Marthas’ dresses also serves as a symbol f fertility with the green being nature and its dullness symbolizing the Marthas’ inability to reproduce. The striped dresses of blue, red, and green symbolizes the Econowives’ responsibilities to fulfill all the three roles. The women are grouped because one woman is considered to be no different than another woman in her group. There is no individual, only a collective.
Similarly, the real names of the Handmaids are forbidden and replaced with the prefix ‘Of followed by their Commander’s name because it is not important who they are, only who they belong to. For example, when going out on the aily walk Offred is paired with a new woman who refers to herself as Ofglen. This woman, however, as Offred notices, is not the same Ofglen she used to go on walks with previously. For Offred, Ofglen is an individual woman. For the society, Ofglen is any woman assigned to Commander Glen. Offred also realizes the importance of her own individual identity. At one point, she tries to convince herself that having her name taken away does not matter but then says “what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108). The walks themselves also show a disregard for individuality in Gilead.
The women walking in twos shows a sense of mirroring that they create. In Breaking Point, Jonah Plouffe explains “the mandated walks in pairs portrays a lack of individuality in the society for the first woman is to the second what the second is to the first: another Handmaid” (Plouffe 17). This shows that although they partnering system may be for safety or spying, it prevents the Handmaids from being seen as individuals. Therefore, the colour-coded wardrobe, the renaming of Handmaids, and the partnered walks are all symbols of the theme of individuality and identity.
Feminism is a largely prevalent theme throughout the novel. It takes on both the first and second waves of feminism that is voiced through the characters of Offred’s mother and Moira, respectively. There are many flashbacks in the novel to feminist marches for issues such as reproductive rights, sexual assault, and pornography. Documentaries of these events are shown by the Aunts to the Handmaids as examples of transgressions as the women are referred to as Unwomen, outcasts in Gilead. Offred’s mother represents the progressive first wave of feminism. Raising Offred as a single mother, she encourages
Offred to be more demanding of her rights. Moira, however, represents the more aggressive second wave of feminism. She believes that excluding men from society would result in Utopia but as Offred says, she is “sadly mistaken” (Atwood 198). Moira’s belief, which reflects that of the early second wave, is ironic because the society of Gilead is consisted mainly of women yet is far from a utopia. As Fiona Tolan writes in Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction “The Handmaid’s Tale comes to satirically depict a dystopian society that has unconsciously and paradoxically met certain feminist aims” (Tolan 145).
Another example of feminism is the system of a patriarchy In Gilead. Although the Handmaids are told that everything is happening for their own good, Gilead treats women as second class citizens. No woman is allowed to hold a job or own any money or property. All the power remains at the top and enforced by male figures such as the Commanders, the Guardians, and the Angels. Men are exempt from any responsibility of a Handmaid’s failure to conceive since the society considers it impossible for men to be sterile. Along with conception, women are also blamed for being sexually assaulted.
During Testifying, when Janine admits to being gang raped, the Aunts make the Handmaids chant “her fault, her fault, her fault” (Atwood 82) when asked whose fault it was that such an incident occurred happened. This shows that the women are taught to take responsibility of such traumatic instances because in this case Janine “led them on” (82). Harold Bloom explains in Bloom’s Guide:Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that this form of patriarchy is “in a thoroughly sinister and distorted way, a utopia of cultural feminism” (Bloom 79). In Gilead “there has been an minous convergence between some of the ideas of the antifeminist right and those of the cultural feminist militants” (79).
For these reasons, Offred’s mother, Moira, and the patriarchal system are all symbols of feminism. Language in the Christian fundamentalist society of the Republic of Gilead holds a lot of power. Women are banned from reading and writing as the society considers it unnecessary for women to be literate because their main role is to breed. Information is passed from one woman to another in secrecy by word of mouth, forcing the women to lip-read or “whisper almost ithout sound” (Atwood 4). This restriction of communication gives the government control over its people.
Phrases such as “blessed be the fruit” (Atwood 21), “may the lord open” (21) and “under his Eye” (49) are all enforced by the government to show the depth of their authority where everyday conversations must be carried out in accordance to what government wants. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood edited by Coral Ann Howells quotes an excerpt from Atwood’s lecture where she explains the aim of such systems of absolute power “is to silence he voice, abolish the word, so that the only voice and words left are those of the ones in power” (Howells 51). The government of Gilead uses language as a form of dominance over its citizens because controlling what they can and cannot say is a form of controlling what they can and cannot do. In her book Postmodern Feminist Writers, W. S. Kottiswari describes language in Gilead as “weapons that can free the people from bondage” (Kottiswari 35). The protagonist, Offred, often begins to feel more in control when she encounters situations where she reads or writes.
For example, when she encounters the words ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundum’ (Atwood 56) engraved into her cupboard she feels “pleased to be communicating with… this unknown woman” (56) whose “taboo message made it through” (56). Reading the message and repeating it to herself gives Offred “a small joy” (56) despite not knowing what it means. Lisa Bonnette, in Through the Glass: A Look Into Literature, notes: “The writing creates for her a special little secret that she can keep from the government, giving her some power over a force she has known to be in sole possession of it” (Bonnette 34).
Another example of the power of language is the games of Scrabble Offred plays with the Commander. Spelling out words like ‘larynx’ , ‘quince’ and ‘zygote’ (Atwood 161), Offred refers to the games as “freedom, an eyeblink of it” (161) and describes making the words as “a luxury” (161). For Offred, words and their letters stir up pleasant tastes, indicating her sense of pleasure. She compares the counters to candies of peppermint and lime and is reminded of something “crisp, slightly acid” (161) by the letter C. Although short lived, the words give Offred a sense of freedom because she is doing omething that is prohibited and may be the only one to do. In addition to freedom, words also provide Offred some composure. Sitting in her chair one day, she narrates are thoughts: “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh.
None of these facts has any connection with the others (126). ” The free flow of thoughts in Offred’s head keeps her sane from the overly structured use of words in Gilead. The overnment’s control over the citizens, the engraving in the cupboard, and the games of Scrabble are all symbols of the power of language. In conclusion, various symbols are used by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale to represent the themes of identity and self, feminism, and the power of language. Using symbols in literature helps to show the inner workings of a large idea. Symbols act as as branches of a ‘theme tree’and help represent the connection between multiple things. They show show one simple thing is a part of a much more elaborate concept.