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Symbolism in 'The Handmaids Tale'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1197 words Published: 21st Jul 2021

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The Handmaids Tale is a novel by a Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Atwood is not only a novelist but she also offered her services as a poet, essayist, literary critic and environmental activist. She has been regarded as the great author of her time. Atwood also maintained her position among the most privileged writers in the latest history in the genre of the Fiction. Margaret is very well known for her work as a writer of prose. As a poet up till now she has fifteen books of poetry, published. Most of her rhymes are inspired by the fairy tales and myths, these two genres were her interests in the early years of her age. Four collections of stories and three collections of the short prose sections of her have been published by now (Neeru, 2009).

Handmaid’s Tale:

In the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the author Margaret Atwood searches for the results of the situation in which women have no rights. All their rights are seized. She wants to know the consequences of a women-right-less society. She has described such a state by the name of Gilead. It is a country of conservatives. People who are religious extremists are the authoritative bodies of the state. These people were in power and they brought the sexual revolution within the borders of the country. Women possess no rights in the state of Gilead (ketterer, 1992). They are not only prohibited to vote but they are also banned to write or read. This ovel of Atwood also offers the image of the world undone by contamination and unproductiveness, showing the fears of the era of 1980s about deteriorating birth-rates, the dangers of environmental degradation and the nuclear wars.

Symbolism in The Handmaid’s Tale:

Symbols can be defined as the objects, figures, characters or colours which are used to represent the concepts, abstract or ideas in the writing. The symbols used in the Handmaid’s Tale are Costumes, eyes, red colour, mirror, flower, Cambridge Massachusetts, scrabbles, Harvard University and Palimpsest (mary, 1986).


In the state of Gilead, people of same social group dress alike. The main purpose of the clothing is to reveal the status while at the same time it hides the individuality. This situation is discouraging. The commanders wear black dress, which represent fear and authority. Wives wear powder blue colour. The richness of the clothes and their embroidery shows the status. Aunts wear Khaki Brown dress which was the dress colour of the Nazi Storm troopers. The dress colour for girls is white, which represents purity (Scala, p1-11). Econo-wives wives wear the dresses of three colours red, blue and green. This colour combination shows that they fulfil all three roles. Handmaids wear red colour, the symbol of fertility, childbirth, menstrual blood and the sexual sin. Nuns cover her body to hide the individuality.

A red and white shape of the cloth like a kite [294/279].

This shows the dress description of a nun in the society of the Gilead.


Red was the uniform colour for the Handmaids. This colour shows fertility because this colour is associated with the menstrual blood which means the ability to conceive the baby (Tomasch, 2004). Colour red is also related to the sexual sin, so the colour on the handmaids shows that they are engaged with the commanders in the adultery, despite the ceremony. Red colour represents the element of violence and brutality. In the society of Gilead it can also be found on corpse to cover their bodies.

A sister dripped in Blood [19/5]


The game of scrabble is played by the commander. The purpose of this game is to show that they are in competition over languages and the production of the words. Whoever is most skill full at creating words, wins the game. This shows that how in the Gilead society the words are manipulated to extract the political ideologies. Terms like unbaby and unwomen were used in the society to seize the individuality of the women.


In the Atwood novel, mirrors are the source of identity because they represent who we are. But they were removed in the book. Because they can break into fragments and can be used as weapons.

“As in nunnery too, there were few mirrors.” [18/4]

“And myself in it like distorted shadow, a parody of something” [19/5]


In the Handmaid’s Tale, flowers are give extra attention. They are the symbol of fertility and beauty. It makes sense in this way also that flowers are found in those parts of the plant where there are reproductive organs. Old wives dress themselves with flowers in order to look more attractive (Miner, 1991). The connection between the handmaid and the tulip is the colour, death and function.

“Think yourself as seed” [28/16].


Eyes are the symbol of the police in the Gilead. They are called as 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. Tattoo: Four digits and an eye.

“Blind plaster Eye in the ceiling” [17/3]

Harvard University:

The secret police of Gilead has transformed the Harvard University into a detention centre. This shows the total disorder in the state of the Gilead. The Eyes of God give punishments to the people in the rooms of the Harvard and hang people from the ceiling. A place build for knowledge has completely converted into the place for torture (Ben, 2005).

Cambridge Massachusetts:

The state where all the powers of the Gilead reside is identified as the place of Cambridge. The history and the background of the place make people think in this way.

Work Cited

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, United States Of America, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

David Ketterer. Canadian Science Fiction And Fantasy. United States Of America. The University of American Association Press. 1992

Neeru. Margaret Atwood: A jewel in Canadian Writing. India. Nice Printing Press. 2009

Mary McCarthy, The Handmaid’s Tale Book Review, New York Times Book Reviews Journal, 1986.

Elizabeth Scala, THE HANDMAID’S TALE: EDITING WOMEN OUT IN MEDIEVAL STUDIE.. Academia research, p 1-11.

Knights, Ben. “Reading as a Man: Women and the Rise of English Studies in England.”In Gendered Academia: Wissenschaft und Geschlechterdifferenz 1890-1945 Ed. MiriamKauko, Sylvia Mieszkowski, andAlenandra Tischel. Wallstein Verlag, 2005, 65-81.

Sylvia Tomasch. “Editing as Palinode: The Invention of Love And The Text of the Canterbury Tales.”Exemplaria 16 (2004): 457-76.

Miner, Madonne. “”Trust Me”: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” Twentieth Century Literature 37.no. 2 (Summer 1991). Hofstra University, 1991. 148-67.


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