Symbols and Motifs

Costumes

The Commanders wear black, symbolising fear and authority. The wives wear powder blue, their status being reinforced by the “richness of their costumes, with details of embroidery.” The Aunts are in brown or khaki, military colours – the Nazi Stormtroopers were known as ‘Brownshirts’. Econowives are in stripes – red, blue and green, symbolising they fulfil all three roles – also, prisoners wear stripes. Girls are in white, symbolising purity.

Most symbolically are the Handmaids in red – the symbol of fertility, their primary function, “the colour of blood which defines us.” At the same time, red is the colour of sin, symbolising the ambiguous sinfulness of the Handmaids’ position in Gilead. The whole body is covered, removing individuality and identity, a parallel with nun’s habits and the clothing of Islamic women. “The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are too keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.” Red symbolises sexuality, the ‘scarlet women’, as you could describe those in Jezebels. “A sister dipped in blood.”

Mirrors

Mirrors reflect who we are, without them identity is lost. Mirrors are removed so they cannot be used as weapons. “As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.” One does remain in the hall but it distorts Offred’s reflection, “…like the eye of a fish and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something…”. In Jezebel’s they haven’t removed the mirrors, “…you need to know here, what you look like.”

Flowers, tulips, fruitfulness, vessels

Serena Joy’s garden bursts with fruitfulness.

There are parallels between tulips and the Handmaids – in colour, function and death. Wine cups and chalices connect them to religion. Red wine, pured in to a chalice, is symbolic of the blood of Jesus, his sacrifice. A chalice, an open vessel, is compared to the womb, waiting to bear children, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Aunt Lydia says “Think of yourselves as seeds.”

“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me…”May the Lord open,” I answer.

Serena Joy’s veil is wreathed in embroidered flowers, “No use for you, I think at her…you can’t use them any more. They’re then genital organs of plants.”

Offred says of the Commander’s perception of her, “To him I’m not just a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it…to him I am not merely empty.”

Offred says of Nick, …he too is human, no more than just a seed pod”

Eyes

The “eyes of God’ are Gilead’s secret police. Their name and insignia symbolie the eternal watchfuness of God and the totalitarian state. The eye of God and the state are one and the same: ‘Under His Eye.”

“A wreath in the ceiling, the centre “like a place in the face where the eye has been taken out”, their tattoos are four digits and an eye.

The moon

Associated with the menstrual cycle, and every period that occurs means a pregnancy cannot be celebrated.  “Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight and I see despair coming towards me like famine.”

Sexual violence

Sexual violence pervades the novel. The prevalence of rape and pornography in the pre-Gilead world ‘justified’ the new order. The Commander and the Aunts claim that women are better protected in Gilead, that they are treated with respect and kept safe from violence. The official penalty for rape is death, though the victim at the Particicution is a member of Mayday, not a rapist. While Gilead claims to suppress sexual violence, it actually institutionalises it:

Jezebels provides the Commanders with prostitutes to serve the male elite and visiting diplomats, etc.

The ceremony compels the Handmaids to have sex with their Commanders

Other motifs and symbols

Hanging bodies on the wall of the former Harvard University. Ofglen (and others before her) hangs herself.

The wreath is referred to throughout the novel, often at the beginning of chapters

Light and dark

Angels

A palimpsest – is a document on which old writing has been scratched out, often leaving traces, and new writing put in its place. Offred describes the Red Centre as a palimpsest, but the word symbolises all of Gilead. The old world has been erased and replaced, but only partially, by a new order. Remnants of the pre-Gilead days continue to infuse the new world – the language throughout the novel has echoes of the past. The new Ofglen tells Offred: “You ought to make an effort…to clear your mind of such…echoes.”

Posted by Tracey Hames

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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