The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
By Margaret Atwood

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian novel that explores the consequences of an extremist religious regime taking over the United States. Written by Margaret Atwood, the book uses various literary devices such as symbolism, foreshadowing, and flashbacks to captivate readers and convey the protagonist’s emotions. Atwood’s vivid language paints a chilling portrait of a world where women’s bodies are treated as property, making this novel a must-read for anyone interested in feminist literature and cautionary tales.

Themes 📚

  1. Oppression of Women: The Handmaid’s Tale explores the theme of gender oppression, portraying a world where women are stripped of their rights and freedoms. Women are reduced to their reproductive functions and are forced to bear children for the ruling class. They are not allowed to read, write, or have any sort of independence.
  2. Religious Fundamentalism: Another central theme of the novel is religious fundamentalism. The society depicted in the novel is ruled by a theocratic government that enforces strict religious beliefs and practices. This fundamentalism is used to justify the oppression of women and the control of the population.
  3. Language and Power: The novel explores the relationship between language and power. The ruling class controls the language used by society, using euphemisms and doublethink to maintain their power and control. Language is used to manipulate and oppress the population.
  4. The Power of Memory: Memory and the power of remembering are also explored in the novel. The protagonist, Offred, remembers her past life and the freedoms she once had, which gives her hope and strength to resist her oppressors. Memory is also used to resist the propaganda and manipulation of the ruling class.
  5. Resistance and Rebellion: The novel portrays the importance of resistance and rebellion in the face of oppression. Offred and other characters in the novel resist their oppressors in various ways, from small acts of rebellion to larger acts of resistance. The novel shows that even in the most oppressive of societies, people can still resist and fight for their freedom.
  6. Sexual Politics: The Handmaid’s Tale explores the theme of sexual politics, portraying a society where sex is used as a tool of oppression and control. Women are reduced to their reproductive functions, and men are given power over women’s bodies. The novel shows how sex and sexuality can be used as a means of oppression and control.
  7. Survival: Survival is a central theme of the novel, with Offred and other characters struggling to survive in a society that is designed to oppress and control them. The novel shows how people can adapt and survive even in the most difficult of circumstances.
  8. Identity: The novel explores the theme of identity, portraying a society where people are stripped of their individuality and reduced to their assigned roles. Offred struggles to maintain her sense of self and identity in a society where she is constantly controlled and oppressed.
  9. The Danger of Totalitarianism: The Handmaid’s Tale portrays the dangers of totalitarianism, showing how a society can become oppressive and tyrannical when power is concentrated in the hands of a few. The novel shows how the ruling class uses propaganda, manipulation, and violence to maintain their power and control over the population.

Use of Literary Devices ✍🏽

  1. Symbolism: Symbolism is used extensively throughout “The Handmaid’s Tale” to represent various themes and ideas. For example, the color red symbolizes fertility, blood, and passion, while the oppressive and looming presence of the Eyes of God represents the government’s control over individuals.
  2. Metaphor: Metaphors are used to draw comparisons between seemingly unrelated objects or concepts. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred compares her experiences to a bird in a cage, representing her confinement and lack of freedom.
  3. Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing is used to hint at future events and build suspense. For example, the recurring image of the hangings and bodies on the Wall foreshadows the brutal nature of the regime and the fate of those who oppose it.
  4. Irony: Irony is used to convey a difference between what is expected and what actually occurs. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the government’s stated purpose for establishing the regime is to increase fertility, but the true motive is to maintain power and control.
  5. Allusion: Allusions are references to historical, cultural, or literary works that deepen the meaning of a text. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” references to the Bible and Puritanism highlight the religious and moral justifications for the government’s actions.
  6. Flashback: Flashbacks are used to provide background information and develop character. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred’s memories of her life before the regime provide context for her experiences and demonstrate the drastic changes she has undergone.
  7. Satire: Satire is used to criticize and expose the flaws of a society or system through humor and exaggeration. “The Handmaid’s Tale” satirizes the extreme forms of patriarchal control and religious fundamentalism present in the regime.
  8. Personification: Personification is used to give human qualities to non-human objects or concepts. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the oppressive government is personified as a powerful, malevolent force that dominates the lives of its citizens.
  9. Motif: Motifs are recurring themes or symbols that add depth and coherence to a text. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” motifs include the use of clothing to signify social class and status, and the recurring phrase “blessed be the fruit” used in greetings.
  10. Imagery: Imagery is the use of sensory details to create vivid mental images for the reader. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” vivid descriptions of the oppressive atmosphere, such as the smell of death and decay, create a sense of dread and fear for the characters and the reader.

Examples of Literary Devices 📋


Literary DeviceExampleExplanation
SymbolismThe color redThe color red is a symbol used throughout the novel to represent fertility, blood, and passion. For example, the Handmaids wear red dresses to signify their role as fertile women who are expected to bear children for the upper class. The color red also appears in other contexts, such as the red tulips that Serena Joy grows in her garden as a symbol of her lost fertility.
SymbolismThe Eyes of GodThe Eyes of God is a symbol used to represent the government’s control over individuals. The Eyes are a secret police force that monitors and punishes those who do not conform to the regime’s rules. The presence of the Eyes is oppressive and looming, representing the constant surveillance and fear that the characters experience under the regime.
SymbolismThe WallThe Wall is a symbol used to represent the brutality of the regime and the fate of those who oppose it. The Wall is where the bodies of executed rebels and dissenters are hung as a warning to others. The recurring image of the Wall throughout the novel foreshadows the violent and repressive nature of the regime.


Literary DeviceExampleExplanation
Metaphor“I am a pool of water, held in a basin”Offred uses this metaphor to describe herself and her experiences. The image of a pool of water held in a basin represents her confinement and lack of freedom. Like the water in the pool, Offred is trapped and cannot escape. The metaphor also suggests a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.
Metaphor“But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed.”Offred uses this metaphor to describe the value of small pleasures in a restrictive and oppressive environment. The image of a chair, sunlight, and flowers represents the simple pleasures that are denied to her in her daily life. The metaphor suggests that these small things are important and should not be taken for granted.
Metaphor“I am a man now, on a woman’s bicycle”Offred uses this metaphor to describe her newfound sense of power and autonomy. The image of a man on a woman’s bicycle represents her rebellion against the gender roles that have been imposed on her. The metaphor suggests a reversal of power dynamics and a breaking of societal norms.

FAQs 💭

What is the symbolism used in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Atwood uses various symbols throughout the novel, such as the color red, which represents fertility and the Handmaid’s subservience to men. The Handmaid’s uniforms also serve as a symbol of their oppression, while the Eyes represent the government’s secret police force.

What is foreshadowing in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Atwood uses foreshadowing to build tension and create a sense of dread. For example, Offred’s memories of her daughter and husband serve to remind readers of what she has lost, and also hint at the possibility of a rebellion. The novel’s ending is also foreshadowed by earlier events, such as the Handmaid’s meetings with Mayday and her final encounter with Nick.

What are flashbacks in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Atwood uses flashbacks to give readers insight into Offred’s past life, before the regime took over. These flashbacks are often triggered by events or objects in her current life, such as when she sees a newspaper article about Luke’s divorce. By juxtaposing Offred’s memories with her current situation, Atwood emphasizes the stark contrast between her past and present.

What is the significance of the narrative structure?

The novel is structured as a frame narrative, with Offred’s story serving as a flashback within a larger narrative. This structure highlights the universality of Offred’s experiences and suggests that her story is just one of many. The epilogue, which takes place after Offred’s story ends, further emphasizes this idea by providing a historical context for the events of the novel. The narrative structure also allows Atwood to create suspense and maintain the reader’s interest throughout the book.

How does Atwood use irony in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Atwood uses irony to criticize the regime and highlight its hypocrisy. For example, the government’s propaganda emphasizes the importance of family values, while in reality, the Handmaids are used solely for their reproductive ability. The Ceremony, which is supposed to be a sacred ritual, is revealed to be a cruel and degrading act. Atwood also uses situational irony to create tension and contrast between the Handmaid’s reality and the government’s ideals.

What is the significance of the setting in the novel?

The setting of the novel, a future United States under an extremist religious regime, is significant because it highlights the dangers of religious fundamentalism and the erosion of civil liberties. The setting also serves as a backdrop for the characters’ experiences and emphasizes the stark contrast between their current lives and their pasts. Additionally, the use of real-life locations, such as Harvard University, adds a sense of realism to the novel and underscores the idea that the events of the book could happen in the real world.