The Handmaid’s Tale is an astonishing novel filled with well-executed symbolism and figurative language used to engage readers with the underlying themes and morals of the story. Margaret Atwood depicts the remarkable story of Offred, the narrator of the novel who lives in a patriarchal dystopian society and is directly affected by its morals. We are shown the deliberate dehumanization of women throughout the novel. Women are no longer able to read, write, or work; their purpose is now to appease men. The novel focuses on the journey of a Handmaid, whose job is to bear children for the infertile wives of leading Commanders. Throughout we see Offred combat the evils of patriarchy by proclaiming her own individuality, conveying her intelligence through the power of language, and exhibiting her natural survival instinct.
Individuality (or the lack of) plays a vital role in The Handmaid’s tale, particularly for the Handmaid’s themselves. Identity is reduced to keep a hold on the women, they are told how to act, what to wear, and are given names that objectify them. The Handmaids are assigned names with the prefix ‘Of’ which are then combined with their Commanders’ first names to show ownership, that is how Offred came to be. We are never given her true name but it is something that gives Offred power, a device Atwood most likely used to preserve Offred’s already established individuality as a handmaid. “I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. this name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past.’ (84) Offred believes that your name has a distinct connection with your identity. That is why in her days in the Red Center, she along with the other women would divulge they true identities to each other so that they weren’t forgotten and could be easily located if need be. Alongside the obliteration of formal names, they were also dressed head to toe in red. ‘Everything except the wings around my face is red; the color of blood, which defines us.’ (8) The color red is often used to symbolize seduction and sex. However, Atwood compares it to blood which symbolizes divine life, an allusion to viable ovaries, a coveted organ in their society and a Handmaid’s main purpose.
The entirety of the novel is a recollection of stories, Offred is telling her story to the readers and in turn, conveying the unspoken theme of the book; the power of language. Offred uses language to keep herself sane. She is often thinking of words and analyzing them, it’s a coping mechanism for her. ‘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. These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself.’ (110) Even though she’s not allowed to read or write Offred clings to words for her own sake, they remind her of who she once was. The illicit act fuels the power that words and language have making them more desirable. This is obvious when she starts to see the Commander privately for late night ‘rendezvous’. She is addicted to the power language holds and the Commander lets her participate in reading and write which pleases Offred. However, since freedom in language has become a taboo for women, it renders the act sexual. Atwood connects two very powerful constants and intertwines them so that they are prominent and weave themselves through the story becoming both a form of liberty.