Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Margaret Atwood

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Bible and Religion

The novel is peppered with frequent allusions to different parts of the Bible. The most obvious is the reference to Genesis 30:1-3 (Epigraph), with its catchy phrase, "Give me children or else I die." That text, with its focus on bringing a "maid" or Handmaid into a childless marriage to create heirs, is the fundamental idea behind the Republic of Gilead. (For more on this, see "What's Up With the Epigraph?" or "Shout Outs.") Specific parts of the Bible that glorify marriage, that absolve men of adultery for the purposes of childbirth, and that convict women of it, have been cherry picked from the text and made into law. Other parts, such as the ones that emphasize meekness and humility, have been used to dictate behavior to the Handmaids. (It goes without saying that there's only one authorized religion permitted in Gilead, the one promoted by the state.)

Obviously a variety of Western monotheistic religions rely on versions of the Bible in different ways, and the Bible is often seen as a moral weight in society. But in the United States, Biblical law is separate from state and federal law. You don't have to abide by what your neighbor says is in the Bible if you have a different interpretation of it (and vice versa). In Gilead, what the government has decided should be taken from the Bible has become absolute law. The authority the Bible already has becomes even more powerful.

Strange, small pieces of Biblical text show up frequently throughout the book. This is particularly evident in place names and propaganda. For example, there's Gilead itself. Within it, all the stores the Handmaids are allowed to shop at have Biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Lilies. The hotel where the prostitutes are kept is called Jezebel's. Whenever the narrator remembers a piece of dialogue or something that happened at the Center, it usually includes a piece of Biblical content. These references, though, have been bastardized or altered in some cases to further the goals of the Republic, so even if knowledge of the Bible is excellent, you might not catch them all.

Eyes and Seeing

"Eyes" are the spies who work for the government and are situated throughout Gilead. Anyone could be an Eye, and the assumption is that characters are always being watched. It's really interesting that the visual aspects of spying are emphasized when you consider that the Handmaids, in particular, are supposed to be kept from both seeing and being seen. As reproductive objects, they must not be sexualized, and one of the freedoms Gilead is supposed to provide them is freedom from the lascivious male gaze. But the watching the government does, through the Eyes, is even more invasive.

Fertility and Sex

Gilead rose to power in large part because no one was making babies any more. Even though baby-making is a two-person process, society has shifted all the blame for infertility onto women:

There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law. (11.18)

Gilead's solution to this problem is to parcel out the few fertile women left to powerful men and their wives. In order to make this seem legitimate and proper, the government has made people follow Ceremonies and read the Bible before engaging in a very particular kind of sex. Presumably, in order to make it seem like a baby born to a Handmaid will really belong to the wife, the man and the Handmaid are required to have businesslike, non-erotic sex with the wife present. The Handmaid lies between the wife's legs while the man has sex with the Handmaid. This arrangement is echoed in childbirth, should any household be so lucky as to get to that point: the wife sits with her legs around the Handmaid as she endeavors to give birth.

Despite all these arrangements, nothing is working and not enough babies are being born. Everybody is secretly breaking the rules. We're constantly reminded of the lovelessness and absence of eroticism in this society, as well as the absence of choice and free will. (For more on fertility, see "Flowers" and "Eggs" in this section.)

Flowers

Throughout the book, the narrator makes references to or compares women to flowers. For example, the Commander and Serena Joy's house is completely doused in floral imagery: there's a "watercolor picture of blue irises" (2.4) in the narrator's room; the bathroom is "papered in small blue flowers, forget-me-nots" (12.1); the master bedroom is decorated with "a starry canopy of silver flowers" (31.46). The first thing the narrator finally works the nerve up to steal is a daffodil from one of Serena Joy's arrangements. Even Jezebel's, where the Commander takes the narrator, is decorated with flowers. Flowers are also used to disguise things that are ugly or terrifying; the narrator compares the bloody mouth of a hanged man, for example, to the "red of the tulips" in Serena Joy's garden (6.26).

Flowers are often considered symbols of beauty or fertility. In The Handmaid's Tale they're given special attention as objects that can bloom and grow at a time when few women can. From a technical standpoint, flowers are also the part of a plant that hold the reproductive organs. They're constant reminders of the fertility that most women lack.

It seems the older Wives are seeking to hang onto their attractiveness and fertility by decorating themselves with flowers and tending gardens: "Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for" (3.2). Serena Joy takes a bizarre pleasure in mutilating flowers: when the narrator sees her chopping them awkwardly, she wonders, "Was it [...] some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body" (25.25). Perhaps these are attacks Serena Joy would like to make on the Handmaid, who can be seen as a flower living in her house.

Eggs

The idea of eggs comes up frequently in the book. With each mention we're reminded that they're part of a human woman's reproductive cycle, even though usually what the narrator is doing is eating them. She usually has them for breakfast, eating eggs so she can make her own healthy eggs. When, one night, she falls asleep in her closet and terrifies Cora into dropping her breakfast the next morning, it's an egg that falls to the ground and has to be thrown away.

One day at breakfast the narrator thinks, "I think that this is what God must look like: an egg [...] To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure" (19.11, 12). She adds that she is living "The minimalist life. Pleasure is an egg. Blessings that can be counted, on the fingers of one hand. But possibly this is how I am expected to react. If I have an egg, what more can I want?" (19.15). The narrator's attitude toward eggs alludes to what eggs symbolize in Christianity:

The egg is a wonderful symbol of birth and rebirth, an apparently lifeless object out of which comes life. [...] It is a symbol of Christ's Resurrection. [...] The egg represents the Creation, the elements, and the world itself, with the shell representing the firmament, the vault of the sky where the fiery stars lie; the thin membrane symbolizing air; the white symbolizing the waters; and the yolk representing earth. (source)

If the egg can be seen to contain God and pleasure, a whole world, the narrator wonders, perhaps she should not desire anything else. In her next thought, however, she worries that she's been given the egg and these feelings so she won't want anything else. Even philosophical abstraction and meditation has been undermined by Gilead.

Clothing

See our discussion in "Character Clues: Clothing."

The Republic of Gilead (Cambridge, MA)

See our discussion in "Setting."