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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Symbols


Atwood uses symbolism throughout Offred's narrative to support central themes. This use supports the idea that images may be used in place of words, exemplified by the names of the stores where Offred and Ofglen shop.


Red, the color of blood, represents the role of the Handmaids, who wear red dresses. Here, blood signifies life. Blood is also associated with menstruation, ostensibly a sign that a woman is able to bear children. In Chapter 2, Offred points out that blood is the defining feature of her position, though she says red is not really her color. Red may also allude to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman must wear a red A as punishment for committing adultery. Although the Handmaids are doing what the law requires, they are in some ways the Commanders' mistresses and so occupy an uncomfortable moral area.


The Eyes of God are the secret police of Gilead, and they use a winged eye as their symbol. This symbol reminds residents of Gilead that God (and the government, by extension) is always watching them. This sense of constant surveillance causes a paranoia and fear of punishment that is an effective means of control. Of course, there are places—the Commander's study, Jezebel's—where the Eyes do not extend, providing an interesting tension between what is seen and unseen in the novel.


As the reproductive parts of plants, flowers are symbolic of fertility and reproduction. They sprout everywhere in The Handmaid's Tale. They are pictured in paintings and stained glass windows, embroidered along the edges of Serena Joy's dresses, printed on the wallpaper in Offred's bathroom, and even carved from radishes. Flowers are also prominently displayed in Serena Joy's garden—a contrast to Serena Joy herself, who is unable to reproduce. Their blooming and fading helps Offred track the seasons.

In addition to symbolizing fertility, flowers also remind Offred of the existence of beauty. They come to symbolize what the women lack: individual beauty and the ability to grow and reproduce freely.

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