Humanitarian / Literature Essay


Symbolism in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale is an anti-utopian novel that presents the patriarchal structure of society. This novel also foreshadows the subjugation of the womenfolk and the huge role played by them to fight off all the established limitations that the patriarchal society holds against them. Atwood employs a range of contemplative themes — religion, politics, marriage, slavery and so on — to describe the serious consequences a society stands to suffer when she has no regard for the rights of her women (Neuman, 2006).

In the state of Gilead where the story is set, women are not allowed to do a lot of things, like reading and writing, basically on the grounds of religion. You’ll find out, upon a profound reflection on whole the work that The Handmaid’s Tale, though written a long time ago and published in 1985, still has a recurrent significance in our society of today. There’s hardly any society in the world today that didn’t or doesn’t sometimes if not often, oppress the rights of women (Atwood, 2017).

To support the major themes of the narrative, Atwood also uses different symbols to represent common concepts, abstractions, and ideas in our society today. In this article, we’ll be looking at some of these interesting symbols Atwood adopted in her book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Basically, the symbols are the objects, persons, labels, places or colors that she used to signify the impressions or ideas prevalent in society. Among the symbols we’ll be looking at are; mirror, flower, scrabbles, the eyes, and the color red. These symbols were used also to spark up the imagination of the reader and bring individual readers’ experiences to bear.


Red is a color that is commonly used artist, not writers alone, to signify a lot of things, ranging from love to death and violence. The costumes worn by the handmaids in this text are always red. Atwood uses this color to represent the significance of the Handmaids in the story. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the color red represents blood, used to signify life. Blood is also used as a representation of menstruation, which is a sign of a woman's fertility (Tomasch, 2004).

Although color red represents many other things, just like in Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter, in which red is used to signify retribution for adultery, Atwood makes use of it here in a different manner, using it as an ambiguous conservational indication for erotic immorality (McCarthy, 1986). Red, in this dystopian novel, is used to confer power on the womenfolk and ultimately present them as the giver of life, especially with the fact that they have the responsibility of bearing and also (partially) catering for their offspring. The handmaids’ red garments, also symbolize the confusing impiety of the handmaids.


Flowers are of special focus in the text. Atwood uses them to symbolize beauty and fertility. The old wives are known to adorn themselves with flowers to add to their beauty and attract the men. There's also a link between the type of flower, which is a tulip, and the color red. Flowers are also a necessary feature of reproduction like the color red.


Mirrors are designed specially as sources of identity, mainly because they reflect and represent who we truly are. But, in the novel, Atwood removes them. They are considered as weapons that can be broken into fragments and used against others.

“… And myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something”

Their removal also signifies how difficult it can be to find one’s self without any external reflection.

The Eyes

The police of the state of Gilead is referred to as the “Eyes of God”. “The eyes” is both their name and their symbol in the text. This symbol is used by Atwood to symbolize the all-powerful nature of the state and the ever-watchful eyes of God. The insignia is a remembrance to the citizens that God and the state, through the state secret police, are always watching them. This is also a remembrance that the citizens should always be on their toes, causing express fear for punishments and paranoia in the minds of the citizens.

There are places where the eyes do not reach, like the commander’s study, showing the faultiness of the state, since the eyes of God and the state are assumed to be the same, and not different entities.

“Blind plaster Eye in the ceiling…”


The game of scrabble is used by Atwood to show the existence of internal language competition in Gilead. Whoever has more vocabulary and the ability to coin more words controls the game and automatically becomes the winner. There’s an evident portrayal of manipulation by the commander who plays the game.

The use of two unique coinages in the text also represents the non-individuality of women in society and the rapidity of the menfolk to seize women's identity by all means.

A Palimpsest

A palimpsest is a manuscript in which writings are deleted, often with traces still evident, to be replaced with new ones. This document is often created for propaganda and it usually consists of various writings arranged in a somewhat tidy way, one on top of the other. This symbol represents the deletion of old things or ways to be replaced by new conventional ones.

Harvard University

This is a symbol of chaos even in a supposed organized society. In Gilead, Harvard University served as the prison center of the Eyes of God. The university, which should be a place to acquire knowledge and expand the horizon, is turned into a place of torture and punishments for the citizens of Gilead. Defaulters are hanged in the Harvard Yard, on the steps to the library. A place to learn becomes a place to dread; chaos in the midst of relative organization (Knights, 2005).

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cambridge is one of the settings in the novel. Atwood uses it to represent a kind of link between the Puritans and their followers. This setting also symbolizes the relationship that exists between religion, politicsSymbolism in The Handmaid’s Tale, and sexuality.

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