Thesis: In Margaret Atwood’s work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the symbols embody the suppression, and authority of Gilead’s as a theocratic system.
Activity:The purpose of this activity primarily was to let me know what you guys thought the symbols were before I gave my handout out to give away the answer. However this activity replicates the influences, and power of the Gilead regime; theocratic system. Some of you acted as true believers, or Eye’s because you passed on the message without thinking twice about it, or adding onto it. This is because you are blinded by the false freedom, and oppression that masks the just freedom.
You guys couldn’t think of ideas because you have no hope in you. Anything can symbolize something as long as you have hope in you to see the bigger picture in something other than what it physically is. However, I cannot blame you for this, this is only an example of the power, and influence that a theocratic government possess. SYMBOLS:The Eyes (surveillance, power of theocracy)Eggs (fertility- fertile eggs, purpose of handmaids, power of theocracy)Serena Joy’s Garden (fertility, subversive vibrancy)Mirrors (loss of identity, relic of the past, power of theocracy)Shapes (loss of identity, relic of the past, power of theocracy)Cigs (freedoms of the past, resistance)EGGS:Every morning, Offred eats eggs for breakfast because it is an easy source of protein. In the quote, she describes her breakfast in detail.First of all, the relationship between chicken eggs and human eggs is very clear: Offred, as a handmaid is supposed to produce viable, fertile eggs that can grow into children, and to encourage that they feed her dead, unfertilized eggs.The skirt-shaped egg cup mirrors the handmaid’s role as an vessel holding an egg—a play on words that drives the point that womanhood, food, and fertility cannot be separated.
She also mentions “the round face of the implacable clock” as she awaits breakfast and “the arrival of the inevitable egg.” Like breakfast, cycle of her fertility arrives like clockwork. Through her role as a Handmaid, and her strictly controlled egg-centric diet, Offred is reduced to her physical self, and everything else about her stops mattering—her only value as a human is through her physical capabilities. Offred is nothing more or less than her uterus. Oppression is unjust treatmentThe egg represents the handmaids purpose under the regime as they are like eggs just containers holding the important fertile eggs in them like an egg shell holds yolkThe egg represents fertility – the fertile eggs of womenThe egg summarizes the authority of Gilead as it has enough power to reduce women to a physical mean of an egg or uterusTHE EYES:In the book, “The Eyes” are the secret police that are considered to always be watching all the time (they set up mikes), and they make sure no one steps out of the guidelines of the regime.
Similar to the Thought-Police in 1984At its most simplistic level, the eyes, represent surveillance and Gilead’s authority, as a theocracy.However more indepthly, they represent the Eyes of God as the Eyes of God are always considered to be watching everything you do. The presence of the Eyes of God watching your every move it will lead you to always follow it’s guidelinesThe Gilead Regime is very smart because they use this to their advantage using religion, and God as their weapon of fear and justification for their guidelinesIn this way, the eye also then symbolises the ever watchfulness of Gilead because Gilead and God are one and the same — the Handmaid’s depart from each other saying “Under His Eye,” ‘He’ being both the state and God.Therefore The Eyes represent the eyes of god and surveillance, but mostly they portray the Gilead’s authority to have the ability to imitate God, use him as justification to their actions, and use his idea of hope to instill fear on society This symbol of the eyes helps the reader to further understand the oppressive, and suppressive nature of Gilead, but also their contradictory ideas of the handmaid’s being never seen, yet always watched by God.
MIRRORS:And we know although Offred is always being watched she is never able to fully look at herself. This idea of looking and watching is also used with the symbol of mirrors. When we think of mirrors, we think of ourselves in the reflection. Mirrors represent us, and therefore our identity but since there is a lack of mirrors this shows a loss of identityIn the book, mirrors are taken out from anywhere that Offred might be and where she may be able to turn the mirrors into sharp weapons. Also if you think about it they don’t require it because they have been stripped of their identity as their new identities are based on colours, and clothing. As a result the lack of mirrors represent loss of identity and create a distorted reality in The Handmaid’s TaleOffred first refers to mirrors in the first paragraph of the first chapter; “a revolving ball of mirrors”.
This image gives the idea of a disco ball – one with so many small mirrors that Offred can’t properly view herself in – just as she isn’t able to at all in the society of Gilead.When Offred does catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she doesn’t like the way that she looks, but it is not so much her look she doesn’t like, but the product of what she has become under the new Gileadean Regime “…
round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eye of a fish and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something…”. Mirrors are supposed to show who we are, our identity, and without them our identity is lost. So through this removal of mirrors, we see the loss in Offred’s identity.In Atwood’s poem ‘Marrying the Hangman’, she writes, “to live without mirrors is to live without the self”. This stands true in Offred’s situation as Gilead takes away all of Offred’s freedoms, and attempts to make her completely neutral without the hint of personality. “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eye’s Aren’t Real” (Jaden Smith)You could argue and say that Offred does have 1 mirror, but that’s only 1 perspective.
It’s a distorted perspective as Offred states she looks like a parody, or a shadow of the past. Therefore, that one perspective is the limited perspective of Gilead as a whole; it’s the singular perspective they want to provide Therefore, the lack of mirrors embody the overwhelming authority of Gilead as it has the power to control, and craft the identities of its followers (it crafts the identities by only giving one window for the people to look at themselves at, and by transforming the people into color coded society classes) – identities are supposed to be crafted over time by individuals but Gilead’s extreme power strips that.SHAPES:In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a great emphasis on shape, or rather lack of it. In the very beginning, Offred tells us of her imprisoning surroundings, describing the woven, oval carpets, calling them the female relics of the past. According to Euclidean geometry, the more elliptical a person the less well-rounded she is.And since The Republic of Gilead wants to provide the impression to it’s people that their regime, and way of life is perfection; they want to transform the former elliptical way of life into a circular shapeThis is evident, when introduced to Ofglen as she contains an aroma of perfection about her, like she’s a true believer and we know this evidently when Offred reveals her envy of Ofglen’s apparent ability to act as if on “little oiled wheels, ” – the very picture of a circle. We see later that she does have an oval faceSerena Joy, the Commander’s wife, when maintaining her garden she cuts the blossoming, thereby exterminating that which was an an oval.
She’s obviously a true believer (thats why shes given her rank as a wive; the highest class for a women in Gilead), and therefore because of her high faith in Gilead she’s trying to remove ovals (elliptical shapes) – relics of the pastIt is thus that the circle becomes a symbol for life and its propagation(new idea) and the oval its regression(old former self). The lack of shapes shows a loss of identity andThe lack of shapes in the Republic of Gilead, once again shows the authority that Gilead as an theocratic system possesses as it has the belief of possessing enough power to transform a society into a conformity under the guidelines of their regimeTHE GARDEN + FLOWERS:Flowers in The Handmaid’s Tale are often associated with women; the implicit comparison is that flowers are the sex organ of plants, and in Gilead, women, especially handmaids, are only valued for their ovaries and uterus. (READ QUOTE)We know that, Wives such as Serena Joy tend gardens full of flowers. And this is because the Wives envy the flowers that keep their beauty and fertility even if the aging wives do not.
The comparison to women is also interesting because in Gilead, flowers continue to flourish even as women are held down. This is particularly evident with Serena Joy, who constantly tends her flourishing garden even as her resentment and unhappiness grow. However with this in mind, the Wive’s are trying contain an subversive vibrancy that the flowers and nature contain about them, and the Wives attempt to contain them by consistently maintaining them. VIBRANCY OF FLOWERSOnce Offred is out in the garden, she straightaway notices the tulips, which are ‘opening their cups, spilling out colour’:These two observations of nature ‘opening’ are in contrast to the restrictiveness of the household in which Offred now finds herselfThe same word, ‘opening’, is used by Offred when, in chapter 27, she feels that she and Ofglen have achieved some real communication, and says that ‘hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree.’The garden therefore represents an impulse for life that cannot be denied.
Offred senses that Commanders’ Wives like to, ‘order and maintain’ their gardens. However as the novel progresses we become aware that the garden cannot be so controlled.Subversive OF FLOWERSThe vivid redness of the tulips seems to be part of the garden’s vibrancy, which, in chapter 25, Offred feels that the garden has ‘something subversive (rebellious)’ about it. She says:’Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently.’There is a suggestion that Serena Joy is fighting against such subversive vibrancy as she works at ‘snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears’.The flowers symbolize fertility, and the handmaids as they grow, reproduce, and dieGilead’s attempts to silence the subversive vibrancy of flowers by maintaining the gardens shows the power of their theocratic system being able to control mother nature’s CIGS:Cigarettes are associated in Offred’s mind with freedom and “the time before.
” She was in the act of buying cigarettes when she discovered that her Compunumber had been cancelled and she was no longer permitted to possess money. In her memories of times she has spent with Moira, Moira is usually smoking, and she often cadges cigarettes from Offred; it is a sign of their easy friendship.Cigarettes are therefore associated with lost freedoms and illicit pleasures that no longer exist like sex, and cigarettes.
Therefore the lack of cigs portrays the Gilead’s authority as Gilead is able to rule past freedoms, and pleasures.VISUAL:In my visual you can see all the symbols we have talked about present: the cigarette, the mirror, the belly representing the fertile egg, the flowers, the eyes, and the oval and circular shapes. We see all these symbols from Offred’s perspective, and we see that these symbols try to act as resistance (hence why I put a resistor symbol that is present in physics when talking about circuits) against Gilead’s power, but as you can see The Republic of Gilead formerly known as United States of America has suspended their vibrant rebellions inside suppressing, and silencing their revolts (and the straight lines covering the border represent conformity as in circuits a straight line = power flow – meaning no resistance to the flow of power) CONCLUSION:The utilization of symbols in the text function to help to pronounce ideas, create depth within the text and subliminally focus the reader’s attention on keynotes that they otherwise may have missed. Margaret Atwood skillfully integrate these symbols without obviously drawing the reader’s attention away from the main plot of the text.
In conclusion, the symbols embody the suppression, and authority of Gilead’s as a theocratic system because they attempt to resist against the principles of Gilead’s theocratic government, but they are suppressed into conformity by the puissant authority possessed by the totalitarian branch.