In the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” written by Margaret Atwood, the recurrent appearance of the color red draws an interesting yet perverse parallel between femininity and violence. The dominant color of the novel, red is associated with all things female. However, red is also the color of blood; death and violence therefore are closely associated with women in this male-dominated ultraconservative government.
We are first introduced to the color red when the narrator is describing how she gets dressed: “The red gloves are lying on the bed. Everything except the wings around my face is red; the color blood, which defines us.” Here, we are unsure if Atwood is referring to blood as menstrual and feminine, or as the result of disobedience and the violence which results. The women of “Handmaid” are cloaked in red as a reminder of their fertility. However, in the context of Gilead, red is not just menstrual blood or blood resulting from birth; the red is a threat of death. Offred would later say, “I never looked good in red, It’s not my color.
“Red tulips are also a recurrent image in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Tulips, often seen as llonic symbols in many works, can be interpreted this way also. Tulips are women, and red tulips are women cloaked in red, red blood. On page 12 Offred narrates: “The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they have been cut and are beginning to heal there.” If a deeper interpretation of this thought is warranted, I would think the place where the tulip meets the stem in the neck of the woman, and as the government came in and stripped them of all power they “cut off their heads” in a way by depriving them of money, reading materials, and any type of education. Tulips, like the cloaks, are symbols of violence against females in the perverse world of Gilead.
A blatant use of red to relate women with violence can be seen on page 32: “But on one bag there’s blood, which has seeped through the white cloth, where the mouth must have been. It makes another mouth, a small red one. . . This smile of blood is what fixes the attention finally.” The men who are hanging are meant to scare, as Atwood clearly states, yet meant to scare who?
Imagery in the Handmaid’s Tale
There are two kinds of freedom: freedom to, and freedom from. Historically, women in the United States have fought philosophical battles in and out of the home to achieve “freedom to” and have been successful.
But what if society suddenly took away these freedoms? What if American women were suddenly returned to their cloistered state of old in which their only freedom was the freedom from the dangers of the surrounding world? Then again, did women ever truly achieve “freedom to” at all?
Such are the difficult-to-answer sociological questions raised in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In this thought-provoking work, two societies with completely opposing ideologies and concepts of freedom are juxtaposed as an attempt to answer these same questions.
The first society is Modern America with its relatively liberal mores and customs, and the second is Gilead, a totalitarian Christian theocracy which takes control of America in the late 1980’s in order to “save” it from its pollution and dwindling birthrate.
The novel’s protagonist, Offred, uses two sets of images to document the history of these contrasting societies. She recounts to the reader with a startling poignancy and photographic clarity the images of her memories of her past life as an American woman, and those of her present life as a Handmaid, or uterine slave, to the Republic of Gilead.
Ironically, the images of Offred’s life in Gilead, which are much more fantastical than Offred’s past as a middle class American, are recounted in the present tense, giving them a more solid tone and seeming reality than is used to describe her past life.
The descriptive imagery used by Offred to describe her experi…
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…ture allows a freedom that simply taking a picture could not afford. Atwood has created a society employing not only visual images, but also images of societal ethics and forgotten traditions. Perhaps the devices used to create such a society are complex, but the expected result is simple.
Although Offred does not plainly pass judgment on her experience herself, the imagery of the Handmaid’s Tale vividly employs the use of contrast between old and new so that readers may come to their own morals conclusions.
It is obvious, though, from Offred’s devastation that dehumanization of women for any purpose is reprehensible. Although this dystopian novel may seem like a fantasy, the politics it criticizes are very real.
Atwood’s images may never be captured on film (another essay?), but they have just as many repercussions for an understanding reader.