top of page
The Handmaids Tale (Extended Essay)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Jeckmen Wu

Discuss the importance of repeated patterns, symbols OR motifs in one or more texts you have studied.

Many of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction explore societies riddled with misogyny, oppression and patriarchal dominance, extrapolating the positions of women in such societies and likening them to our own. Thereby, performing a series of complex examinations of the continued oppression and liberation of women, and the persistence of the patriarchal structure which seeks to “colonise” women in the same way as Atwood’s narratives simultaneously liberate and dominate her female protagonists. This act of simultaneous liberation and colonisation of women is demonstrated in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), where the female protagonist, Offred, is one amongst many reproductive slaves in the theocratic regime of Gilead. Offred’s act of speaking out may initially seem empowering, but it is later revealed in the Historical Notes as yet another example of male domination. The novel draws on events that had occurred somewhere at some point in time, hence, “providing a blueprint of the kind of things that human beings do when they're put under a certain sort of pressure” (Atwood). Throughout the text, Atwood incorporates motifs of nature, the binary opposition between life & death, eyes, mirrors, and doppelgangers. These repeated motifs are important elements used to convey Gilead’s ideological contradictions, the internalisation of the panoptic gaze, the denial of identity, and the parallels to the feminist backlash during the 1980s in terms of the division amongst women.

In Gilead, the motif of the tamed nature implies the removal and replacement of the untamed nature, representing the denial of female sexuality and their oppression within the regime, as there remains only a ‘print of flowers’ that is boxed & framed on the wall, quite literally how women are confined within the regime. But what is troubling is the fact that Gilead isn’t the only culprit, it is also Serena Joy, who ‘orders and maintains’ the garden – the motif of tamed nature then acts as a microcosm for the oppression amongst women, which was especially prominent during the backlash against feminism. The intrasexual oppression & division is perhaps most apparent with Aunt Lydia, who not only beats the Handmaids with ‘cattle prods’, but also pits them against other women: ‘It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives.’ Essentially, Gilead has established a matriarchal network responsible for regulating women, as "the best and most cost-effective way to control women… was through women themselves" (Atwood), just as the handmaids are paired up to become oppressors of each other. The motif of nature also occurs in the form of red tulips and ‘blue irises’, which represent the handmaids and the wives, respectively, suggesting an intergeneration conflict that was also responsible for the division between sex-positive feminism and radical feminism during the 1980s, and one that Offred had experienced with her mum, who ironically tells Offred ‘you’re just a backlash’. The patriarchy attempts to strengthen this divide by positioning women to be in competition with each other for either fertility (as symbolised by the tulips) or sexual attention, exploiting the Wives’ jealousy of the handmaids, especially during the Ceremony, to create conflict and, hence, become a tool for regulation amongst women: ‘if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back.’ The motif of nature in The Handmaid’s Tale is important in supporting the idea of gynocentric misogyny, revealing its role, not just in Gilead’s social order, but also in our society. This portrays the complexity of the patriarchy, a system that continues to be perpetuated by the “war amongst women” (Atwood) and the lack of sisterhood that makes change almost impossible.

Advertised as the heart of Gilead’s existence is its pro-life ideologies – they are the ones who hold the ‘torch of the future’, ‘the cradle of the race’ and the power to save humanity. But all this is revealed to be propaganda as it is consistently undermined by the regime’s prevalence of death, creating a motif of the binary opposition between life & death and, thereby, highlighting the ideological contradictions present in such regimes. Gilead’s revolution around birth represents its pro-life ideals, agonising over each birth and placing significant value on every baby, that is, those who pass the normality test. Those that fail are labelled as an Unbaby, an “it”, that would be ‘put somewhere, quickly, away’. The motif is also present when Ofwarren is giving birth: ‘Now that she’s the carrier of life, she is closer to death.’ Whilst she is surrounded by the ‘sound of death’ and faces the threat of dying herself, and the possibility of the baby along with her, the doctors, who are capable of helping to prevent casualties, are forced to wait by their vans. Even the Handmaids, whom the regime relies on for their “success”, are at risk of being labelled as Unwoman and sent to the colonies to clean up toxic waste, where death is imminent. This comes as a result of Gilead’s belief that ‘there is no such thing as a sterile man… only women who are fruitful and women who are barren’, singling women as the ones at fault and continually diminishing the number of fertile women. The motif of the duality of life & death is equally epitomised by the Particicutions, events of violent executions where the symbols of life within Gilead (the handmaids) are, ironically, the ones responsible for dealing death. This motif is then embodied on the walls of Gilead in the form of hanged men, which Offred recognises but refuses to acknowledge. She comments that ‘the red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips’, but rejects the clear contradictions being conveyed between the smile of death and the flower of fertility. However, it is apparent to the readers that the motif of the binary opposition between life & death serves throughout the text as an important indicator of Gilead’s ideological contradictions, hence, raising the question: is Gilead really about life, or is it about domination and control?

The motif of the all-seeing eye dominates the regime of Gilead, utilising the supervising gaze to “monitor and thereby disempower the citizens” (Davidsen). This method of control resembles Bentham’s model of the Panopticon, which has become a metaphor for how societies conform to and enforce norms of behaviour through surveillance. The paranoia of being watched is internalised and translated into self-regulation, resulting in the self-policing of our own behaviour. The underlying principle involves the power being both visible & unverifiable in order to create the omnipotent threat of being watched at all times, even when the threat of the gaze is not physically present but simply conveyed through an ‘eye painted in gold’. In Gilead, the Guardians and The Eyes are “an extension of the government and are visible symbols of an unverifiable power” (Davidsen). The eyes, although, sightless & flawed, serves as a threat of surveillance and a constant reminder to censor one’s behaviour. It is not the physical threat of being watched by the ‘winged eye’ on the side of a van or the ‘plaster eye in the ceiling’ of Offred’s room, but it is the internalisation of the eyes that transforms it into a locus of control, a tool Gilead can exploit to establish discipline. As Foucault puts it, “the exercised power is not added on from the outside, but internalised by the person in such a way that this power controls him.” The effect is evident in Offred’s hesitance and paranoia: ‘Perhaps… Perhaps… Perhaps… Perhaps he is an Eye’, the anaphora conveys uncertainty and worry, unsure whether she really is being watched. The motif of the eye is important in revealing the power of the panoptic gaze and how it is utilised in regimes such as Gilead to limit and modify the citizens’ behaviour. This becomes the most effective form of societal control – a society that controls itself based on fear.

According to Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Theory, we require ourselves to be reflected clearly back to us in order to understand who we are and where we fit in this world. Without it, we risk losing our identity and our sense of uniqueness. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the motif of mirrors is connected to the denial of identity, which is reinforced by the new names they are given that define them as properties of their Commander. Gilead attempts to disconnect the Handmaids from their past by denying them of any connections to their old identity through restrictions on mirrors: ‘there are few mirrors’ and ‘the mirror over the sink has been taken out and replaced by an oblong of tin’. The lack of mirrors distorts & prohibits the Handmaids’ ability to sustain their identity, resulting in feelings of interchangeability & insubstantiality, symbolised by how Offred sees herself as an ephemeral ‘wraith of red smoke’. Whilst she is able to catch glimpses of her ‘silhouette in the plate glass window’ and some ‘outlines, gleams: from the mirror’, it is never a clear image that shows her she is a complete person and not just a set of body parts. Gilead also restricts the Handmaids from using the gaze and its constructive power to grant identities, implementing the white wings to ‘keep [them] from seeing’ and ‘enclose [them]’ within the ‘white tunnel of cloth’, thereby limiting their vision like a blinkered horse. Furthermore, Gilead not only attempts to erase their identity, but they also seek to replace it. Just as the mirror ‘on the hall wall’ reflects a ‘distorted shadow’ of Offred, Gilead forms a new, distorted identity as Handmaids of the regime, “virginal sacred vessels” (Gulick) purposed only to breed. Throughout the text, the motif of mirrors plays a vital role in conveying how the Handmaids’ identities are directly attacked by the regime’s restriction of mirrors, removing the ability to see one’s reflection &, hence, losing one’s sense of self.

Lacan’s utilization of the idea of the mirror is not exclusively literal nor limited to being a visible physical phenomenon alone. The speech, gestures and facial expressions of others can “mirror” back an “image” of oneself, conveying a sense of how one “appears” from other perspectives. Hence, the motif of doppelgangers represents Offred’s development of an identity, utilising it to define herself “through a play of similarity and difference” (Faurholt), the “identical” and the “other”. Whilst the physical resemblance between Ofglen and Offred implies their interchangeability as a result of Gilead’s negation of any semblance of identity and, hence, posing a threat to Offred’s existence, their “indistinguishable sameness” (Faurholt), conveyed by the short syntax of ‘Doubled, I walk the street’, could be used to reflect each other like mirrors: ‘she’s like my own reflection, in a mirror from which I’m moving away’. Ofglen acts as an identical alter ego, which belongs to the mirror stage where Offred can “[identify] with an external image in order to develop an ego; I must identify as ‘I’ that which is not me” (Faurholt). On the other hand, Serena Joy is also one of Offred’s doppelgangers. Despite some similarities between them, for example, they are both oppressed women in the regime seeking for a baby, Offred sees Serena as her ‘obverse’, the “other”, the opposite of who she wants to be. However, who she does want to be is Moira, her feminist doppelganger, who represents the idealised self she wishes she could be. Even though she knows she is incapable of such brave acts of resistance, her admiration suggests that her identity hasn’t been conquered by Gilead, at least not completely. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the motif of doppelgangers is important in illustrating Offred’s formation of her own identity within Gilead, one which is continually developing through the identification of similarities & differences in her doubles.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) offers a terrifyingly authentic perception of a possible future, depicting a regime where women are dehumanised and used as reproductive slaves for “the greater good”. Offred’s entire narrative is potentially subverted by the ‘male filter’ of Piexioto, revealing her apparent freedom as constrained by patriarchal structures and institutions which prevent women from telling their real stories. The novel contains motifs of nature, the binary opposition between life & death, eyes, mirrors, and doppelgangers, all of which are important to communicate ideas, such as Gilead’s ideological contradictions and the panoptic gaze, and support themes, such as identity and oppression.

bottom of page