The Handmaid’s Tale: Deciphering the Tale

Throughout recorded history many courageous writers have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered because they expressed opinions opposing the oppressive policies of errant governments. In order to avoid persecution— poets, essayists, and novelists quickly learned to disguise or mask their beliefs. Examples of writers using allegorical methods abound in Biblical parables, fairytales and fables. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale —everyday objects, places, and proper names are metaphorically interwoven into her story. By doing so, the essence of the entire novel undergoes a metamorphosis. The tale, which takes place sometime in the future, becomes more than a heart wrenching dystopian saga about a displaced woman struggling to survive in a male dominated theocratic society. It transforms into a literary treasure trove containing nuggets of hidden messages pertaining to the subjugation and liberation of women. By employing metaphors, imagery and symbolism; Margaret Atwood covertly secretes within her tale, a dichotomy of gender discriminations and triumphs. The surgically crafted veiled genre that Atwood uses to enlighten the reader is packed with tidbits of historical feministic events. By extracting quotes from the Bible and the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx, the author escorts the reader along the seldom examined trail of injustices that challenged women from biblical times to the late twentieth century.
The narrator of the Handmaid’s Tale is a woman named Offred who is also the protagonist in the novel. Atwood’s uses the name Luke for the husband of Offred which is a symbolic reference to Luke the evangelist who authored both; the Gospel that bears his name, and The Acts of the Apostles. Luke the evangelist is considered by biblical scholars to be the torch carrier for women’s rights. In his Gospel, Luke gives as much attention to women as he does to men. This deed sets Luke aside from the other New Testament evangelists. Margaret Atwood’s symbolic use of the name Luke is just the foam on her literary wave of biblical allegories. Atwood takes several female names directly from Luke’s Gospel and grants them new life as characters in her story. This literary name duplicating technique helps to deliver subliminal parallelisms to the reader. By mirroring names and infusing them into the story, Atwood sows the seeds of symbolism into the fertile subconscious minds of her readers. The novel’s theme of sterility sprouts from one of those seeds.
Margaret Atwood chooses the names Sara and Elizabeth for two of her characters. These names mirror two biblical women who were childless — Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and Sara from the Book of Genesis. In the Bible stories, these women were barren, yet both miraculously became pregnant and gave birth in their waning years. As the novel progresses Offred reinforces the theme of fruitlessness by stating, “There is no such thing as a sterile man, there are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren”.
But, just as a real mirror can distort images, Margaret Atwood doesn’t depict Sara and Elizabeth as the exact characters they represent in the Bible. She creates them as gender betrayers and portrays them as enforcers over other women. This becomes evident when Offred states, “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts”.
In her novel Margaret Atwood selected the name Martha from the Gospel of Luke in order to create a group of women called the Marthas. They were the domestic help in her novel. In the Gospel story of Martha and her sister Mary, Luke the evangelist writes of Martha complaining to Jesus that she is doing all the work and that her sister Mary is not helping. The theme of Martha betraying her sister, or of one female informing on another, is repeated often in Atwood’s novel.
Another interesting woman that Luke writes about in the Acts of the Apostles is Lydia of Thyatira. Lydia was a business woman who became the first female convert to Christianity in Europe. Lydia supplied the Romans with the red and purple dyes needed for their togas and ceremonial garments. Biblical scholars believe that Lydia was the head of her household because; Luke writes that she did not have to ask a man for permission to invite the apostles into her home. This symbolized a truly emancipating situation for a woman living in those times, and the fact that Luke included the story of Lydia in his writings speaks volumes of his thoughts about gender equality. In the novel, Aunt Lydia is a woman of power. She often acts as an advisor to the handmaids. In the beginning of the tale, as Offred assesses her situation, Aunt Lydia advises Offred to, “Think of it as being in the Army”. Besides using people’s names symbolically, Atwood uses the geographical name of Gilead from the Old Testament for the name of her created theocracy. The symbolic implication of Atwood’s Gilead can be easily recognized if we read what the Old Testament has to say about that part of the world. “Gilead is a city of wicked men, with footprints of blood”. In Atwood’s story, the reader discovers that the fictional theocracy of Gilead is probably more wicked than the Old Testament Gilead. In the theocracy of Gilead they have a policy of murdering and publically displaying the bodies of the abortion doctors. The details in the Handmaid’s Tale of blood seeping through the white cloths covering the faces of the doctors are disturbing. But, it expounds on the theme of blood and abortion mentioned near the end of the tale with Offred reminiscing about a time in her past when her mother returned from an abortion riot with a bruise and blood on her face.
As the reader progresses into the story, an array of explicit symbols explode before their eyes. The yellow star and the tattoo are symbolic of Nazism. Eggs and flowers become fertility symbols. Windows and mirrors become symbols of how we see ourselves and others. Pier-glass, fish-eyes, and curved mirrors are all symbols of how our views can be distorted. The eye and the name Nick symbolize spying. And the clothing that different groups wore with specific assigned colors are filled with symbolic meanings. But the most powerful symbol in The Handmaid’s Tale is the game of Scrabble; the board game in the story is the author’s way of saying that she is playing a word game with us. She lets the reader know, through Offred, that she is very good at it.
Atwood brings her novel to an apparent abrupt end, and for a moment the reader is left hanging. But, in a feat of literary genius, Atwood satiates the curiosity of the readers by jumping two centuries into the future and creating the final chapter which she titled—”Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.
This is where the reader is introduced to Professor Pieixoto. The Professor is Atwood’s symbolic scrabble name for Pope Pius IX—the 19th century Catholic pope who by papal decree declared himself and all future popes to be infallible. Pope Pius IX was devoted to the Virgin Mary and wrote the papal dogma on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother. But his most notable connection to the Handmaid’s Tale is the fact that Pope Pius IX was the pope who decreed that abortion at any stage of gestation was murder and that it was an act punishable by excommunication. The OTO in Pieixoto is symbolic of Pope Pius IX and his battle against the Ordo Templi Orientis, a group he considered to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The ending messages in The Handmaid’s Tale are extremely poignant. They are clearly stated by the author’s play on words, and they are highlighted by Professor Pieixoto’s off color and sexist remarks. Apparently, two centuries after Offred recorded her saga, men like Professor Pieixoto still felt empowered to speak inappropriately about women at the University of Denay in the city of Nunavit.
In conclusion, although the communist Karl Marx was purposely misquoted in the Handmaid’s Tale: I wonder if by naming her protagonist Offred; was Atwood suggesting to the reader that they would be better off living in a state without religion? And, is there a subliminal message to the reader that we’d all be better “off red”?