In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margret Atwood uses symbolism to illustrate the handmaid’s role in the society of Gilead. The handmaids are the women who had broken law of Gilead, and were forced into the role of a surrogate mother for a higher ranking couple. The handmaids had no rights or free will. They were under constant surveillance and this caused them to be very cautious. The author characterizes most handmaids as a tentative and distrustful, which is perhaps why Offred never puts in words the magnitude of her discontent with her new life, because it’s possible she doesn’t truly trust the reader.
The author uses symbols such as the handmaid’s dress-code, a pigs ball, and even the handmaids names to give the reader a sense of the handmaid’s imprisonment. The handmaid’s dress-code was a very strict one; it was a dress-code that symbolized their one, sole duty; to bear a child.
The handmaids were only needed for their reproductive services, so their dresses were red, to indicate their fertility. As Offred is dressing she describes her uniform; “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us.
The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen,” (p. 9). The handmaid’s were not supposed to be viewed as sexual beings, (though many people thought of them as adulteresses).
The main character Offred describes her and her fellow handmaid’s as two-legged wombs, and nothing more. Their only purpose in life was to conceive a child, which was represented openly by the color of their robes.
The handmaids in the novel lead such a caged life that in one of Offred’s many deep reflections, Atwood compares Offreds life symbolically to the life of a prized show pig. The handmaid’s were not permitted to entertain themselves nor flex their intellectual abilities, even simple games such as Scrabble would get them sent away to become an Unwoman, the worst outcome imaginable. As Offred longs for something to distract her, she thinks; “there’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for – the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing…I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig.
Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens. Pig balls were large colored balls; the pigs rolled them around with their snouts…the pigs were curious, they liked to have something to think about…I wish I had a pig ball,” (p. 85). The pigs are permitted to have a ball to entertain themselves, while the handmaids are only left with their thoughts. The author creates a symbol with the ball to demonstrate how the handmaid’s emotional and intellectual needs were valued even less than a pig’s.
The handmaid’s names were also a clear representation of their position in society. For example, Offred, or Of-Fred, is a clear statement that this woman belongs to Fred, and Ofwarren, belongs to Warren. The handmaids didn’t even have enough freedom to maintain their real names. They were forced to accept a new patronymic name that striped them from their former identity entirely. Of-fred is a direct indication that these women are being reduced to the value of an object that can be possessed or thrown away if it doesn’t function properly.
Atwood uses symbolism to expand the readers understanding of Offreds and the other handmaids’ dire situations. The handmaids’ lead extremely cautious and guarded lives, because any sign of rebellion could get them killed. The author uses symbols such as the dresses that represents the handmaids fertility, a pig that had more privileges than the women, and the handmaids labels to expand the readers understanding of Offreds position and emotions, because as a handmaid, she could never express them fully.