A Brief Summary and Examination of The Handmaid's Tale

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Plot Overview

The novel takes place in a dystopian future in the republic of Gilhead, which is a totalitarian and theocratic state that has taken over the United States of America. In this dystopian future, fertility rate has potentially decreased as a consequence of pollution and chemical spills. Therefore, the government creates a group of women called Handmaids. These women conceive children for high-class couples who cannot bear to have them on their own. The protagonist of the story is a handmaid named Offred, who has been separated from her husband and daughter and tries to keep getting through each day hoping to meet them again soon. Every month, Offred needs to have sexual relations with the Commander she serves while his wife is sitting behind holding Offred´s hands. Handmaid's´ freedom and women's rights in general are completely restricted by the government and therefore they attempt to gain independence by creating an organization named “Mayday,” as they live in terrible conditions and their ideology is being cracked down by government´s ideals.

Characters

Offred: Narrator and protagonist.

She has been sent to a center with other fertile women and becomes a Handmaid. Handmaids are fertile women who conceive children for the higher classes. She got her name from the Commander who owned her (Of Fred; she belongs to Fred) but her real name is never revealed. She has been separated from her family because she was married to a divorced man (divorces were nullified so that meant that she was marrying a still married man) and keeps hoping to get reunited with them. She is a woman who has control over men and tries to get involved in some rebel acts in order to gain her freedom. She narrates her story and the struggle she is facing to survive even after her tragic losses.

The commander:

He has a leading position in the government, which makes him powerful and rich, meaning he belongs to a high social class. He is the man in charge of the household in which Offred is living. It is suggested that his name is Fred because his handmaid´s name is Offred. He seems to be very lonely as he shows kindness towards Offred and starts a secret relationship with her. Even though he appears to support Gilheads ideology, he doesn't mind breaking the rules. Therefore, it is implied that he is a prisoner in a jail he has constructed himself.

Serena Joy:

The commander's wife.

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She was a gospel singer before Gilhead. Then she was an antifeminist activist and a “traditional values'' follower. She looks unhappy, which implies how a completely man-controlled state cannot even make women in high social classes happy. She seems to have no purpose in life as she is always in her garden or sewing scarves. She also shows jealousy towards handmaids when she behaves in a cruel way and without showing any compassion. Her main participation in the novel is when she arranges Offred to sleep with Nick as she is desperate for having a baby. Serena also knows about Offred's family as she promises to show her a picture of her daughter if she does what she says. She is willing to use Offred´s private life to manipulate her, which implies how her social class is oppressing other women. It is also implied that she is a selfish and careless woman.

Nick:

low status, he's too casual.

Setting:

The Republic of Gilhead:

The handmaid's tale takes place in a dystopian future in the Republic of Gilhead. This republic is a totalitarian and theocratic state. In this place, there is no freedom or choice.

“The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they're like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.”

  • The quote implies that the place looks physically just exactly as before the totalitarian state took over the United States but there are no children. Children represent life and bring energy and happiness to a place, making it feel safe and full of positive connotations. However, when there are no kids, the place might feel empty and dark.
  • During the whole story, there are only a few children mentioned. Instead, there are wars mentioned everywhere and death and destruction are fulfilling the streets.
  • Gilhead is supposed to be located in Boston, Massachusetts specifically where Harvard University used to be.

Symbolism:

  • Red: This colour represents blood: “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Blood relates to the menstrual cycle and therefore to fertility. It can be implied that the dress stands as a reference for the reproductive system. This colour also represents passion, which creates a contradiction, as handmaids are not allowed to have passionate moments as they are controlled even when having sexual relations. “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood which define us”
  • White: Symbolizes innocence and purity. The wings of the handmaids are white and cover their heads without letting them look to the outer world (they are covered by the colour of innocence). Also, the dead hanging bodies have a white bag over their heads, creating a shocking imagery for the reader.
  • Blue: Wives wear blue, which associates with Virgin Mary, who represents fertility and pureness and therefore symbolizes the role of a mother. However, Wives are not fertile to conceive their own children, which creates an oxymoron. Also, blue is a cold colour, symbolizing the Wives attitude towards the Handmaids. Green: The Marthas wear green, as it is associated with nature and health (medical companies use green as a colour of healing). Green is a colour that can also represent jealousy, which Marthas feel towards the handmaids because they are not fertile. The dull green in their dresses symbolize dying nature and therefore the dead fertility of the Marthas. The Guardians also wear green indicating their role to protect society and defend their state.
  • Black: The Commanders usually wear black. The colour usually symbolizes power, death, authority and threat and is therefore the colour of the Eyes. The colour is usually accompanied by the vans in the novel. This makes reference to the Nazi uniforms.
  • Grey: Colonies´ men and women wear grey symbolizing they do not have any kind of importance for the state. This can relate to the Valley of ashes and the “ash grey men” in The Great Gatsby.
  • Clothing: Their uniforms fully cover the body, which represent the constant oppression handmaids are going through. It also represents how freedom has been taken away from them, as they can no longer wear whatever they want.
  • Eyes: They are the secret police. They symbolize God and how he is always watching in a totalitarian and theocratic state.
  • Flowers (red tulips): Serena joy's garden is full of red tulips. These symbolize perfect love. They are also parallels to the Handmaid's lives as they are both fertile and covered in red. “The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem as if they have been cut and are beginning to heal.” This symbolizes how handmaids are being fully controlled and their power has been ripped out. However, they are deprived to “begin to heal.”
  • Harvard University: The bodies of the executed rebels are hung on the college's walls and executions take place in the yard on the steps of the library. Therefore, it becomes a symbol of the change that has happened in the state and how it has gone from being a site for knowledge and freedom of speech into a site of oppression and violence, which denies a university´s principles.
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A Brief Summary and Examination of The Handmaid’s Tale. (2020, July 22). WritingBros. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/a-brief-summary-and-examination-of-the-handmaids-tale/
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A Brief Summary and Examination of The Handmaid’s Tale [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Jul 22 [cited 2024 Jun 18]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/a-brief-summary-and-examination-of-the-handmaids-tale/
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