Margaret Atwood’s a Handmaid’s Tale – Analysis of Themes

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What are the major themes of The Handmaid’s Tale? Choose one character and assess how they contribute to any of these themes. What does this character reveal about Atwood’s attitudes and values? How does the narrative voice of the novel affect the reader’s understanding of this character? I feel that the major themes of The Handmaid’s Tale are fertility and birth. Emphasis is placed on the grief experienced by individuals in society who incapable of reproducing. The character which best displays this, in my opinion, is the Commander’s wife Serena Joy.

The theme of fertility begins to present itself in chapter three where we first experience “the domain of the commander’s wife”, the garden. This place is described to us as being “tidy” with “a willow [and] weeping catkins”. Instantly the reader can observe sorrow and mourning within the imagery presented. Traditionally Willow trees are known as weeping willows, this coupled with the weeping catkins emphasises grief in the word “weeping”. These images are focused around a seemingly fertile garden; Atwood suggests here that Serena is mourning her lack of fertility.

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We also see that the tulips of the garden are described as being “red” and “a darker crimson” bearing similarities to being “cut” and starting to “heal”. The reader experiences imagery of bleeding and pain linked to the image of the fertile flower. Atwood suggests here that the sight of fertility in Serena’s garden is painful and that she is healing from the pain of her infertility. In chapter twenty – five the theme of resented fertility is presented again by Serena, when cutting at the seed pods of flowers in her garden. She does this “with a convulsive jerk” making the act seem violent.

The reader can observe Serena’s direct resentment at the plant’s ability to reproduce. She exacts her vengeance with a “blitzkrieg … on the swelling genitalia of the flowers”. Further evidence to support the theme of lost fertility is expressed in the descriptions of Serena herself. When working in the garden she is described as wearing “a light blue veil”. One interpretation of this is that she is wearing traditional baby blue. However further analysis shows that this colour is also associated with the biblical Virgin Mary.

Serena is observed as wearing the colour of the Virgin Mary in a strongly religious society, suggesting that this is what she aspires to be, a revered mother – like figure. The reader can observe irony in the implications of virginity when she partakes in the sexual ritual. The ritual requires Serena to be present however she never engages in intercourse herself. We learn that Serena likes to produce “elaborate” scarves for the Angels on the front lines. In appearance they do not look like they are for “grown men but for children”. The reader may interpret that she creates these scarves for her unborn children.

We also observe that this hobby “gives her a sense of purpose” where she experiences the void of being childless. I believe that Atwood does not agree with anti-feminism. She appears to point out in “The Handmaids Tale” that anti-feminists would disagree with a completely anti-feminist society. I feel that Atwood reveals her attitudes towards anti-feminism through the character Serena Joy. In chapter 8 Serena acts as an example of the model anti-feminist. This is when the reader learns that she used to campaign against the feminist movement in favour of “traditional values”.

However Serena expresses dissatisfaction at the society she wished for subtly throughout the novel. This suggests that the ideals she fought for are flawed. Serena briefly states how keeping the sanctity of her marital status “was one of the things [she] fought for” against the new government. Another point displaying Atwood’s views is shown in Serena’s recompense, when she is placed in unpleasant situations such as performing the sexual ritual. Serena says with loathing “get up and get out” to Offred after Offred has copulated with the Commander. It is law for the three of them to endure this ritual.

Atwood uses this as a way of highlighting the negativities and her views of an anti-feminist society through the pain of Serena Joy. Serena is seen as being a respectable woman of society however it is accepted that the wives are in a less favourable situation. We also find in chapter 8 that Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids that “it’s not the husbands you have to watch out for … it’s the wives” as they have much to “resent”. The handmaids are told to “try to pity them”. Anti-feminism has been embraced by this society which has led to the anti-feminist supporter, Serena, being unhappy.

Atwood is trying to show that a true anti-feminist society will upset even the most dedicated female anti-feminist. The narrative voice of this novel affects our understanding of Serena mainly due to the story being from Offred’s perspective. When first observing the Commander’s wife, Offred gives the reader the impression that there is depth under Serena’s surface expressions. When sitting in her garden we are told that “from a distance it looks like peace”. This leads the reader to question if it would seem so peaceful upon closer inspection.

Offred’s narrative voice invites the reader to interpret Serena’s actions. As Offred doesn’t know Serena’s thoughts the reader may only guess at what Offred observes. Offred’s perspective leads us to believe that Serena “was a woman that might bend the rules” when we learn that she possesses black market items. This carries a theme of hope when the reader thinks of Serena and as Offred considers what she has to trade. We then guess that later on in the story Serena may play some role in helping Offred. Our understanding may also be affected by Offred’s personal circumstances within the novel.

We as the reader see Serena as an intimidating figure, because Offred sees her as intimidating when Serena says “I want to see as little of you as possible”. This is shown again when Offred doesn’t know how to reply to her when “a yes would have been insulting, a no contradictory” in which the reader is inclined to agree. Therefore our perceptions of intimidation are directly linked to how Offred feels about Serena. The reader also struggles alongside Offred to identify Serena’s role within the hierarchy when Offred refers to Serena as “Ma’am”.

Offred is told not to refer to her as “Ma’am” which leaves both the reader and Offred questioning what level of respect she demands. Offred states “I didn’t ask what I was supposed to call her” and at this point neither does the reader know. This links the feelings of Offred to those of the reader again. Another perspective we gain from Offred is that Serena is a “motherly figure” and someone who is able to “understand and protect”. This is reinforced by what Offred observes from Serena when she produces scarves that seem to be “for children”. It is only later on in the novel that we learn from Serena that she actually wants children.

The reader could only speculate before based entirely on how Offred perceived her. The readers understanding of Serena Joy, especially at the beginning of the novel, is completely influenced by how Offred perceives her. Offred points out key features about Serena such as the way she “blew out the smoke”. This provokes the imagery of a dragon to the reader so the reader can only assume that she has a harsh, unforgiving temperament. These assumptions led by the biased observations of Offred, in turn leads the reader to have a negative understanding too. Reference: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. Published by Vintage 1996.

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