The dystopian speculative fiction novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” authored by Margaret Atwood, makes you feel so grateful to be living in such a successful and politically correct country such as New Zealand. Atwood uses rich figurative language and imagery in the text. By using symbolic descriptions within the novel, it utilises and depicts themes and setting creating vivid images in the reader’s mind. Atwood’s detailed portrayals of the elements of the novel have been carefully structured with the sentences representing Offred’s train of thought. The award-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a very powerful novel in which people fear over the speculative fiction it contains. 

The theme of freedom is explored in this speculative fiction text. The government of Gilead has imposed the idea of the handmaid’s to remain in their rooms and their Commanders house, with the exceptions for outings are grocery shopping, birthing ceremonies and executions. Handmaids are confined in their low statuses of being childbearing vessels of the social hierarchy meaning that they are barely allowed to do anything. With reading, writing, and other everyday common activities illegal for handmaid’s and also being confined to their rooms, they have a very miserable and boring life of having to obey all rules and get raped monthly to carry a baby and fulfil the job of a Handmaid. When they get pregnant by their commander’s, their reward is not being sent off to the colonies (nuclear wasteland) or hung by the government. They are forced to carry and give birth to a child who gets taken away from them and fathered by the same man who raped them. The language used to describe these events is very strong and to the point using short sentences to keeping us fully engaged in the novel. This lack of freedom and almost captivity is part of every day for the life of a handmaid.

“I sit in my chair, the wreath on the ceiling floating above my head, like a frozen halo, a zero. A hole in space where a star exploded. A ring, on the water where a stone’s been thrown. All things white and circular…. a blank space above on the ceiling, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.” Atwood begins the chapter with this sentence representing the setting of Offred’s room. Every word has a meaning conveying the setting and feeling felt by the protagonist of the novel, Offred. For example, 

We are given a train of thought of Offred with her sitting in a room on a chair with a wreath pattern above her. Wreaths are usually associated with death and funeral corresponding to the symbol used by Christians meaning immortality, live forever. She then goes on to refer it to a halo of an angel and then a zero. I believe what she means by zero is worthless and the meaning of oblivion showing us the reader that it has a negative connotation and is adverse in living in Gilead which is a totalitarian regime town in America. She continues to explain the wreath like arrangement on the ceiling above her. “A hole in space where a star exploded.” An explosion of a star is caused by the death of a star which also refers to the feeling of the handmaids of being imprisoned and stifled. The metaphor of “A ring, on the water where a stone’s been thrown” implements the idea of her imagination still being present when she has been starved of happiness. “All thing white” relates to the idea of everything being blank and empty and the feeling of isolation and loneliness. She has been torn from her world and feels meaningless and lack of purpose in this totalitarian world she has been forced into. 

Atwood takes us into the world of Gilead with her in-depth description of the surroundings. “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.” The reader understands how the Handmaids are not allowed to escape their own life through suicide. The society is desperate for the Handmaids to provide children that the significant figures of the totalitarian state have to prevent all possible ways of escape from taking place. The description of Offred’s room is very bland, white and blank. It doesn’t feel homely and definitely not welcoming. Offred’s room is a significant setting in the novel that emphasises the control and power of the new government which results in the portrayal of a dystopian society. 

In a recent interview, Atwood states, “everything that had happened in the Handmaid’s Tale had happened, somewhere at some time.” With this text being speculative fiction it makes us readers wonder what life holds in the future and what outrageous laws may be present which would strip ourselves of our own individuality. The use of the well-structured descriptive within the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” authored by Margaret Atwood, it allows the readers to paint distinctive pictures in their mind, enabling us to gain an in-depth understanding of what each word is written means and the significance of it within the sentence structure. 



Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Yes, you’ll need some deletions and editing when we come back in Term Two – remember it is a Critical Review, not a Literary essay! Have a great time at camp, Claudia.

  2. The standard requires:
    ‘selecting and using language features appropriate to each text type to create consistency in meaning and effect and to sustain interest.’ – remember when you are editing your work, you have to be concise to ensure fluency and sustain interest.


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About Tracey Hames

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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