Close Reading of /The Handmaid’s Tale/

“The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it, one hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century, rubbed to a warm gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a large rich family. There’s a grandfather clock in the hallway, which doles out time, and then the door to the motherly front sitting room, with its flesh tones and hints. A sitting room in which I never sit, but stand and kneel only. At the end of the hallway, above the front door, is a fanlight of colored glass: flowers, red and blue.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, pg. 9

In this excerpt from the The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the biting irony and satire is blatantly apparent. This excerpt is a microcosm of the text, and if extrapolated to the entirety of the work, contains thematic elements that are prevalent throughout the novel.

The first and perhaps most integral aspect which is present in this excerpt is the idea of a “family” or lack-there-of. In Gilead the idea of a perfect family is perpetuated. The Commanders and Wives of each “family” are seen as the ideal matriarchs and patriarchs. However, the Handmaid’s represent the perverted idea of a surrogate mother, seen merely as an incubator. The focus on family oriented terms in this passage, such as “family”, “grandfather”, and “motherly” draw attention to a contradiction. Although these items are present in the house and are applied to describe it, they are clearly lacking in the society and in the house itself. This represents the satirical nature of the passage.

Furthermore, the idea of time is represented in this passage. By drawing attention to the Victorian period this house was from and the purpose of the grandfather clock, these representations again highlight the skewed perception of Gilead. As diligently as the officials of the Republic of Gilead attempt to erase signs of the past, it is impossible for them to block them out completely. This is important due to the placement of this passage at the beginning of the novel. Due to the primacy of this excerpt the audience is granted the ability to witness the utter failure of Gilead in its principles and ideals.

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One response to “Close Reading of /The Handmaid’s Tale/

  1. Interesting interpretation. One could also notice some symbolism in the end in form of the flowers and the colours. Blue could be seen as the colour of the wives, connected to the blue colour of mother Mary and the role of the wives as mothers. Furthermore red could be the colour of the handmaids, seeing that the colour red is connected both to sin and the blood in the act of giving birth and the menstrual cycle. The flowers could in turn also represent the fertility of the handmaids (and the infertility of the wives) and be a beautiful tool to hide something ugly (i.e. what is going on in Gilead). The fact that there are both blue and red flowers demonstrates how it is a necessity that both the blue (wives) and the red (handmaids) exist together at the same time for the society to function.

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