Symbolism and Loss of Identity in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Offred recounts the story of her life and that of others in Gilead, but she does not do so alone. The symbolic meanings found in the dress code of the women, the names/titles of characters, the absence of the mirror, and the smell and hunger imagery aid her in telling of the repugnant conditions in the Republic of Gilead. The symbols speak with a voice of their own and in decibels louder than Offred can ever dare to use. They convey the social structure of Gileadean society and carry the theme of the individual's loss of identity.
All the women in Gilead wear color-coded uniforms. The colors parade their social status and/or role in the reproductive process. The 'Aunts' who run the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center wear brown; they are responsible for the indoctrination of the handmaids. The 'Marthas,' who wear green, are the servants. The 'Wives' wear a type of Virgin-Mary blue, which signifies their inability to bear children. The handmaids wear red robes and white peaked hats which resemble nuns' habits. Thus, they personify a religious sacrifice; they are like "temple prostitutes doomed to a kind of purdah in perpetuity" (Rigney 117). In addition, the red color of their clothing symbolizes their fertility.
The color-coded uniforms that the women wear does more than just signify their functions. Along with the names/titles of characters, they symbolize the individual's loss of identity. No distinguishing mark of a woman is considered; rather, she is lumped with a group in which she is defined only by her social and reproductive function. Essentially, the color-coded uniforms strip each woman of her identity (Stein 81).
The loss of individual identity can also be seen in the names and titles of characters. First, it is symbolized by the handmaids' patronymic names. Their names are formed with the possessive preposition, 'of,' and the first name of the 'Commander' for whom they are to bear children (for instance: 'Of-Fred'). The handmaids are moved to a new posting after three attempts to bear child for the 'Commander' and his wife; at each new location, they drop their former name and adopt their new Commander's name. Thus, while the narrator's name is currently Offred, she may later become Ofglen, Ofwaren, or some other such patronym. Like their names, the handmaids have no personal identity and they lack stability; like their names, they are interchangeable and replaceable with each other (LeBihan 102).
It isn't just handmaids, or even only women that have forfeited their personal identity; men have lost theirs as well. Their loss of individualism is symbolized by their generic titles. There are three classes of men in Gilead: the 'Commanders,' the Doctors, and the 'Eyes.' Like the color-coded uniforms of the women, the generic titles of the men announce...