Totalitarianism, Violence, and the Color Red in The Handmaid’s Tale In literature, the color red symbolizes many things, each with its own emotional impact. Red can be associated with violence and bloodshed, or it can be associated with love and intense emotions. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, chosen to be a “baby-maker” for a couple she was assigned to, desires to escape the dystopian society that she lives in. Thus, Margaret creates a fictional government that uses totalitarianism, violence, and the reoccurring pattern of the color red to illustrate the negative impact it has on women, especially the Handmaids.
Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred recalls her past life before and during the creation of the Republic of Gilead. The radical political change was carried out by a coup to create a “right-wing, fundamentalist Christian theocracy” (Beauchamp). The goal of the new regime was to create a new society with cult-like evangelical culture that bases a majority of its policies on readings of the Old Testament in the Bible. In this new society, censoring and controlling of all aspects of daily life, was key, all of the civilians were forced to fulfill predestined roles.
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The total oppression of women in all aspects of their feminine lives is a main theme in this fictional tale. Women were confined to gender based functions that were determined by the male dictators of the society. For women, literacy and independence diminished, which limited their ability to communicate. An example form the novel that illustrates this was when Offred, the main character, recounted how strange and mysterious the change of regime came to her consciousness.
She described the transformation in terms of what she observed: “There was a lot more music on the radio than usual, and fewer words” (174). This account portrays how the authorities limited independence of thought for women. Another example was when Offred’s credit card was declined because a policy was enacted stating that women no longer were permitted to control money. These accounts confirm than not only women lost their freedom of thought, but also their freedom of control.
What Offred experienced, was the aftermath of a violent political coup starting to develop their theocracy after overthrowing the United States government. Offred described the coup as seen on television, “…they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress; the entire government, gone like that” (174). As this change was occurring, there were neither protests, nor backlashes. “People just stayed home and watched their televisions” (174). Not only was new government powerful and violent, it was also unstoppable.
By the time the United States had transformed into the Republic of Gilead, society was dramatically different. “The state in Gilead prescribes a pattern of life based on frugality, conformity, censorship, corruption, fear, and terror???in short, the usual terms of existence enforced by totalitarian states” (Malak). Society had become a totally controlled by Commanders, or the men responsible for creating the totalitarian government. These men developed a system which women were divided into different categories based on their societal role and function, which was color coded.
The women were divided into six categories: Wives (blue), Aunts (brown), Angles (white), Marthas (green), Handmaids ( red), and Econowives ( all colors, as they perform all of the roles and duties of the other women). The novel focuses on the life of a Handmaid named Offred. Handmaids are fertile women of child bearing age who are assigned to the household of a Commander and his Wife. Their sole purpose is to bear children for the Commanders and Wives to whom they are assigned to. They are trained exclusively by the Aunts at the “Red-Center”, where they are brainwashed and strictly disciplined.
The Handmaids color code is red which denotes their specific role in society, which is looked down on. To reflect their duty, the Handmaids are dressed completely in red. They are required to wear a full length red dress, red shoes, and red gloves. They also wear a white habit, which blocks their peripheral vision when walking to the market. “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood” (8). The color red that the Handmaids are dressed in represents fertility, their main purpose. The desire to conceive a child is what all Handmaids strive to achieve.
When a Handmaid has her menstrual cycle each month, the blood serves as a reminder and reinforces what they desire so much. “Likewise, the blood-red gowns of the Handmaids conjure positive associations with birth and life as well as pejorative links with suffering, shame, and female bondage to reproductive cycles” (enotes). The government stresses the importance of conceiving a child so much, that the Handmaids have become fearful if they do not become pregnant. The Handmaids that are unable to are sent to the colonies to perform hard manual labor and are called “Unwomen”.
This ideology has a negative psychological impact on how the Handmaids view life; it is mostly based on survival. Throughout the novel, Offred’s and the Handmaids’ lives are dominated by the color red. Their garments are red, the doctors who examine them each month wear red armbands, the sidewalks they walk on are red, and the vehicles that transport them to view each birth (the birthmobiles) are red. Red also serves s a symbol of danger and violence to enhance the nature of the government. For example, at the Red-Center, disobedient Handmaids would be strictly disciplined.
The Aunts, who train them, wound whip and beat the Handmaids’ feet until they were swollen and bloody. This illustrates how strict and controlling society has become. The most obvious center of violence in Gilead is circulated around the wall. The wall is where both men and women of all rank can be executed by hanging. The executed have white, cloth bags placed over their heads. “Political and religious dissidents, abortionists, and homosexuals are executed and hung at ‘The Wall’ for public display” (Spiritus- Temporus). Also, murderers and rapists are also hanged.
The executed have their heads covered in a white cloth bag to conceal their faces, but they are kept in their clothing that reflects their position in society. The Wall is the same color as the red brick on which the Handmaids must walk past everyday when the go to buy food for their household. They are required to pass the Wall everyday to remind them to make them fearful of the superior forces and to perform their duties. When Offred and her market partner Ofglen walk home one day, Offred notices something different about one of the hanging bodies. She says, “But on one of the bags there is blood, where the mouth should have been.
It makes another mouth, a small red one, like mouths painted with thick brushes by kindergarten children. A child’s idea of a smile. The smile of blood” (32). Offred is reminded of the government’s power and a warning to do her job as she is supposed to do. The blood on the bag makes her remember. On the other side of the Wall, which is like an arena, Women Salvagings take place. The Salvagings are where men or women who commit crimes are executed before the women of Gilead, in a ceremony. The ceremony is segregated from the men. For the Salvagings, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Wives and Angles sit around a central stage.
The Handmaids must kneel in the center in front of the stage. All the women must witness the hangings. After the hangings, the women are dismissed but the Handmaids are required to stay behind for another type of execution. The Handmaids must form a circle and a man who is accused of rape is placed in the center. At the blow of a whistle, the Handmaids must lunge foreward onto the man and kill the man, ripping him apart with their bare hands. Offred describes the experience, “Red spreads everywhere” (280). This ceremony shows how violent and twisted the government is, subjecting the Handmaid’s to murder.
The main connection between violence and the Handmaid’s life is through the representation of red as blood. The color of their garments, their monthly reminder of their sole purpose and the blood from birth and the executions is seen. “However, in the context of Gilead, red is not just menstrual blood or blood resulting from birth; the red is a threat of death” (123helpme). One of the more hidden interactions of violence and the Handmaids is portrayed through the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, the wife of Offred’s Commander. The color of the tulips is the same color of the blood smile hanging on the wall.
The tulips also represent the Handmaids’ menstrual cycle. “Every time tulips appear in the novel, Atwood is describing what stage of life they are in” (Kas). “The tulips have had their moment and are now done, shedding their petals one by one, like teeth” (153). “When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards” (45). The tulips are related to violence by their color and how Serena Joy cuts them. “She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, and then cutting with a compulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up?
Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia f the flowers? ” (153). Even in the small details, these patterns of violence and the color red reflect on the type of world the government created. Women, especially the Handmaids in the Republic of Gilead live their lives under a totalitarian theocracy in fear, which has a negative impact on their freedom, as they are forced to obey the strict and rigid social policies. Even though the Republic of Gilead is fictional, the concept of a strict theocracy exists today in many parts of the world.
For example, in the Middle East many women still have to wear veils in public because countries like Iran have a theocratic government that follows Muslim beliefs very strictly. While Margaret Atwood creates this fictional world, the actual context of it, compared to modern day, is not very fictional at all. Works Cited Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books. 1986. Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Politics of The Handmaid’s Tale. ” The Midwest Quarterly 51. 1 (2009): 11+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2010. Stevana, David. “Free Handmaid’s Tale Essays: The Red Motif. ” 123HelpMe. com. 7 May 2010. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – Introduction. ” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 135. Gale Cengage, 2001. eNotes. com. 2006. 7 May, 2010. Kas, Emily. “The Handmaid’s Tale. ” November 7, 2007. aplitks. com. 7 May 2010. Malak, Amin. “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Dystopian Traditions. ” Canadian Literature 112 (Spring 1987): 9-16. Rpt. in Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2010. Thapoy, Steve. “The Handmaid’s Tale: Themes. ” 2005. Spiritus- Temporus. com. 7 May 2010.