Doubling in The Handmaid's Tale

Atwood and doppelgängers

Although Atwood insists on the individuality of Offred (see Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity), she is nevertheless Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydeaware of the idea of the doppelgänger, or double, which is often found in art (for example Rossetti's drawing How They Met Themselves) and in literature, especially literature which may be described as having Gothic elements, such as R.L.Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

In her book Negotiating with the Dead, based on a series of lectures which she gave in Cambridge, England, Atwood writes of her long-held interest in the idea of the double. She explains how, in the comic books of her youth, ‘a superhero was nobody unless he had an alter ego who really was nobody.' She goes on to point out that in some societies identical twins were seen as unlucky, and ‘we still find something uncanny about them: perhaps such exact replication suggests to us a denial of our own uniqueness.' Perhaps it is for this reason that Offred, so keen to assert her own individuality, is alert to ways in which she may not be unique.

Doubles in appearance


As Offred is not trusted out alone, when she goes shopping she has to meet up with another Handmaid, Ofglen. Offred is acutely aware that they are identically dressed, so that Ofglen has ‘a shape like mine' (chapter 4) and they might appear to be replicas of each other. ‘Doubled, I walk the street,' she says at the beginning of chapter 5. As they part to go to their different houses, Offred comments (chapter 8) that:

‘She's like my own reflection, in a mirror from which I am moving away.'

In chapter 27, as she feels closer to Ofglen and more friendly, she says that they are ‘Siamese twins'.

Serena Joy

Because both she and Serena Joy wear long robes, Offred even sees the Commander's wife as a sort of reflection of herself, as they descend the stairs furtively together (in chapter 40):

‘I see the two of us, a blue shape, a red shape, in the brief glass eye of the mirror... Myself, my obverse.'

The previous Offred

This current Offred is also aware that, when in her robes, she is a replica of the previous Offred, who hanged herself. Thus, when she falls asleep on the floor of the wardrobe, finding her there must have seemed like ‘déja vu' for Cora, before she realises, ‘But it was you.'

Doubles in situation

It is not only in appearance that Offred sees similarities between herself and others. Her sensitivity to other people means that she is often aware of parallels between her situation and that of other people.


Offred is aware, for example, that she and Nick share something in common; they are both aware of their illicit situation the first time they meet alone, in the sitting-room at night. Neither can give the other away, so ‘for the moment, we're mirrors'.

The previous Offred

Most obviously, she is aware of the previous Offred: ‘someone like me'. The parallels increase when we discover that the previous one, like the current Offred, was found out by Serena Joy after the Commander took her to Jezebel's. Offred says (chapter 46) that she can ‘feel her presence, my ancestress, my double'.

Serena Joy

Even though she dislikes Serena Joy, Offred is sensitive enough to see that, in some ways, they are in similar situations:

  • Both are victims of the Gileadean regime
  • Both desperately need Offred to have a child
  • Although Offred is appalled at the heartlessness of Serena Joy's failure to realise what it means to Offred to have had her daughter taken away, nevertheless Offred can say, in chapter 31, ‘For this moment at least we are cronies'
  • Later, when Offred contemplates committing suicide (chapter 46), she also briefly thinks about trying to kill Serena Joy, as it would ‘put her out of our misery'.

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