The garden in The Handmaid's Tale

The vibrancy of nature

Tulip in garden, photo by Zache82, available through Creative CommonsEven before we see Offred emerge from the house into Serena Joy's garden, we see her awareness of the natural world as she likens the curved wood of the hat stand to ‘the opening fronds of a fern'. Once she is out in the garden, she instantly notices the tulips, which are ‘opening their cups, spilling out colour':

  • These two observations of nature ‘opening' are in immediate contrast to the restrictiveness of the household in which Offred now finds herself
  • The same word, ‘opening', is used by Offred when, in chapter 27, she feels that she and Ofglen have achieved some real communication, and says that ‘hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree.'

The garden therefore represents an impulse for life that cannot be denied. Offred senses that Commanders' Wives like to, ‘order and maintain' their gardens. However as the novel progresses we become aware that the garden cannot be so controlled.

Sensuous responses

In chapter 2, Offred tells us that her experience of her own garden, before she became a handmaid, was of a different kind from the desire to control nature. Her response to it was sensuous and she remembers:

‘the smell of the turned earth, the plump shades of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers.'
  • In chapter 2 Offred likens the bright colour of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden to blood, ‘as if they had been cut'
  • This strikes her again - they are ‘redder than ever' - as she reaches home after the shopping trip in chapter 8, and their cups seem ‘like chalices, thrusting themselves up'
  • In chapter 18, as she imagines Luke being hurt and thinks of a wound on his face, she compares it to ‘the colour of tulips, near the stem end'.

Subversive nature

The vivid redness of the tulips seems to be part of the garden's vibrancy, which, in chapter 25, Offred feels has ‘something subversive' about it. She records:

‘a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently.'

There is a suggestion that Serena Joy is fighting against such subversive vibrancy as she works at ‘snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears'.

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