Strange and horrifying imagery in The Handmaid's Tale

Macabre images

As well as the natural imagery associated with the garden, the novel contains many strange, sometimes shocking, images. These portray the unpleasant and often violent world that Atwood has created - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, has reflected.

From the moment when Offred arrives at Commander Fred's house, the images Atwood employs are sinister:

  • The plaster relief in the centre of the ceiling is ‘in the shape of a wreath'
  • The blank space in its centre reminds Offred of ‘the place in a face where the eye has been taken out.'
  • In chapter 8, as Offred goes upstairs, the convex mirror seems to her to bulge outward ‘like an eye under pressure'
  • In chapter 19 she describes the curtains in her room as ‘hanging like drowned white hair.'
  • As Offred enters the kitchen (chapter 32) and sees Rita cutting radishes, they remind her of ‘little Aztec hearts' - which might sound pleasant if one were not aware that Aztecs cut out the hearts of their sacrificial victims.

Arresting comparisons

At other times Atwood uses unusual, at times almost bizarre, imagery which makes the reader see things in a new way:

  • The plaster wreath on the ceiling becomes the focus of Offred's attention in chapter 31, where she describes it in a series of images:
    ‘a frozen halo, a zero. A hole in space where a star exploded. A ring, on water, where a stone's been thrown.'
  • In chapter 22 Janine's bland voice is described as ‘transparent', a ‘voice of raw egg white'
  • Thinking of the Commander's penis, before the Ceremony, Offred's choice of unflattering imagery undermines male pride:
    ‘his tentacle, his delicate stalked slug's eye, which extrudes, expands, winces and shrivels back into himself.'
  • In chapter 37 the tawdriness of Jezebel's is suggested by Offred's description of:
    ‘a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed',
    ‘oval-sided glass elevators slide up and down the walls like giant molluscs.'
  • In chapter 43 the beaten face of the tortured man at the Particicution is so damaged that it is ‘like an unknown vegetable, a mangled bulb or tuber'.

Shock factor

There is more than one occasion when Atwood deliberately uses images which seem inappropriate, to shock us into a realisation of the way in which the horrific has come to be completely accepted in Gilead. For example, at the Salvaging described in chapter 42, the woman about to be hanged is:

‘helped onto the high stool as if she's being helped up the steps of a bus... the noose adjusted delicately around the neck, like a vestment.'

The juxtaposition of tenderness and holiness with brutal repression wakes up the reader to the ease with which Gilead is achieving its oppressive ends.

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