The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel about a woman who is forced
to live in a changed society run by a totalitarian regime.  Margaret Atwood reveals the story of Offred,
a handmaid who is forced to adapt to a new society, in which she is oppressed
and obligated to live a life she does not desire. The Republic of Gilead, the land in which the novel
takes place, is what used to be the United States. Throughout
the whole novel the author reminds the reader about the implications of a
society where women’s rights are reversed. 
Oppression is present during the entire novel, however there is one
social group that is highlighted the most, and these are the Handmaids. The Handmaids
are a group of women in Gilead that serve society by providing children. Not
only are they the most oppressed in the regime, but also possibly the most
important.

 

Atwood uses symbolism in the clothing to represent each social group
and how they are oppressed in different ways. In the case of the handmaids,
they are forced to dress in a uniform with the colour red, and in several
occasions, Offred shares her views on how the freedom to dress as she pleases had
been robbed from her. “The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends
over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed
issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never
looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” (Atwood, 2) In this quote, Offred complains about the clothing she
must wear, and the audience is shown how the Handmaids are controlled and
represented with a colour. Their clothing covers their whole body, only
allowing their face to be revealed, leading their physical identity to be
hidden. As mentioned in the quote, their head is covered with white wigs, which
prevent them from seeing. The colour red symbolizes menstruation blood, which
is a sign of fertility and therefore allows their physical appearance to associate
with fertility. The clothing doesn’t only represent their role in society, which
is to provide their commanders with children; it also makes them all look the
same. A handmaid’s body is a source of regulations and control, including their
clothing, which is a designation of oppression that can be visually perceived with
their physical appereance.

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As Offred is the narrator, her internal
thoughts often allow the audience to gain an insight of the Handmids role in
society. The structure of social groups In the Republic of Gilead is based on
the importance and purpose of each individual belonging to them. In the case of
Handmaids, it can be considered that they belong to a middle class as they are
provided with a quality of life that is suitable for them to conceive a child.

The novel often mentions social groups lower to a handmaid, such as Marthas,
Econowives and Unwomen.  “There are
other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas,
some in the striped dresses, red, blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that
mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are
not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can.” (Atwood,
5) As the narrator does not interact with either Econowives or Unwomen, little
is portrayed to the audience about their oppression, yet if oppression is
present in all social classes, the audience is able to use imagination to
understand the life of those who belong to lower classes than a handmaid’s.

Equality is no longer present with the new
government of Gilead, and Offred is forced to adapt to a world where she is
told what and who she is. “My name
isn’t Offred; I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s
forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone
number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong,
it does matter.” (Atwood, 14).  In
this quote the narrator reminds herself what her true name that Offred is not
her real name, yet she reminds herself that a name is irrelevant, as it not
part of your identity.

 Overall,
the main reason as to why the Handmaids are presented a particular way in The Handmaids
Tale is due to their purpose, which is to provide children. The story takes
place in a time where childbirth rate has diminished; therefore one of the
primary purposes of the government is to ensure human survival. However, the
government chooses an inhumane way to solve the problem. Although oppression is
viewed in every social group, it is more present for women than form men. In
the Republic of Gilead, a woman’s role is to serve and take orders by laws that
have been created by men.  The novel
gives the audience an insight of a world where the roles and identities of
women are created for them, and through Offred’s thoughts and experiences one
is able to understand severe oppression of a government.

Atwood’s novel leads the audience to question
today’s society. Although oppression is not present as severely as in The
Handmaids Tale, it is a reality. Although we live in a society where equality
is a right that is fought for, control is still present in many ways.  Society believes in its government and laws,
however it is important that we are aware as to how much control we are willing
to accept.  Through the use of literature,
Antwood makes the audience aware of the consequences that can occur when a
solution to a problem is dealt with in an extreme way, such as in the Republic
of Gilead.