MargaretAtwood’s utilization of symbols in the work, “The Handmaid’s Tale” aid the pronunciation of ideas and instilldepth into the text. Atwood skillfully incorporates symbols that represent formerfreedoms that have been deprived by the authority of Gilead’s theocraticgovernment. These symbols include: mirrors, eggs, and the names of characters.
Mirrorsthat were once tools for distinguishing one’s identity been removed, thus creatingan aroma of loss of individuality. Eggs that embody the previous beauty offertility are transformed to deprive women of spiritual aspect and craft them intochildbearing appliances. Names that were formerly permanent and definite becomeinterchangeable. In Margaret Atwood’s book, TheHandmaid’s Tale the symbols convey a loss of identity formed by theauthority of Gilead’s totalitarian branch. Mirrors are reflective surfaces thatare designed to reflect a clear replica of light. Mirrors are most commonlyused for practical purposes of one viewing themselves as a whole. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates atotalitarian government that decides to remove majority of the mirrors. The absenceof mirrors create a distorted reality for the protagonist, Offred, whoconsistently indicates that she cannot properly view herself.
Offred states, “There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turnmy head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, Ican see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eyeof a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something,some fairytale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment ofcarelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.” (Atwood,9). When Offred looks at herself in the mirror she feels a significant sense ofalienation.
She recognizes that her reflection in the mirror represents thevast majority of the other handmaids that are, too, just “sisters” under the Gileadeanregime. Offred’s sense of alienation, and her incapability of differentiating herselffrom the rest of the handmaids prove that the shortage of mirrors in the work buildthe concept of loss of identity. Further in the book, Offred confirms herincapability of distinguishing herself as she states, “‘Under His Eye,’ Ireply, and she gives a little nod.
She hesitates, as if to say something more,but then she turns away and walks down the street. I watch her. She’s like myown reflection, in a mirror from which I am moving away.” (Atwood, 45).
DuringOffred and Ofglen’s departure Offred acknowledges that Ofglen is the reflectionof herself. The lack of mirrors subliminally force the handmaids into the conformitythat they are no different from each other. Therefore, they look to each otherto be able to view themselves. This work of inseparable uniformity created byGilead proves that the lack of mirrors embody a loss of individuality. TheodoraHermes’s work, Reflections inContemporary Feminist Literature deconstructs the significance of mirrorsin The Handmaid’s Tale. Hermes citesJacques Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage” as she states, “Mirrors and reflections have longbeen associated with the fundamental concepts of selfhood and identity.
TheFrench psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was the first to draw our attention to therealization of self-consciousness that occurs upon a very early encounter withone’s reflection. In the mirror stage, an infant of about eighteen monthsrecognizes his or her own reflection, and the external image of the bodyproduces a psychological response of the formation of the illusionary “self” orEgo. The mirror stage constructs part of the permanent structure of one’ssubjectivity and allows the self to establish a relation to its world.” (Hermes, 1). Hermes’s summarization of JacqueLacan’s concept shows that identity is created during the early stages of one’slife.
The concept shows that it is humannature for people to look to mirrors to create their identity. Therefore, Lacan’sobservation proves that the absence of mirrors in The Handmaid’s Tale do result in a loss of identity. Consequently,with evidence of Offred’s inability to differentiate from the handmaids andLacan’s theory, it is concise that the absence of mirrors create the concept ofloss of identity in the work. Eggs in The Handmaid’s Tale are part of the strict breakfast the handmaidsare provided every morning. Handmaids are given eggs because they provide anexcellent source of protein and nutrients necessary for pregnancy. Atwoodcleverly reveals the correlation between the egg and the handmaids when Offredstates, “Infront of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitaminpill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dishcontaining honey, and another plate with an eggcup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in askirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm.” (Atwood, 136).
Offreddescribes the eggcup as a reflection of the handmaid’s responsibility asvessels to hold fertile eggs. Thisrealization portrays the power Gilead holds as Gilead is capable of influencingthe handmaid’s self-perception as carriers. Hence,proving that the eggs embody the loss of identity as Offred views herself as anegg. Similarly, Offred identifies herself as an egg when she states, “We arecontainers, it’s only the inside of our bodies that are important.” (Atwood,119). Atwood implements this indirect metaphor to emphasize the connection betweenthe handmaids and the egg. Egg shells are containers like the handmaids as theyhold the yolk like the handmaids hold the fertile eggs. Offred’s admission ofherself representing a canister like an egg conveys the evident loss ofidentity in the book.
Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino’s blog, What Eggs Mean in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ affirms the loss ofidentity in the novel as she explains how Offred is reduced to a physicalobject. Iuvino states, “Through her role as a Handmaid, and her strictlycontrolled egg-centric diet, Offred is reduced to her physical self, andeverything else about her stops mattering—her only value as a human is throughher physical capabilities … Offred is nothing more or less than her uterus.”(Iuvino). Iuvino summarizes how the handmaids are stripped of their spiritual componentas the handmaids are only seen as reproductive machines.
Iuvino’s statement proves that the eggs embodythe loss of identity in the book as the handmaids are solely seen as fertile eggs.Therefore, the handmaid’s submission of the self-perception of eggs given tothem by Gilead, and Iuvino’s observation, it is evident that the eggs embodythe loss of individuality in the book. Names are supposed to be givenduring birth and be definite until it does the person apart. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale the handmaids arestripped of their birth names and replaced with new names that echo the name ofthe commander they serve. For example, Offred’s name consists of the possessivepreposition “Of” with the commander’s name “Fred” following it.
Offred revealsthe deprival of her name when she states, “My name isn’t Offred, I have anothername which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden.” (Atwood, 104). Margaret Atwood’s application ofsymbols in The Handmaid’s Tale disclosethe concept of loss of identity constructed by Gilead. The scarcity of mirrorsengender a loss of identity as the handmaids are deprived of the tool todifferentiate themselves. The correlation of the egg and the handmaids reducethe handmaids to a physical entity, thus portraying the deprival of their identity.Thereplaceable names and titles of the characters reveal the simplicity ofaltering one’s identity.
Atwood cleverly integrates the symbols to embody the persistenttheme of loss of identity in the text.