In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, society’s set up as a religious hierarchy ranging from the rich, powerful aristocracy to the struggling slaves of the working class. In the book, the Commander and his wife are on top of everyone else. They are essentially gods. The Guardians, Angels, Marthas, and Handmaids “worship” them. They are meant and expected to faithfully fulfill the dutiful roles that are assigned by the Commander. The protagonist/narrator is a Handmaid named Offred.
The story has a lot of imagery, especially with the colors designated to a particular group of persons. The Commander’s dressed in black. Blue for the Commander’s wife, green represents the Marthas, and red for the Handmaids.
Perhaps the color red represents Offred’s lust for love. In the text, “What if I were to come at night, when he’s on duty alone – though he would never be allowed such solitude – and permit him beyond my white wings? What if I were to peel off my red shroud and show myself to him, to them, by the uncertain light of the lanterns? This is what they must think about sometimes, as they stand endlessly beside this barrier…” (21). “They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of this is the fault of these men, they’re too young.” (22). “Then I find I’m not ashamed at all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously.” (22). Offred wants to break free from conservatism that’s imposed on her.
Perhaps that’s why she’s given the name of Offred. She claims that, “I never looked good in red, it’s not my color.” (8). Similar to other Handmaids, Offred is “offered” to the Commander. Her services are “offered” to “the Lord”. However, unlike her fellow workers, Offred is “off red”. She seeks to be different from the rest. Offred secretly wants to enjoy the denied virtues of being a full fledged, independent woman.
Society, both in real life and in the novel, pays a lot of attention to etiquette and decorum. People are restricted to norms. For prosperous societies and regimes to remain intact, certain rules/laws are strictly enforced and conditions are to be met. Failure to conform is considered a crime, treason, or blasphemy and results in punishment. As seen in the story, “I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.” (24). The people that obey such rules are rendered automatic. Hopefully Offred can eventually attain her salvation by finding a loophole to exploit, which could shine the light on a path to reclaim her humanity.