The Handmaid’s Tales and Its Various Archetypes
Every piece of literature has already been written; the reason for this is the phenomenon of archetypes. Archetypes are symbols, images, characters, ideas, and themes that are occurring all throughout literature. Carl Joung believed that these archetypes are due to the human unconsciousness. He stated that humans all share a collective unconscious, this is where all history human experiences are stored, therefore all humans will pull the same ideas, the same stories from this collective source of memories. This is the reasoning for archetypes. Since humans all share an unconsciousness, any piece of work written will contain similar patterns and meanings. This collective unconsciousness also allows readers to recognize these patterns which will add new meaning and understanding to a piece of literature. No matter how original a piece will sound, the piece will always have a similar companion. This is the case with The Handmaid’s Tale. Although seemingly an original concept, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the archetypal journey of a denied hero attempting to regain his or her freedom, in addition to this, various symbols such as certain colors, flowers, gardens, and the bible bring depth and understanding into the work.
A clear, distinct archetype seen in The Handmaid’s Tale is the main character, Offred, as the denied hero. The denied hero is a protagonist whose status and otherness creates a sense of heroism; it can be compared to the story of the “underdog,” a hero that has been doubted and brought down by others but in the end, the underdog will achieve a victory. Offred, due to the creation of Gilead, is placed in a precarious position in society. She is made into a Handmaid, a low ranking position in Gilead. She is faced with the task of reproducing for higher ranking officials or else she will be outcasted and branded as an “unwoman” or killed. Offred becomes this denied hero stereotype when she begins to release her once suppressed rebellious thoughts. Due to this, Offred begins to regain small doses of her independence and gaining knowledge of the truth behind Gilead.
Every hero in every story will partake in an adventure. The denied hero archetype of The Handmaid’s Tale is coupled with the pattern of “the quest for freedom.” This is a quest the hero will partake in, in order to gain back his or her independence.
The journey always begins with departure, it is when the hero is called to an adventure whether the hero wants to or not. Offred, whose name was originally June before Gilead’s time, was taken away from her husband, Luke, and her child when she tried to escape the country, the developing Gilead. She was reluctant but was forced to be in this new developing society, forced to be on this adventure.
Then, the hero enters through a threshold into a new, dangerous world; this is called the initiation. After the attempted escape and capture, Offred is taken to the Red Center, a learning area to condition the few selected to be Handmaid’s (women used for the sole purpose of reproduction). She is then entered into the completed Gilead society and performs her duties without say.
The hero then faces various obstacles, enduring tests of strength, resourcefulness, and endurance. Offred encounters the central conflict of whether she should conform to the society she was unwillingly placed in or if she should find a way to escape once again. There were multiple occasions where she was tempted with freedom from isolation, freedom from her duties, and freedom from constrained intimacy. This was seen during various moments such as the time when the doctor hinted if Offred wanted an easy way to pregnancy since most commanders were “sterile. [But] there was no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law. [And she wanted] a baby.” (Arwood 61) and even Nick seemed to offer freedom from lack of intimacy when Nick “[looked at Offred], and sees [her] looking [at him]. He [began] to whistle. Then he [winked]” (Atwood 18). The continuously struggles between being herself, June, and being Offred.
The hero then enters the innermost cave, an underworld, that a great trial will occur. This trial will cause a change in the hero whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In the case of Offred, after conquering many obstacles, she is taken to the innermost cave of Gilead, Jezebel. Jezebel was the underworld of this “holy” city, it was full of commanders and other high ranking officials having sex with typically outlawed women like lesbians and the educated. This is where Offred is reunited with her long, lost best friend, Moira. Moira has been a role model for Offred since she was rebellious, independent, and fought for what she believed in. Offred wanted to still believe this even after they were seperated due to Gilead’s upcoming. Yet, after meeting with her motivator in Jezebel, she realized that Moira is changed. She no longer has the fighting spirit that Offred remembers. Instead of taking this revelation negatively, Offred feels as if she’s more liberated and begins to stray from the confining rules of Gilead.
Finally, after the trial faced at the innermost cave, the hero will return and reintegrate into society. The hero will then use this change in him or her to restore his or her independence. Before the incident at Jezebel, Offred acknowledged that her “name [wasn’t] Offred, [she had] another name, which nobody [used] now because [it was] forbidden.” (Atwood 84) but after she began to disregard this rule when she “[told Nick her] real name, and [felt] that therefore [she was] known. [She acted] like a dunce” (Atwood 270). This little incident marked a great change in Offred; it lead to Offred finally letting herself feel intimacy once more after being tempted by Nick by sneaking out of the house to see him and it lead to Offred being courageous enough to mention the rebellion group “Mayday” to the new replacement for her handmaid friend, Offglen. Instead of being conflicted with the rules of Gilead, she began to take risks and think more freely in her own thoughts. This will eventually lead to the end of the journey, when the archetypal hero finally regains his or her freedom. Nick aided Offred in escaping the commander’s household and finally gaining her independence. After all of the conflicts, problems, issues, events, trauma, Offred was finally be able to decide things on her own and not be confined by the rules of Gillead. The denied hero, who has been placed so low in society, will finally gain a vitory on the “quest for freedom.”
Color plays a crucial part in the telling of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the dystopian society described in the book, everything and everyone is color coordinated. The people of Gilead are broken up into different classes and each class has a set color.
Those with high ranking positions are associated with the color black, this refers to the commanders and anything the commanders owns like Offred’s commander owning “a very expensive [car], a Whirlwind, it’s black, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek” (Atwood 17). In addition, government property is also described to be black like the vans that are used to transport any “criminals” are described as “a black-painted van, with the winged eye in white on the side. The windows [were] dark-tinted, and the men in the front seats [wore] dark glasses: a double obscurity” (Atwood 21-22). Commanders are also described as wearing a “black uniform” (Atwood 86). Such a dark color is used to create a mysterious, sinister, and controlling aura, showing the reader how unknown the lives and actions of the authoritative Gilead figures truly are. The color black is used as the color of villains, making it clear to the readers who the antagonists of The Handmaid’s Tales are.
Below any of the authoritative figures of Gilead, are the Wives. The Wives are described as typically wearing “a light blue veil thrown over [their heads]” (Atwood 12) and “dresses, sky blue with embroidery in white along the edges” (Atwood 81). This blue is used to symbolize conservatism, cleanliness, and a “spiritual purity,” referencing back to the image of the Virgin Mary dressed in her light blue garments. This ultimately illustrates how the Wives are seen as almost blessed and high up in Gilead’s society. The wives are no longer having children but have someone, the Handmaids, perform the task instead, but will ultimately receive the child in the end almost like how the Virgin Mary was given a blessed child by God but kept her holiness.
The aunts are below the wives in Gilead’s social hierarchy. The aunts are tasked with regulating any of the activities of the Handmaids. They are tasked with molding the minds of the of handmaids to fit Gilead’s standards and keeping these women on task with their one true duty: reproduce. The aunts are described as wearing “khaki [dresses]” (Atwood 113) and a predominantly “brown outfit” (Atwood 244). The color brown is used to represent conventional and orderly the aunts are and how they can easily blend into the background but still have a prominent figure in society. The aunts are reliable, stable, and solid. They are the only women in this society that is given power therefore they must use it wisely.
Next in line within Gilead’s hierarchy are the Handmaids. These are the only fertile women that are tasked with only one thing: to reproduce. They are sent from Commander’s house to Commander’s house in order to try and become impregnated since the wives are no longer fertile. The Handmaids wear “red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine [and] red gloves [and] everything except the wings [a headpiece] around [their faces was] red” (Atwood 8). The color red shows passion and lust. It is also the color of prostitution. Gilead’s society does not necessarily state that they are prostitutes but the idea resonates clearly. The Handmaids go from man to man, being provided shelter and food as a sort of payment. In addition, the red is also associated with their one duty of reproducing. The color is not only found on the Handmaids but Offred seems to be attracted to red objects such as “the tulips [in the garden were] red, a darker crimson towards the stem” (Atwood 12). This shows how fixated the handmaids have become with the idea of reproducing; they are thoroughly brainwashed into believing this is their one true task in life, an almost impossible task to accomplish.
Even below the Handmaids are the Marthas. The Marthas are practically the servants of Gilead, these women are tasked with performing household chores in a Commander’s household such as cooking, cleaning, etc. They wear the “usual Martha dress, which [was] dull green, like a surgeon’s gown. The dress was much like [the handmaids] in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil” (Atwood 9). The use of green is to symbolize health, good luck, renewal, generosity, and service. It is also seen as the color of fertility yet the Marthas are infertile, instead they help in making sure the Handmaids are fertile and healthy enough to produce a child.
The lowest of the Gilead hierarchy are the unwomen and those who stand against the Gilead government. These outcasts are sent away from the dystopia but instead sent to the colonies, where they will eventually die. All of the exiles, “[women and men wore] long dresses, like the ones at the Center, only gray” (Atwood 249). This grey represents nonexistence and shadows. The color suits them since the outcasts simply no longer exist in Gilead society; they are nonexistent, nonfunctional and do not partake in any duties the government has established. They are meant to be the shadows of those chosen or “blessed” to be part of Gilead’s society.
These colors play a prominent role since it creates clear divisions between people in Gilead’s society. By having one “class” all wear the same color, it diminishes the possibility of identity, the possibility of one person standing out from the crowd. The people of Gilead “don’t have different clothing [but] merely different [people]” (Atwood 237). The conformity allows for obedience and for all to remain on the duties Gilead’s government has tasked them with.
Other prominent archetypes are gardens and flowers. In Gilead, “many of the Wives [had] such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for” (Atwood 12). These gardens would fill every household with bursts of color, lightness, and delicate smells. It creates a sense of paradise, almost like the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden was created by God in order to let Adam and Eve live in peace and to be able to reproduce. This archetype creates depth within the book, showing how Gilead allowed for the garden just how God allowed for the Garden of Eden. By creating a garden, there is a sense of tranquility, a worthy environment for humans to reproduce just like Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the garden is full of flowers, a symbol of fertility. Offred notices them so often, regarding them as the goal for many Handmaids by referring to them as “the swelling genitalia of the flowers, the fruiting body” (Atwood 153). Even beyond the flowers of the garden, there seems to be flowers everywhere for Offred from “the drapes [of Jezebel] are heavy flowered ones that [matching] the bedspread, orange poppies on royal blue” (Atwood 251) to the “watercolor picture of blue irises” (Atwood 7) in Offred’s room. Flowers serve as a reminder for Offred’s one duty of reproducing.
Besides colors or flowers, another pattern show throughout the book are the eyes. The emblem of Gilead is “[a] winged eye in white” (Atwood 22) which is seen plastered on various objects that are only owned for higher authoritative figures such as vehicles, uniforms, or government buildings. In addition, eyes can also refer to the numerous amount of spies the government employs. The eyes are the ones to arrest traitors and to “[crack down on any] underground espionage ring” (Atwood 83). The constant reference to eyes can be linked back to the archetypal symbol of truth and an all-powerful being. The government of Gilead plasters these images of eyes and names their spies as “eyes,” to create fear and be constant reminder of how powerful the government of Gilead is versus the people Gilead rules. It serves as a constant reminder that all under the eye are powerless and are constantly watched.
There are set patterns seen throughout multiple works of literature which help to enhance the progression and meaning of a story. Many works have followed the same, if not extremely similar, archetypes that The Handmaid’s Tale represents such as the use of a denied hero, the “quest for freedom,” certain colors, gardens, flowers, and eyes. Following Carl Joung’s belief, there will be no such thing as a “new” story since all human experiences are shared in a collective unconsciousness.
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