Critical Essays Use of Literary Devices in The Handmaid's Tale


Like a portion of modern fiction writers — Ray Bradbury, Fred Chappell, and Toni Morrison — Margaret Atwood is, by nature, training, and profession, a poet. Her facile expression of thought processes and manipulation of language to probe the psychological perversions in Gilead produce fascinating, multi-level rhetorical maneuvers, often juxtaposing weakness with power or cruelty with vulnerability. For instance:


We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we would complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs.

His skin is pale and looks unwholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab.


I read about that in Introduction to Psychology; that, and the chapter on caged rats who'd give themselves electric shocks for something to do.

The camera moves to the sky, where hundreds of balloons rise, trailing their strings: red balloons, with a circle painted on them, a circle with a stem like the stem of an apple, the stem of a cross.


There's a wad of cotton attached to the back, I can see it as she half turns; it looks like a sanitary pad that's been popped like a piece of popcorn. I realize that it's supposed to be a tail.

Is anything wrong dear? the old joke went.

No, why?

You moved.


In the curved hallway mirror, I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke.

As for us, any real illness, anything lingering, weakening, a loss of flesh or appetite, a fall of hair, a failure of the glands, would be terminal.

Historical and Cultural Lore

Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

Behind this sign there are other signs, and the camera notices them briefly: FREEDOM TO CHOOSE. EVERY BABY A WANTED BABY. RECAPTURE OUR BODIES. DO YOU BELIEVE A WOMAN'S PLACE IS ON THE KITCHEN TABLE?

Literary Allusion

I would not be able to stand it, I know that; Moira was right about me. I'll say anything they like, I'll incriminate anyone. It's true, the first scream, whimper even, and I'll turn to jelly, I'll confess to any crime, I'll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. [recall Winston's capitulation to Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984.]

But the frown isn't personal: it's the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for. [Parallel the shunning of Hester Prynne, wearer of the red A in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.]


Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

They also serve who only stand and wait.


My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.

"Blessed be the fruit," she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.

Parallel Construction

I want to go to bed, make love, right now. I think the word relish. I could eat a horse.

Fake it. . . . Bestir yourself. Move your flesh around, breathe audibly.


"I didn't know Ofglen very well," I say. "I mean the former one."

"Oh?" she says . . .

"I've known her since May," I say. "Around the first of May I think it was. What they used to call May Day."

"Did they?' she says, light, indifferent, menacing.

"I could help you," he says. Whispers.

"What?" I say.

"Shh," he says. "I could help you. I've helped others."

"Help me?" I say, my voice as low as his. "How?.

"How do you think?" he says . . .


She held her own hands out to us, the ancient gesture that was both an offering and an invitation, to come forward, into an embrace, an acceptance. In your hands, she said, looking down at her own hands as if they had given her the idea. But there was nothing in them. They were empty.

"Mayday," she says. "I tried it on you once."

"Mayday," I repeat. I remember the day. M'aidez.

"Don't use it unless you have to," says Ofglen.

Biblical Allusion

Give me children, or else I die. There's more than one meaning to it.

"Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule," says a reassuring pink face, back on screen. "Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit."

Historical Allusion

Possibly, we reasoned, this house may have been a "safe house" on the Underground Femaleroad during our period, and our author may have been kept hidden in, for instance, the attic or cellar there for some weeks or months, during which she would have had the opportunity to make the recordings.

The need for what I may call birth services was already recognize in the pre-Gilead period, where it was being inadequately met by "artificial insemination," "fertility clinics," and the use of "surrogate mothers," who were hired for the purpose.

Sense Impression

Down there in the lawn, someone emerges from the spill of darkness under the willow, steps across the light, his long shadow attached sharply to his heels.

Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut into pieces, her fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open and her intestines pulled out.


I am, I am, I am, still.

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn?


Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels.

"Think of it as being in the army," said Aunt Lydia.


Even though some of them are no more than fourteen — Start them soon is the policy, there's not a moment to be lost — still they'll remember.

Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it's part of the procreational strategy. It's Nature's plan. . . . Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women.