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Allusions in the Handmaid's Tale

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Commencing Margret Atwood’s revealing work of dystopian literature in ‘The Handmaid's Tale’, Passage 1 acts as an introduction to Gilead’s oppressive state, as well as offering an inside look into Offred’s contemplations on rebellion; a sentiment that carries across the rest of the following passages. Sleeping in “what used to be a gymnasium”, a sense of longing and clinging to the past fills Offred (“we yearned for the past”), as Atwood showcases the importance of gender roles and hierarchy in a totalitarian state like Gilead; through brief mentioning that even Aunt’s “can’t be trusted with guns” to patrol. Present in the Passage are images of the past, with teams playing basketball on the court that is now used to control the Handmaids and visuals of “old sex”. Atwood emphasises the notion of a gender hierarchy with sights of sexuality coinciding with images of a harsh government force. Harking further into the brutish attempts at administering Gilead’s totalitarian regimes, the juxtaposition of innocence and brutality in the “sleeping inmates lying under fuzzy flannelette and military blankets” is clear; with Atwood blending images suggesting a fusion of militarism and gentleness. Challenging the idea of the Angels - “They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well”, Offred’s sexual mindset comes into effect, as she ponders the concept of using her body to regain power; an idea that is translated throughout the duration of Atwood’s novel. Passage One openly showcases the damaging influence of Gilead's totalitarian regime and its implications on Atwood’s central voice. Atwood’s use of barbaric visuals and the nostalgic gymnasium, as well as militaristic images of “army-issue blankets” juxtaposed with explicit sexual allusions, illustrates the idea of holding onto memories and Offred’s eventual rebellion to Gilead’s systematic oppression.

Offred’s conflictions between rebellion and her desire for sexual liberty are uncovered in Passage 2 -- centralizing the Commander’s morbid thoughts on the concept of love in correlation to Gilead’s religion-based regime. Musing generally about falling in love, Offred’s connection with Luke remains clear through her conversation with The Commander, but Atwood’s utilisation of biblical allusions from the First Epistle of John in “god is love” and “love, like heaven, was always around the corner” to institute her attempts at rebelling against the religious archetype that’s praised by Gilead’s theocracy. Moreover, Atwood’s dictation of Russian refugees fleeing countries after the Civil War in “white Russian drinking tea in Paris” acts as a foreshadowing to Offred’s eventual revolt and escape from Gilead, as the refugees were opposed by a similar political theocracy. In addition, the concept of memory and Offred’s desperate cling to nostalgia, which she uses as a rebellious device, is strengthened as she remembers a time void of strict government forces while focusing on the romance of another man; giving her a “good deal of comfort” (“You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past”). We see in Passage Two Atwood’s visceral juxtaposition of religious allusions continued, with notions of reminiscence and romance to visualise Offred’s quiet attempts at rebellion against the Commander and Gilead’s state. Atwood’s voice ushers contemplations of the past in an urgent manner (“Stopped in time, in midair, among the trees back there, in the act of falling”), as well as employing rhyme schemes and repetition in “still loving, still falling”, to further institute the foreshadowing of the novel’s biblical and sexual motifs that denounce Gilead’s oppression and preach individual freedoms.

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Atwood’s third passages illustrate Offred’s desperate attempts at reminiscing a time before Gilead’s rise as a totalitarian state, but similarly, in Passage 3, she invokes a sense to validate and support the authority of Gilead in ways that subvert the conventions of individual freedoms. Acting merely as “guesswork”, Passage 3; appearing as a 'partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies', links further connections between biblical allusions and the concept of helplessness for the Handmaid’s themselves. Professor Pieixoto’s shift to an authoritarian tone and Atwood’s blend of metaphors and symbolism in “‘the human heart” to represent humanity and “Gilead society was Byzantine in the extreme”, acts as an ironic mocking of Gilead’s state while also promoting the act of freedom as Offred seemingly “retaliates” to escape her oppressive environment. The prominence of allusions to Greek Mythology in “We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer...” alongside Atwood’s inflexions of the motif of remembering “crumbs” memory showcases how all of Offred’s suffering and love in Gilead fade into the jumble of unanswered questions (“Was she smuggled over the border of Gilead, into what was then Canada, and did she make her way thence to England?”). As Passage 3 closes, Atwood shifts audience perception by way of a tonal change into a reflective yet ironic style of literature. ‘Historical Notes’ brings light to the unanswered questions Atwood presents throughout ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, while also authenticating the style as an outlet for her repressed emotions (“She could have told us much about the workings of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy”). Atwood’s atypical writing style highlights her values of individual freedom amongst Gilead’s domineering society (“perhaps she was among those escaped Handmaids who had difficulty adjusting to life in the outside world”) to close Offred’s rebellious journey.

Throughout each passage, Atwood depicts the tribulations of living through an oppressive government state and Offred’s desperate acts to recollect the past, and maintain her sexual freedom. While the first passage sees her contemplating rebellious acts in face of Gilead, the eventual last passage authenticates the oppression she’s experienced by way of a tonal shift against Atwood’s typical literary style. She acknowledges the concept of sexual desire and personal freedoms as for present in the first few passages but closes out the rich novel of ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ a changed woman -- no longer conforming to Gilead’s restrictive environment yet going against it in a bid to protect her individual wellbeing.

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Allusions in the Handmaid’s Tale. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
“Allusions in the Handmaid’s Tale.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022,
Allusions in the Handmaid’s Tale. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Allusions in the Handmaid’s Tale [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from:
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