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Societally, we are approaching a crossroads in terms of the rights of women — one side leads back to a draconian patriarchal society, and the other leads towards a freer world. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood provides a glimpse of what the future may look like were we to choose the former. Atwood’s use of different colors and species of flowers provides insight into Offred’s ever-changing relationship with Gilead and its way of life. Through this, she gives commentary on the danger of limiting the roles and autonomy of women.

Most of the flowers Offred speaks of are kept within Serena Joy’s garden or household — after all, “this garden is the domain of the Commander’s Wife…many of the wives have such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for” (Atwood 16). Throughout the novel, this garden is a microcosm for Gilead, and Offred’s perception of the garden and its contents reflect her experiences with Gilead. This garden is constantly manicured by Serena Joy, unseen by the flowers, as is Gilead by its mysterious government. Furthermore, Serena Joy maintains a position of complete observation of her garden, able to see and remove weeds as they begin to form, effectively exerting absolute power over its inhabitants.

The flowers most treasured by Serena Joy, and also the most commonly appearing flowers in the novel, are red tulips. On a surface level, these can be seen to represent Offred and other Handmaids; they are red, of course, and constant references are made to their fertility, like when Serena Joy begins “snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears” (Atwood 195). Serena Joy’s clipping of only the seed pods illustrates that it may not be Offred as a person whom she despises so much, but what Offred represents. Sociologists have found that “Men find it difficult to draw close to a woman, to be intimate with her, without having sexual attraction as a prominent part of that encounter”(Conrad 315). This problem has been solved by Gilead’s system of splitting women into having two purposes, following the “Madonna-Whore Complex” (Conrad 305): essentially, in the eyes of some men, a woman is either pure or she is a whore. This is why some men can do horrific things to prostitutes, while still having a wife and kids at home. By making Offred essentially the Commander’s whore, and with Cora and Rita performing all the homemaking, Serena Joy’s only purpose becomes to promote an image, one of purity and chastity. However, this has made her position in the relationship as unfulfilling as that of all the other women in the household. Serena Joy’s clipping of the seed pods not only displays her hatred for the concept of a Handmaid, but also presents her underlying dissatisfaction with her new role, and therefore identity. As a theoretically pure woman, she is prioritized for this job, and will probably keep it until she dies.

Handmaids, however, have a bleaker future. Alongside stating the temporal fast-forward to May, Offred mentions that “the tulips have had their moment and are done, shedding their petals one by one, like teeth” (Atwood 195); the “moment” Offred is speaking of is when Handmaid ages and becomes infertile. This passage coming relatively soon after Offred’s confrontation with her doctor makes this probable. The loss of the petals like teeth supports this, as teeth are only lost in youth and old age. When a flower loses its petals it loses its beauty, and its purpose within a garden is lost — such is the life of a Handmaid when they leave their “moment” and become infertile. Like the flower, the Handmaid becomes far less useful in the eye of society, so she moves on to the job of a Martha; the flower is trimmed, leaving but the green leaves.

The concept of change represented by these flowers occurs often, with Offred comparing the red of tulips to the “red smile” of a dead man hung on the wall of the town, though she insists that “the red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other.” (Atwood 44). The link in color between the tulips and the dead man strengthens the already existing chromatic symbolism with the color red, linking it from a symbol of Handmaids and fertility to that of Gilead’s oppressive regime, bringing it to represent the new order of things in Gilead as a whole, with each of its occurrences representing a different facet of how the regime has changed life for its citizens. When it appears in a flower, the color red serves to represent the change in Offred’s life in particular, from both the perspective of her purpose within a household and the perspective of her daily life in general. Furthermore, her denial that the tulips are not “tulips of blood” (Atwood 44) serves as a rejection of her role within Gilead; red in this instance represents, to Offred, menstrual blood, a physical manifestation of fertility. Offred’s denial that the flowers are not flowers of blood is Offred trying to retain her sense of identity, instead of succumbing to the one supplied to her by Gilead. Even her speculation of what has happened to Luke is permeated by tulips and blood, though this time the blood is not representative of her fertility. She imagines Luke with “a scar, no, a wound, it isn’t yet healed, the color of tulips, near the stem end…” (Atwood 133). This references a line from earlier in the novel, which speaks of a group of tulips being “red, a darker crimson towards the stem as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there” (Atwood 16). The relation of tulips to Luke’s wound hints at an acceptance in Offred’s mind that her life has changed; changed permanently, in fact, as she first describes the wound as a scar, permanently marking her love. In deciding that there instead is a fresh wound on Luke’s face, Offred acknowledges how recently the sudden change in her life occurred, though she consciously has to remind herself of its recency. The fact that she is so quickly losing track of time suggests that she is beginning to lose her previous identity to that of Gilead.

Offred’s previous identity, and its slow replacement by the title “Handmaid”, is represented through yellow flowers. They appear in states of being overpowered, whether they are dead or close to it, pushed to “the flower borders” (Atwood 16) within the garden, just as her new identity as a Handmaid is pushing out her previous identity. The flowers are, of course, dead, as is Offred’s old life, replaced by Gilead, with red tulips. The “daffodils are now fading” (Atwood 16), “withered” (Atwood 126), or “crisp at the edges” (Atwood 126), barely kept alive by constant attention, but doomed to die soon. Some yellow flowers still pop up as weeds, like “cat’s ears in the sun” (Atwood 196), within the perfectly manicured gardens, just as Offred’s memories of her past repeatedly pop up within her mind; however, these are systematically rooted out. Interestingly, near the end of the novel where the flashbacks become less frequent, Offred begs for dandelions, longing “for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun”(Atwood 275). Though her memories are bittersweet, Offred must hold onto them, as they are all she has left of her past life. She seems to be taking responsibility for her loss of these flashbacks, though, as her mentioning the difficulty of getting rid of them implies she has tried. Of course, this is the result of Gilead’s oppressive regime, but in its scheme of retaining its stability through a circle of blame, it has warped Offred’s perception of her actions. She thinks it is her fault and her fault alone.

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Blue flowers appear only in moments of solace from the regime’s control. Again, on the surface they quite clearly represent the wives, mainly due to their color; they also only occur in places where a Wife may have put them, like in “a picture, framed but with no glass”(Atwood 10) or on a wallpaper. They are only seen, however, when Offred is either alone or at peace; the picture of flowers was described when Offred was alone in her room, the wallpaper decorating the walls of her bathroom, which Offred later describes as “a requirement, but also a luxury”(Atwood 81). The particular flowers on the wallpaper are forget-me-nots, which, coming directly after her appointment with her doctor and his delivering his proposition, issues a reminder of exactly why Offred is valued. Both of these cases, though, are not real flowers, but images of them. This is because they are not true moments of escape from Gilead’s oppression; Offred’s bath time is, again, a “requirement” (Atwood 81), and the picture is hung inside her room, which is ultimately owned by the Commander. This, on a larger scale, is similar to the process that Gilead has taken to instill a false sense of peace in its inhabitants: post guards on all the street corners, but not really to protect.

Blue, and in particular blue flowers, can be more abstractly viewed to represent Offred’s purity and innocence, however fleeting it may be. Blue being the color of the Virgin Mary goes directly against Offred’s societal purpose, hence its existence in only places of solitude. While Offred is not a virgin (and neither was Mary, see the classical Hebrew version of Isaiah 7:14), putting her in parallel with Mary presents Offred as both someone correct in her frustration with the systems of Gilead and as a pure individual, corrupted by these systems. This does not make the blue flowers a symbol of Offred’s oppression — quite the opposite they represent innocence. Comparison against this innocence allows for them to convey corruption, to stand as a critique against Gilead’s way of life. Offred only sees living blue flowers once, a patch of “irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue…”(Atwood 196). These irises, which Offred sees only in small glimpses when passing by the garden, are portrayed as fragile and impermanent, as are the small moments in which she is not fully constrained by the rules of her society. These moments are of course fragile; the painting of flowers is “framed, but with no glass” (Atwood 10) protecting it, the flowers in her bathroom are a thin wallpaper, and the irises are “momentarily frozen”. Nevertheless, these moments exist, and they exist permitted within Gilead, just as the irises exist in the garden, permitted by (and even planted by) Serena Joy.

As are the irises, a few pink flowers exist within Serena Joy’s garden, though Offred doesn’t understand why. True to her feminist form, pink does not represent femininity; instead, Atwood uses pink to represent the hedonistic desires repressed by life within Gilead. When Offred enters the Commander’s office, she finds the rug to be adorned with “peach-pink peonies”, foreshadowing her later dates with the Commander. These flowers being images of flowers, as opposed to real, physical ones, emphasize that they are not real to Offred; they are the Commander’s flowers, solidifying the one-sidedness of their relationship. This same occurs right before the commander takes Offred into Jezebels, the lobby being decorated with “art nouveau flowers” (Atwood 307), foreshadowing the night’s end in (very) one-sided sex; once again, fake flowers represent non-mutual feelings of desire. Offred’s flowers exist for Nick though, as she has said before that she would like to smell his “tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke” (Atwood 24). These flowers are nested within Serena Joy’s garden, “bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out” (Atwood 196); these bleeding hearts have not been rooted out due to Serena Joy’s yet-unrevealed plan to have Nick and Offred have sex, such that Offred may become pregnant. This brings up an important distinction to make, though; Serena Joy does not hate femininity, she hates fertility (though in Gilead these are indistinguishable); this is why she still keeps these bleeding hearts, yet clips the seed pods off of all her flowers. The carnations in the garden, which make her “head swim” (196) also add to the garden’s symbolism, having a legitimate physical effect on her. Also, according to legend, pink carnations were created from the Virgin Mary’s tears — Offred’s love for Nick may be true here, as the purity symbolism brought about by the blue flowers’ relation to the Virgin Mary, mixed with the pink flowers’ representation of repressed desire, hints that this desire is true in some way, Offred’s only true sexual desire displayed in the novel.

Despite this, Offred is essentially in solitary confinement; she is surrounded by people, but she is unable to truly interact with them. This would, and already has to a point, drive Offred insane. According to The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature, Offred’s situation may provide “a level of social and psychological stimulus that many individuals will experience as insufficient to remain reasonably healthy and relatively well functioning”. Offred’s constant flashbacks to her past are not only a coping mechanism for dealing with the oppressive world in which she now lives, but also a coping mechanism for her unending loneliness.

Atwood’s use of flowers provides her the opportunity to present her characters’ complex and evolving inner thoughts and feelings without interrupting the narrative. By creating a microcosm of Gilead that runs in parallel to Gilead, Atwood gives an insight into Offred’s opinions on her role in society. This allows for both greater depth of characters and for subtle changes to be noted in her character as an effect of the treatment she endures in her role as a Handmaid.

Works Cited

    1. Conrad, Browyn Kara. “Neo-Institutionalism, Social Movements, and the Cultural Reproduction of A Mentalité: Promise Keepers Reconstruct the Madonna/Whore Complex.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 2, 2006, pp. 305–331., doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2006.00047.x.
    2. Smith, Peter Scharff. “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” Crime and Justice, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 441–528., doi:10.1086/500626.
    3. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Ballantine Books, 1985.   

 

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