“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the 1986 Atwood novel, set in Gilead, (formerly known as the USA), a rule-bound society where deviation from convention is harshly punished. The extract I have chosen is from the closing chapter of the novel, where Offred is awaiting the consequences of her discovered earlier misdemeanours (such as having a non-official relationship with her “Commander”). Understandably, the character and atmosphere are tense, and suspense is in the air. Atwood’s imagery in the extract is plentiful and often cosmic or weather related.
She mentions “crumpled stars” in the second sentence of the passage, symbolising crumpled and crushed hopes and dreams. The reference to the solar system also shows the size of the universe and how small Offred’s place in it is, just as she is a small cog in the state engine of Gilead. Later Offred says “the light is fading”, like stars, light is a symbol of hope and life, and here it is weakening. The diminishing glow from the sun represents Offred’s diminishing hope, and, as she at this point believes, her diminishing lifespan.
Rain is used on more than one occasion, and is a traditional symbol of bad luck or bad news, as it represents here – “I wonder if it will rain”. Air , “Don’t let there be air”, and angels “a woman made into an angel” are also used within the extract, both of which are cosmic and connected with life. References to the Handmaids’ red uniform are also plentiful, and used either directly in conjunction with her clothing “red is visible”, or more indirectly “It’s reddish already”.
We know form earlier sections of the novel that red is the chosen colour for Handmaids for many reasons. It makes them visible, again, “red is visible”, symbolises the red of the womb (and of course, the Handmaids’ chief function in life is that of breeding machine), represents the scarlet of blood and the is the traditional colour worn by “loose women”, depicting the Handmaids’ role as the dangerous “other woman” in the household.
Red symbolises all of the roles of the Handmaid, from their reproductive function to their connections with prostitution. To create suspense Atwood shows the passing of time. This is most clearly demonstrated in the paragraph “Outside, the light … didn’t take long”, which uses short sentences, each describing the evening as being later than the previous sentence portrayed it to be to show the speed of time passing, and also the progression of the day towards the night. This again is symbolic, because the night represents the end.