Symbols of Oppression: Reflections from The Handmaid’s Tale

This summer, I am getting back into reading. And reading good books at that.

Right now, I am working on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is about a woman’s disheartening survival in a dystopian anti-feminist society in which men have taken control of much of the United States. The women are socialized to believe that they are submissive and in need of protection as they live their lives in one of only a few roles afforded to them.Handmaids Tale cover

I’m less than 100 pages in so far, but I am already so inspired and captivated by this novel that I just need to share it with someone else. I almost wish I was back in AP Lit just so I can discuss the symbolism and deeper implications of the novel with other readers. But alas, high school is behind me, so here I am writing in a blog for myself and a handful of others to possibly see.

But to keep this conversation going, or rather, to actually make it a conversation, please leave comments with your thoughts. Better yet, read with me and we can turn this into a virtual book club of sorts. I hate making promises about when I’ll post, but I’ll do my best to post throughout my reading as I find things particularly noteworthy.

In the novel, I am so impressed by the many layers of meaning that Atwood packs into just a few lines. On page 28, she writes:

“Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.”

Now, Atwood’s writing style is a bit odd and takes some getting used to for those of us who are grammar purists, but bear with me. These lines are incredible. Near the end, it sounds like words of empowerment; “you must be…impenetrable.” But in context, these words are part of the women’s “brainwashing” process when they attend classes to teach them to be submissive to men.


There is so much symbolism from the first section of the book that is beautifully encapsulated in these few sentences. For one, the women are called girls, as the main character, Offred, reports. They are called girls supposedly to convey their purity and innocence, but really, it is a linguistic chain. It makes these women, some of whom are in their college years, pliable, submissive, obedient, unthinking, and childlike.


It makes them less independent and less of a threat.

They believe themselves to be protected by these controlling men, but in reality, they are being controlled. Rather than women with equal faculties (if not freedoms) to men, they are less than and must be cared for because they lack the ability to care for themselves.

With just a few changes in rhetoric, women in this society are socialized to believe they need men to control them.


The eye and the concept of seeing is another symbol present throughout the novel that is touched upon in this excerpt. Seeing is power. Awareness is power. When we see the world, we begin to understand it. When we understand it, we have the power to change it, or at least act independently within it.


Understanding enables autonomy. So in Atwood’s society, limiting sight limits understanding which in turn limits autonomy. The women wear veils and the Handmaids wear wings on their hats that act as blinders you would see on a horse. Limited autonomy, like with a horse, means more control.

Seeing, in this world, is portrayed as giving men power over women; it allows them to be “penetrated” and thus less pure and more controlled. But in fact, the opposite is true. Seeing is what could give these women power over the men.

If they could only see, these women would realize the power they have. They would see that the men are no different from them, that they have the numbers and access to these men’s lives to take down the oppressive system, that they have any kind of power at all. They could see all of this, but their society has used a combination of rhetoric and socialization to twist the meaning of sight from one of empowerment to one of vulnerability.


This is a message so influential to women today.

Women are encouraged to not see the inner workings of our society, to not be involved in politics for fear that it is too complicated or too disheartening. But the same fact rings true in Atwood’s society and ours: seeing is power. 

By seeing what is really going on around us, we can be aware, and by being aware, we can understand, and by understanding, we can have autonomy, and when we have autonomy, we can change the world.

Women have power, but we need to keep our eyes open and never let anyone, men or otherwise, shield or obstruct our vision.


Interested in joining the conversation? Download The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon or borrow it from your local library and jump in with your comments.