Image Systems in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, is undergoing something of a revival these days. Reading the novel in search of practical wisdom for novelists, I was most struck by Atwood’s use of image systems. I’ve written about image systems before—here’s a quick introduction to the concept if you’re interested—and the ways in which they represent one of the writer’s most powerful instruments for conveying a novel’s subconscious impact. 

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses a highly effective image system to reinforce the novel’s prevailing mood, provoking a series of subconscious reactions in the reader that dovetail with her more explicitly presented themes and subject matter. The image system is easily spotted in passages like this:

The sun is out, in the sky there are white fluffy clouds, the kind that look like headless sheep. Given our wings, our blinkers, it’s hard to look up, get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world in gasps.

And this, as the novel’s protagonist eats breakfast:

In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an eggcup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt.

In these passages Atwood uses descriptive detail to capture the claustrophobic mindset of her protagonist, a woman who is kept as a reproductive slave who must get pregnant in order to survive, and whose masters, along with the cooks preparing her food, are single-mindedly focused on the overriding goal of fertilizing the egg inside the woman. Atwood’s images are powerful because they show the reality of this emotional situation in a sensory and visceral way without alluding to it directly.

The shadow side of fertility is barrenness, represented in the novel by the protagonist’s mistress, the vengeful Serena, as portrayed in this passage set in the garden as she deadheads tulips:

She was snipping off the seedpods with a pair of shears. I watched her sideways as I went past, with my basket of oranges and lambchops. She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers?

Oranges and lamb chops: a bounty of luscious fertility and recently slaughtered new life. And the shearing of the seedpods, the “swelling genitalia of the flowers”—well, it’s pretty much on the nose. But again, the imagery is a powerful subconscious way of reinforcing the unspoken emotional dynamics at work beneath the story.

But there’s a deeper thrust to Atwood’s image system as well. Remember that an image system consists not so much of repeated images as it does recurring riffs on categories of images. We can get a good sense of what that can mean in these passages, taken almost at random from the pages of the novel:

I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either sides is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half-dead; flexible and pink, like lips.

It’s Nick, I can see him now; he’s stepped off the path, onto the lawn, to breathe in the humid air which stinks of flowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea.

The doctors are still in their van; their faces appear at the window, white blobs, like the faces of sick children confined to the house.

We go along the corridor and through another flat gray door and along another corridor, softly lit and carpeted this time, in a mushroom color, browny pink. . . We emerge into a central courtyard . . . There’s a fountain in the middle of it, a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed.

So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters, or, better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.

Writing, and especially descriptive writing, is all about making choices. A well-constructed image system is an essential ingredient in the recipe for the mysterious, cumulative power that the best novels achieve. To build an image system, one must begin with the understanding that the reader’s subconscious mind can by played like a musical instrument. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood clearly knew this. Her image system is one of sexuality tainted by sickness, cloying bloodlessness, parasitism, squandered fertility, and death—all of which resonate perfectly with the themes and subtexts of the novel.

If you go back and look at it, so much of the meaning of The Handmaid’s Tale is carried in this image system, which is defined by the novel’s subject matter and works to greatly amplify that subject matter in the subconscious mind of the reader. Without the image system, the book would lose much of its oppressive emotional impact, an impact that lingers on far more than it would by simply coming to understand the sketched-in outlines of Atwood’s peculiar dystopia.