Connor Gunderson

Prof. Stein

24 January, 2013

Uncovering Hegemony In Gilead

When thinking of a dystopia, one tends to imagine a dreadful, unlivable place. In Margaret Atwood’s fictional novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopia is presented with transparent hegemony. There is no peace, equality, or freedom for women. The novel’s setting, the Republic of Gilead, is constantly at war with other countries. Women are objectified and no one can escape the constant watch of Gilead’s men’s power controls. In Gilead, one’s purpose in life is either predetermined or non-existent. The station of women best exemplifies this. A “Handmaid’s” purpose is strictly to reproduce (pg. 96), while others, called “Unwomen,” are treated as slaves. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood utilizes symbolism to illustrate hegemony in Gilead through Offred’s internal thoughts and ideas.

Social System

The social system in Gilead is based on Hegemony, in which men hold power and women serve as objects. This is a characteristic of a dystopia. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, has a garden that provides a literary image of Gilead’s gender dynamics:

“I go out by the back door, into the garden, which is large and tidy: a lawn in the middle, a willow, weeping catkins; around the edges, the flower borders, in which the daffodils are now fading and the tulips are opening their cups, spilling out color. The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they have been cut and are beginning to heal there.” (Atwood, pg. 12)

The willow tree in this garden represents The Commander. A large, strong tree in the center is seen as the most important part. He is the head of the republic. He makes war decisions and has sex with the Handmaids to produce offspring for Gilead. Other men in the system, such as Nick, were guards. They protect the border of Gilead and ensure the handmaids follow rules. Men were used as protection against other countries and also to carry out the laws of Gilead.

The weeping catkins represent Serena Joy, the wife. Throughout the book she seems depressed and saddened. She is “weeping” for the love of her Commander. The catkins are attached to the willow showing that Serena Joy still holds a high position among women.

Lastly, the red tulips that create a border around the garden represent the Handmaid’s. Tulips are fragile just like the Handmaid’s. The red represents their clothing and role. Their role is to get supplies, and most importantly to be fertile. They are used for sex to create offspring for Gilead’s future. The large amount of tulips shows how the Handmaid’s population compares to others.

This social system gives women limited roles and no chance for freedom. The men are granted all the power and have certain freedoms over women. These two factors definitely play a role in the Gilead’s underlying hegemony.

Gilead’s use of Control

Offred explains the daily life of women and how they are identified. Your identification is determined by the color you wear. Whatever color you wear is how you are seen throughout the society.

“There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Martha’s, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men.” (Atwood, pg. 24)

Here, Atwood is telling the reader that the individuality of women is being stripped away. By wearing certain colors, society judges you based on that color. They do not care about the person’s “actual” personality. The women are just referred to by their color.

Offred recalls what the Commander said about joining together: “One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four…Should does not apply” (Atwood, pg 192). Atwood is telling the reader that in Gilead, women cannot wholly unite. They have no ability to come together and rebel against Gilead’s controlling power system. This is because the Handmaid’s communication is limited. The use of the word “should” is one of Atwood’s more promising determinants of hegemony. She is comparing the word “should” to the common logic of a society. In Gilead, this “should” or “logic” does not exist. In Gilead there is nothing that “should” happen. Everything is predetermined by the Commander and his counterparts. The Handmaids should unite to rebel but in Gilead, should does not apply.

Gilead also uses its power by controlling the names of the Handmaids. Offred states: “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which no one uses now because it’s forbidden” (Atwood, pg. 84). Gilead puts an “Of” in front of all the names making everyone alike. By doing this, there is no individuality between the women. They become less unique and feel like they have no real purpose.  Atwood is proving that the use of hegemony is so powerful in Gilead; women cannot feel like individuals because their names are so much alike.


At the end of the book, we see the Commander using his powers (hegemony) to his advantage. He has been seeing Offred too much, and has developed somewhat of a relationship with her. This is something that should never happen in Gilead. The Handmaid’s only use with the Commander is sex, not developing a relationship. This of course puts the Commander at risk for corruption because Serena Joy has found out about their relationship. As Offred is being carried to the black van she thinks:

“The Commander puts his hand to his head. What have I been saying, and to whom, and which on of his enemies has found out? Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking. There have already been purges among them, there will be more. Serena Joy goes white.” (Atwood, pg. 294)

Here Atwood is not showing hegemony, but the complete opposite. She is showing that Offred is now “above” the Commander because of his actions. Offred has changed the system and is escaping Gilead. The Commander overused his powers, and got in trouble with Serena Joy, and the law. Although Offred’s future is unknown, there is reason to believe that she will be heading to a better place.

Atwood’s Use of Symbolism

Throughout the book Atwood uses Offred’s thoughts to illustrate and draw connections to Gilead’s use of hegemony. Some of these thoughts are harder to interpret than others. By using symbolism, Atwood uses writing that makes the reader uncover hidden clues about the social system in Gilead. These clues help the reader draw conclusions about how they want to interpret Gilead as a whole. Symbolism plays a big role in the novel and serves as a very important feature because it lets the reader dig deeper into the text. Without it, a lot of the hidden information would go unfound.

Proving Hegemony in Gilead’s Dystopia

Hegemony in Gilead’s social system proves to be powerful and controlling, but ultimately leads to its destruction. When someone or something has so much power, they develop a power-high and use it to their advantage. People become corrupt and cheat the system. Therefore leading to a society’s downfall. Equality is something that every society needs. In Gilead, we see no equality between men and women. Gilead’s use of control on women is very powerful too. Women cannot communicate or look at each other. This then kills any plan of rebellion. All of these factors play into the role of Gilead being a dystopia. This dystopia’s biggest problem is the hegemony within it. In order to achieve a utopia we must escape this hegemony, just like Offred escaped Gilead.


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 96. Print

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 12. Print

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 24. Print

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 192. Print

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 294. Print

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