The Handmaid’s Tale: Applying Archetypal Theory

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood takes place in the dystopian society of Gilead, where a young woman named Offred serves as a “handmaid.” These “handmaids” are essentially female slaves who have the sole purpose of breeding for their masters. Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, strict rules, and extreme punishment, the novel’s protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while believing that she will someday be reunited with her husband and daughter. 

When looking at Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”  from a archetypal perspective, I can find a lot of different archetypes in the novel that I would otherwise not find if I analyzed the novel in a different perspective. For example, Offred  can be seen as the archetype of “The Hero.” Although Offred is forced to work as a Handmaid and live in oppression, she still fights against the system in the little ways that she can. This can be seen when she makes eye contact with a Guardian when she’s out shopping, even though Guardians are strictly forbidden from looking at Handmaids: “It’s an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetectable, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of a drawer” (Atwood 24). Unlike most archetypal heroes, Offred does not physically escape her oppressive situation during the course of the novel, however, she mentally resists The Republic of Gilead’s rules, and even breaks some of them through her affair with Nick, showing heroic characteristics. Offred also possess the certain characteristics of the archetypal hero such as being born in unusual circumstances, leaving her family and facing challenges during her journey to one day find freedom. 

Another example of an archetype would be Aunt Lydia, who can be seen as the archetypal dark mentor because even though she seems like a role model and helpful figure, she is actually misleading Offred, the hero. Aunt Lydia uses a lot of false manipulation, such as when she seemingly tries to sympathize with the “handmaids” when in actuality, she just wants the “handmaids” to be good and conform to the rules, and this is shown in the quote “Try to think of it from their point of view she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them” (18) . Aunt Lydia leads Offred to become a “handmaid,” which is basically a female slave and she tries to make Offred give into the totalitarian regime of Gilead by saying things such as “Yours is a position of honour” (14). Aunt Lydia even argues that the women are more free now in Gilead because they have “freedom from” things like sexist insults and potential abuse from strangers. She also argues that the women of Gilead should be grateful for such freedoms rather than mourning the other freedoms they’ve lost, which is seen in the quote “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (28). Offred often recalls some of the advice that Aunt Lydia gave her. However, Offred believes that “Aunt Lydia thought she was very good at feeling for other people” (57) which indicates that Offred knew that Aunt Lydia was feeding her the Republic’s propaganda and trying to make her conform to the rules. Aunt Lydia seemingly guides the women, however, her intentions are to force these women to the harsh rules of Gilead, making her a dark mentor. 

There are also archetypal situations present in the novel. Although it is not very prominent, I think that there is a battle between good and evil in the society of Gilead, which is between Mayday and the government of Gilead. Mayday is the underground rebellion hoping to overthrow the government of Gilead and restore rights to society, which can be seen as good. Offred is also part of the good because she simply wants to reunite with her husband and daughter.

She wants her freedom and rights back, as well as her humanity. Meanwhile, as mentioned extensively, the government of Gilead is an oppressive dictatorship that strips females of their basic rights and also creates a world where there is little to no passion or expression. Even human relationships lack feeling and passion. The government also brutally executes criminals and hangs them on The Wall for display, and they also have the Eyes to secretly spy on the society of Gilead. This shows the evil in the government of Gilead and the conflict of good vs. evil. Another example of an archetypal situation is the Ceremony every month, which can be seen as a ritual. The Ceremony is an event that involves Offred having sex with the Commander. This provides a clear sign of Offred’s role in the society, which is to reproduce and conceive a baby. It also marks the character’s passage into another state, as the household hopes for Offred to conceive a baby as soon as she can, in order to increase reproduction rates. These are some examples of archetypal situations in the novel. 

In conclusion, the analaysis of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from an archetypal perspective, provides deep insight as to how the characters and situations in the novel fit into the classic archetypes. 

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