The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Color Red Symbol Analysis

The Color Red Symbol Icon
The color red appears constantly in the novel. Red is the color of the Handmaids, a color associated both with shame (think of The Scarlet Letter) and with ripeness and fertility. Offred expands the color’s symbolic power, using it to describe blood, sometimes as the life force that courses through her body, and sometimes as a marker of violence and death, like the blood on the executed criminals. One of the most common uses of the color is to describe the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden. The flowers are sex organs, but their flourishing will be futile, since Serena Joy snips off their fruits.

The Color Red Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale

The The Handmaid’s Tale quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Color Red. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Gender Roles Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin Company edition of The Handmaid’s Tale published in 1986.
Chapter 1 Quotes

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Red
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel opens with Offred recalling the time she spent inside a building that was formerly used as a school, which the reader later learns is the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center, or the "Red Center." Offred has described the gymnasium, imagining the activities that took place there before the school was turned into the Red Center––activities that invoke the lively, happy, and carefree mood of youth. She says that the atmosphere now is one of "yearning," although it's not clear what for.

This abstract longing is explained by the fact that people of Offred's age and older were alive before the United States became the Republic of Gilead, and thus remember what the world was like before; however, their memories are vague, and their nostalgia for the past turns into a desire for an unknown future. The word "insatiability"––meaning a hunger or desire that cannot be satisfied––indicates the shame associated with desire in the world of the novel. Indeed, "insatiable" is often used in a sexual context, and Offred's words thus evoke disgust and condemnation of women's sexuality––a phenomenon that exists in our modern world, yet is vastly exaggerated in Gilead. In this context, the women's "insatiable" desire is simply for a world in which they are free and equal.

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The Color Red Symbol Timeline in The Handmaid’s Tale

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Color Red appears in The Handmaid’s Tale. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
The bell rings to mark time, like in a nunnery, and Offred puts on her red uniform, including shoes, gloves, and a long modest dress. She wears... (full context)
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Offred walks through the house, a stately, traditional home with many restrictions. She’s not allowed to... (full context)
Chapter 3
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Offred walks through the garden on the way to the shops. The red tulips have bloomed... (full context)
Chapter 4
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Offred waits at the corner, recalling Aunt Lydia’s advice to be patient and to imagine herself... (full context)
Chapter 5
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
A group of possibly Japanese tourists approaches on the street. Offred stares at the women’s knee-length skirts and high heels, thinking that the shoes look like... (full context)
Chapter 6
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Offred and Ofglen go to look at the real source of their interest, the red-brick Wall.... (full context)
Fertility Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Offred looks at the bloody red smile on the bag again. The red reminds her of... (full context)
Chapter 8
Rebellion Theme Icon
At Offred’s house, Nick polishes the Commander’s Whirlwind. The red tulips look like empty chalices, and Offred... (full context)
Chapter 11
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Offred went to the doctor yesterday morning for her regular monthly checkup. She remembers the appointment... (full context)
Chapter 13
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Back in the present time, Offred thinks about her body, her blood like red waves, and her failure to become pregnant.... (full context)
Chapter 17
Rebellion Theme Icon
Offred returns to her bedroom and finds her pat of butter half-melted in her shoe. She... (full context)
Chapter 18
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Offred believes in several different fates for Luke. First she imagines Luke as a corpse lying... (full context)
Chapter 19
Fertility Theme Icon
A red van, a Birthmobile, comes to the house to pick up Offred. A Guardian drives her... (full context)
Chapter 24
Rebellion Theme Icon
All of a sudden, Offred starts laughing uncontrollably. She desperately tries to be quiet, hiding herself in the closet, her... (full context)