The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel which, through the use of irony, heightens the reader’s experience. It is a dystopian novel about Offred (a handmaid), sent to an infertile family. Irony is seen many times in the novel through the choice of character, the setting of the novel, and in the allusions which are presented.

Irony in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is seen through the character ‘The Commander’. He has a wife, who has fertility issues, and therefore Offred is needed. The Commander takes a further interest in Offred, who is invited by him to experience the privilege of being in his office. The forbidden office is everything that represents what used to be the norm. “But all around the walls there are bookcases. They’re filled with books…right out in plain view, no locks, no boxes. No wonder we can’t come in here. It’s an oasis of the forbidden. I try not to stare.” Offred is so excited to be in the most dangerous room in the house, where the interest of why it is so forbidden has been satisfied. She is brought into his office not to have sex with or be hurt, but to be played games with. They play scrabble on many occasions, and he allows her to read and gives her moisturiser. “I have a little present for you…It’s an old one…A Vogue.” Atwood’s use of irony through The Commander is used to show the imperfection in Gilead. Someone so high in power and wealth, still has emotion and the need for normal human interaction. Freud’s theory “pen is envy” is brought up in The Commander’s office. In the book the theory is translated to ‘penis envy’ because of how women are envious of men, they hold power and worth, compared to the uselessness of women. In The Commander’s office, Offred is permitted to write. Allowing her to perform one of the most banned acts is very ironic and surprising due to his status in the novel. Being very high up in power, and one of the men who organised the whole regime of Gilled, you would expect him to be dominant and strict about the rules, yet he is childish and lenient. “You want my life to be bearable to me…If my life is bearable, maybe what they’re doing is all right after all.” The way that Atwood has used irony through The Commander, almost lets the reader sympathies with him. Irony has made him feel less robotic and more human. Atwood did this deliberately so that we can connect with the character and with the novel.

Irony is also seen in many areas throughout the setting in the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in The Republic of Gilead, which used to be a city in the United States, but is now a totalitarian government lead by men, and followed by women. In what used to be Harvard University, many gruesome events occur. It used to be an extremely prestigious learning institution, where only the most excellence individuals can go to gain knowledge. Whereas in Gilead, it is where handmaids are trained and stripped of their rights as a woman and as a human, ceremonies are held for group killings, and criminals are hung on ‘the wall’ just outside Harvard for the public to gaze at. The motto for Harvard when translated into English is ‘truth’, which is ironic because it is the complete opposite to what Gilead is. No one knows the truth about where they live and what is going on outside of Gilead, and this distinguished, honest institution is used for many events which are full of lies. Involving this institution is very ironic because of what the building used to stand for. Students used to be celebrated for their achievements in learning, yet in Gilead, this is exactly what has been stripped. Instead the institution is used to train passivity and loyalty to God. Outside of Harvard is the manicured city. “The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazine…The street is almost like a museum…” It is staged and forced, and has been created in a way that looks like the same free country before Gilead, but it is the opposite. “The same as before, except that it is now obligatory.” Using irony in the setting of the novel, heightens the reader’s experience, because it highlights how much irony is seen throughout the novel. Having an ironic setting means that the whole novel has a set tone, and this will mean that irony will be present everywhere in the novel.

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, many allusions are present. The use of the allusion jezebels, is ironic because it is a place which is full of what men don’t want women to be, yet it is exactly what they want women to be. It is a place where women who used to have high ranked jobs, have been forced into working as prostitutes for powerful men that are in their ‘special club’. These women are allowed the small fragment of freedom to wear makeup and skimpy dresses if they like, but only for mens pleasure. “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays in the maze.” They give women freedom, but only enough to reach their needs. The use of jezebels is very ironic because it is the exact thing that men wanted to abolish, yet they just can’t fully put an end to the old world. Atwood did this to prove that men will always have sexual needs that can only be filled by women, needs that are so strong, that men will break the very rules that they put into place.

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, irony is introduced many times by Atwood. She has used character, setting and illusions to represent this irony. Through it, it heightens and intensifies the reader’s experience overall.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Look to weave in more quotes, Zoe – doing so will give greater weighting to your argument.

  2. Zoe, avoid retelling plot information. Discuss how and why the irony is used, and outline Atwood’s purpose in doing so. At the moment there are points where you’ve retold story elements “The Commander (Fred) is the head of the house who is a claimed scientist and earns a lot of money. His wife Serena Joy has fertility issues, so a handmaid is needed. The Commander takes a further interest in his handmaids than he should. Offred is invited by The Commander to experience the privilege of being in his office”.

    I want you to ANALYSE why the Commander did what he did and how it was ironic. Atwood is making a clear point about the world, about men, about how there are different rules for men and women. Address this.


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