The Handmaid’s Tale Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for The Handmaid's Tale

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Handmaid's Tale


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Dangers of Totalitarian Societies

The novel highlights the totalitarian regime that takes over in the wake of a fertility crisis. Using religion in a selective manner to further their goals, the architects of Gilead manage to crush their enemies completely and maintain order through fear, torture, murder, and guilt. Friends and family betray one another to the government, people are hung on the Wall daily, and most people fear for their immortal souls if they disobey the Scriptures. This regime destroys the autonomy of women, and of the human spirit.

Defining Gender Roles

In the Republic of Gilead, women are stratified: the Wives run the households; the Handmaids bear the children for the Wives; the Marthas are housmaids; the Aunts train and keep order over the Handmaids. Each role centers itself around the reproduction cycle of the Handmaid. Women are seen as vessels for bearing children; those who willingly gave this duty up were sent off to hard labor in the Colonies as Unwomen. Their very womanhood was stripped from them once they could not bear children.

Loss of Identity

Handmaids were given the names of their Commanders with the prefix “of” to show possession. For example, Offred was Fred’s Handmaid; Ofglen was Glen’s Handmaid. Women lost their names, tattooed with an identification marker on their ankles, and put into the same, shapeless clothing. Makeup was forbidden, as was any hint of a past identity.

Environmental Responsibility

The start of the fertility crisis in Gilead had its roots in a few events: biological tampering for warfare purposes; a new super strain of syphilis along with the AIDS epidemic; widespread availability of birth control; and nuclear spills, toxic leaching from nuclear stockpiles, and irresponsible use of pesticides. While there were many factors, the environmental mishaps played a large role in why women and men found themselves sterile. It does seem to be a clear warning to take better care of the planet and the things we create.

Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss


The women and men of Gilead are separated by job/class, and this was indicated by colors. Commanders wore black; Guardians wore black or green; Wives wore powder blue; Handmaids wore red; Marthas wore dull green; Econowives wore stripes of green, red, and blue; Aunts wore khaki-brown; and young female children wore white. For the Handmaids, the red made them stand out but also symbolized the life they were trying to create and carry. It symbolized their duty; for the Handmaids, it symbolized their curse.

The Eye

The Eye is the symbol of the Republic of Gilead’s government, supposedly to symbolize being “under His [God’s] Eye”. It was supposed to bring a feeling of comfort; however, it was utilized in a very sinister way. The black vans of secret agents that would pick people up for interrogations and torture bore this symbol in white. The Eyes were also a code name for spies who infiltrated different areas of society to turn people in to the government.

The Wings

The wings are what Offred and her fellow Handmaids call the bonnet that goes up and around their faces. It keeps others from being able to see their faces unless they are looking at them directly; it also prevents the Handmaids from being able to see their surroundings well. Sometimes, Offred expresses her frustration at the wings blocking her view of the world; however, at other times it offers opportunities to hide her feelings or thoughts in a veil of safety.

The Ceremony

The Gileadean society revolves around the Ceremony. Each month, after reading Scriptures that justify this proceeding from the Bible, the Handmaid would lie in the lap of the Wife while the Commander would have intercourse with the Handmaid. The intertwined hands of the Wife and Handmaid was supposed to represent being of one flesh. After the Ceremony, the entire household would wait with baited breath to see if the Handmaid became pregnant. It was typically humiliating for all parties involved, but they believed it necessary to the survival of the society.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Handmaid’s Tale you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for an example that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme


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