What associations are suggested by the tattoo on Offred’s ankle in The Handmaid's Tale?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tattoos are barred by some Christian and Jewish beliefs based on interpretations in the Books of Leviticus and Jeremiah in the Bible which represent them as self-mutilation. This was part of the reason Nazis tattooed Jews and others in concentration camps: as an assault upon and sign of contempt for their beliefs. This suggests Margaret Atwood is equating the dictatorship of Gilead to the Third Reich and that it might be a kind of Fourth Reich, since it is white supremacist as well as deeply patriarchal.

Yet other Christian groups accept tattooing and commonly tattoo themselves with religious imagery or Biblical quotes. From a Gilead dictatorship point of view, Offred and other handmaids should take their being permanently marked as a point of pride and sign of their identity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Offred has a tattoo on her ankle of four numbers and an eye. This is to ensure that, like all the other handmaids in Gilead, she will be readily identifiable. The tattoo is a symbol of the repressive, controlling nature of the authoritarian society in which Offred lives. This is a society where women and their bodies are considered nothing more than the property of men, theirs to do with as they please. Offred's tattoo acts as a constant reminder that her body is not her own; it's public property that exists purely as a means for procreation.

The numbers on the tattoo show to what extent Offred and all the other women in society have been stripped of their basic humanity; they are no longer humans, just numbers. And the eye represents the all-seeing surveillance of this theocratic state, where everyone is under the ever-vigilant gaze of the authorities.

During the Holocaust, Jewish prisoners in concentration camps were marked with numbered tattoos by which they were identified. By adopting a similar method of public branding and control, the authorities of Gilead are openly displaying the hatred—in this case, hatred of women—on which their brutal regime is based.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial