In The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, what is the significance of the quotation, "The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem; as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there”?
As the tulips are red in colour, Atwood seems to be making a deliberate comparison between the tulips and the handmaids, specifically Offred, the narrator, as the handmaids always wear red clothes. This is a very rich and suggestive image as Atwood is drawing on the connotations of growth, flowering, fertility, youth, feminity, menstruation, pain, victimhood, survival and beauty in one vivid symbol.
By drawing attention to the redness of the tulips which are not only "red" but "a darker crimson towards the stem", Atwood emphasises their vitality, which connects them to the handmaids who are fertile women who are forcibly put to use as baby-makers for the state of Gilead. Perhaps the fact that the tulips are in a garden is a reference to the ways the handmaids have been cultivated for a purpose against their natural inclinations.
As Offred closely observes the tulips, she personifies them, imagining that they have blood and that they are so red towards the stem because they have been cut and are now healing. This sensitivity to the flowers' colour shows her pained and vulnerable state of mind, as she manages to see suffering and damage even in a simple flower. Offred is a traumatised woman, having been repeatedly raped and subjugated, and having lost her own child, and this is clear in the way she observes the superficially calm world of the Commander's house where she lives.
However, perhaps this image, which comes early on in the novel at the start of Chapter 3, suggests that Offred is beginning to find a way out of her terrible situation, as the cut she imagines at each flower's stem is at least "beginning to heal".
This quotation is also reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's poem, 'Tulips', which would make an interesting comparison as Plath also uses tulips to represent vitality in her poem.