The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood published in 1985 is categorized as a dystopian novel focusing on a totalitarian and theocratic Republic of Gilead. This is a society based on biblical beliefs that helps authorize inhumane state practices. This regime took the right of appealing and legally protecting the females from the government. The decrease number of population due to infertility is solved by using the sterile females to reproduce offspring for the Commander and his wife and that is the sole purpose in life of a handmaid. The protagonist of this novel is a handmaid referred to as Offred. In the Handmaid’s Tale, Gileadeans suggests that religion helps strengthens the democracy but instead it further pushes it into a patriarchal and theocratic society.
Atwood chose very unique names for each character in this novel that related back to the novel. For instance, the Angels, who were the guards/police officers who kept tabs on the civilians of Gilead to minimize treachery. Another clever name choice was with the Marthas or Unwomen who symbolized Martha, sister of Mary that served Jesus Christ and in The Handmaid’s Tale they served the Commander (Theo 454). Apart from character names, there were many biblical phrases exchanged between the Handmaid’s, such as, “Praise Be”, “May the Lord Open”, or “Blessed be the fruit”, when they encountered each other. These small phrases were used to constantly remind the Handmaid’s the purpose of their life in the new regime.
The Bible is the foundation of the new regime in Gilead and every law is established from biblical segments. Atwood stated that “mind-set of Gilead is really close to that of the seventeenth-century of Puritans” (Howells et al. 130). The Commanders often referred to themselves as the modern-day Jacobs and used Rachel and her sister to refer to wives and Handmaids. When Offred is first introduced to the Commander during the ceremony, the Commander recited Genesis 30:1-3; “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she unto Jacob, give me children, or else I die” (Atwood 61). This verse is consistently repeated throughout the novel to emphasize the fact that the wives (Rachel) are the sole reason why the couple cannot bear any children, men were never accused for being sterile. To resolve this dilemma, a Handmaid is used as a surrogate mother to bear a child for the aged Commander and barren wife. Offred referred the Handmaids as “two legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (Atwood 128). This resembled to the idea of surrogacy from Rachel in the Bible. Women are dehumanized to a soulless flesh of “viable ovaries” used for breeding purposes.
In a personal interview, Atwood was questioned; “If you can model a new human being, would you eliminate the hunger for God?” and Atwood replied with, “I could not eliminate the hunger for God without eliminating the language. I would however, eliminate the desire to use God as a weapon” (Atwood Interview). The hunger for God permitted to personal realm so it can be used to bash other people. The Handmaid’s Tales depicts the purpose of females in the Gilead. The Handmaids are used for regulated sex to saleable commodity exchanged for mere minimal survival. “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body” (Atwood 94). Offred had two choices, to die or capitulate to the government in the agreement of positioning her skirt up to her waist while a commanding man attempts to impregnate her. Officials used God as a weapon to terrorize and strip women from their rights in the name of national security to serve God and their country.
Often societies under stress usually look around for human sacrifice; someone to blame. Dictators believe that if they can demolish the person everything will be okay. Humans usually search for a symbolic structure (religion) to reason because it is something that cannot be measured or proved but only imagined and experienced (Atwood Interview 2/3). As Atwood repeatedly mentioned that the book is based on events that has happened in the past, more specifically to the Puritans era. The English Puritans encouraged direct personal religious experience, moral conducts, and worshipping services. They believed that God directed the way of living through the Bible and everyone should accommodate their lives according to it. There were many different roles for women in the Puritan society, such as, limited legal rights. Women are expected to obey to their husbands/Commanders and were unable to communicate with the government officials (Zakai 409). Similarly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, women had no power whatsoever, not even to communicate with each other but yet they were expected to support each other through child birth, death and sickness.
Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale seeks to eliminate any traces of the past. The government attempts to manipulate and erase the memory and even historical time itself (Theo 438). The “Red Center” in the place where each individual is trained to become a Handmaid and brainwashed into believing the theocratic system of Gilead. A very peculiar brainwash was in the early chapters where the Guardians/Aunts blamed Janine for being gang raped as a teen. The Aunts forced the other women to shame Janine by chanting “to teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson” when asked “why God let such thing happen to her.” The Red Center prepared the Handmaids in ways to be illiterate where they forget to read and write to avoid rebellious. This allowed them to only practice the roles approved by the Bible. When Offred went out to shop for supper, the Marthas provided her with pictures of milk, eggs, and chicken because women are not allowed to be knowledgeable even with the simplest tasks.
Despite being a powerless, infertile woman in the Gilead regime, Offred had a sense of power in the closed doors of Commanders office. “To him I’m no longer merely a usable body” (Atwood 172). Offred found herself desirable by the Commander from the occasional Scrabble nights. Taking advantage of the comfortability level with the Commander, Offred often found herself requesting for luxurious demands, such as lotion because the butter did not make the cut for dry skin. This gives Offred a sense of “freedom” within the four closed walls inside the prison; Gilead. “Freedom to and freedom from” (Atwood 24). The regime was set to “protect” the fertile females. However, Offred realized that no matter how high the Commanders position might be it would not help in fleeing from Serena Joy nor the Gilead because that was not Offred’s idea of freedom. Offred world revolved around the daughter, husband Luke, best friend Moira, and the most feminist mother.
Atwood’s work on The Handmaid’s Tale complex view on feminism. The author used essentialist feminism to attack the patriarchy. The regime of Gilead denies equality and the right to an independent existence. Offred’s mother was the most significant figure that advocates feminism through violence, censorship, and book-burning. “You young people don’t appreciate things…you don’t know what we had to go through, just to get where you are” (Atwood 12). Offred is often referred to as the product of Gilead society and takes advantages of a luxurious life provided without any problems. Offred took her own liberty and rights for granted and ends up losing everything to Luke when the regime took place.
Apart from Offred’s mother, Moira was a brave and confident lesbian feminist who took the liberty to do the unforsaken, attempt to escape the Gilead. Atwood designed the character of Moira to be a fighter and leader that conquered anything that stood in the way. This provided hope for Offred to one day see her family once again in the future. But at the end, Moira is found at the Jezebel’s. “I’d like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again.” (Atwood 38.96). Offred is using imagination to tell the audience about the courageous and remarkable incident.
The main idea of Gilead is to act upon the idea of utilitarianism, where the happiness of the greater amount of people maximizes utility. In other words, they are doing what is best for the greatest number of people in Gilead. The main crisis was the high infant mortality rates leading to a decrease in population size. To overcome this issue, fertile women were “rebooted” to serve as surrogates for the high authority figures that could not bear any children by their wives. The degrading of women and force them to do what the government pleased was supported by the Bible. The Republic of Gilead is based of religious extremists who use God as a weapon to bash minorities to establish a patriarchal and theocratic society.
Margaret Atwood claims that she did not write this novel to bash Christianity, in fact, this rules and regulations of Gilead are based on past events. “Since the regime operates under the guise of a strict Puritanism, these women are not considered a harem, intended to provide delight as well as children. They are functional rather than decorative” (Balbusso 3). Atwood argues “nations never build radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t already there” (Atwood Interview 1/3). Gilead is fairly based on the separation of Church and State but heavily based of theocracy of seventh-century Puritans.