Biblical References in The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paints a picture of a dystopian society named the Republic of Gilead, where a bunch of religion-driven fascists take complete control and resort to unethical means to get what they want. In order to increase the number of white population, new laws are set which deprive the women in Gilead, of their rights and reduce their roles to mothers and servants.
Young and fertile women are the ‘handmaids’, and they are required to live with important officials such as the Commander in chief. Every month, they undergo an impregnation ceremony. These women are also robbed of their maiden names.
The most easily comprehensible references are the ways people are named in Gilead. Men are regarded as more important and respectable, namely ‘Guardians of the Faith’ or ‘Commanders of the Faithful’. Members of the police force are hailed as ‘Eyes of the Lord’. Soldiers who fight on the battlefields are called ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’.
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The spies who keep tabs on the people of Gilead and make sure no one commits treachery, are called the ‘Eyes’. Meanwhile, the women in Gilead have names according to the classes they belong to. They are named ‘Wives’, ‘Econowives’, ‘Handmaids’, ‘Marthas’ or ‘Unwomen’. Martha refers the sister of Mary, who served Jesus Christ.
There are many examples of biblical symbolism throughout the story. The society itself rigidly follows some specific laws from the Bible. By reciting certain passages from the Bible to the women, they are made to feel as though whatever would be done to them would not be morally wrong. We first see Offred sitting in the waiting room and she passes a small comment about a preacher, saying ‘they look a lot like businessmen’.
The author uses this example to illustrate the skewed use of religion to manipulate the minds of the weak, as the preacher only preaches things which would benefit himself, much like a businessman.
Further exploitation of the Bible is seen in the story when the Commander walks into the room and recites the Genesis 30:1-3 “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, give me children, or else I die.” Much like Jacob’s dissatisfaction at Rachel’s inability to bear children, the Commander blamed his wife.
In the society of Gilead, men used to pass the blames on their wives instead of calling themselves infertile or sterile. Genesis 30:1-3 has a connection with the story in the sense that the Commander’s wife is stricken with frustration because she cannot conceive and she would have Offred carry her husband’s baby if required, like Rachel would have her sister do.
The name of the state itself is taken from the Bible. Gilead is a very peaceful, clean and fertile place in Palestine according to the Old Testament. The people in power want to brand themselves as a fertile and strong society just like it is represented in the Bible. In reality, they are an imperfect dystopia full of corruption, pollution and injustice. A passage in Hosea states that Gilead was a tormented city full of evil men and the memories of their sins. This is another example of the convenient usage of the Bible to suit their requirements to control the people.
Any and all forms of personal conversation are also forbidden in Gilead. Only certain set phrases, taken from the Bible, can be used to communicate with another person. These include “May the Lord open”, “Praise be”, and the like. Their conversations should be laced with religious overtones. Similarly, reading and writing is also prohibited in Gilead.
When Offred is listening to the Beatitudes along with the other Handmaids, she knows that the recital is being edited and the original passage is not the same in the Bible. However, she cannot be sure exactly what was being left out as they were not allowed to read. The only person who could get their hands on the Bible was the Commander himself. This way, none of the Handmaids could question anything. Offred, of course, has an inkling that there is something wrong.
There are prayer machines in Gilead which print out endless scrolls of prayers every day. These are ordered by the wives of Commanders to reward their faith. Strangely enough, they are not allowed to read these prayers. These papers re constantly recycled and ordered again. This is a further example of how religion is exploited and used for personal benefit rather than creed.
Offred practices her own form of prayer where she uses the biblical words and twists them to convey her emotions and speak to God. While praying, she says that she has enough bread and her hunger is not the main issue; it was the swallowing of the bread without choking on it, which was aggravating her. We can see that she uses the word ‘bread’ as a euphemism for her troubles and despair.
Offred cannot escape Gilead even if she wants to as she is bound by strict rules and regulations which justify themselves through biblical passages and references. Events like public executions are called ‘Salvagings’. Also, the ‘Eyes’ spy on the people and this act is an apparent analogy of the passage in the Bible which said that the Lord has all seeing eyes, which travel throughout the world, keeping the humans in check and making sure that they provide their services to Him. The Commander reads this passage at the monthly prayer ceremony. Gilead literally translates the meaning as the Eyes keeping the citizens under control so that they go along with their daily lives obeying the law.
The theme of Genesis 30:1-3 runs throughout the story. As mentioned in the Bible, women in Israel lost their honor if they were unable to provide a child to their husbands. Their maids would assist by being their surrogates. Gilead readopts this practice and gives the Handmaids their roles in the society by ingraining this law with religion and giving them a false sense of purpose. The Handmaids are educated at the Rachel and Leah Centre, named after the characters in Genesis 30:1-3.
Even the appearances of the Handmaids have to be religious looking. They have to sport red gowns with white wings, much like nuns. Offred refers to her fellow Handmaids as “sisters dipped in blood”. The law states that a Handmaid should not go wandering about without a fellow Handmaid by her side. They have to live in tiny rooms without any mirrors.
At an impregnation ceremony and birthing ceremony, the Handmaid has to lie on the Commander’s wife’s stomach, with the wife’s knees around her. This follows Rachel’s words “She shall bear upon my knees.” Her other words, “Give me children, or else I die”, also rings true, as any Handmaid who fails to conceive after being sent to three houses would be sent to the Colonies, where she would die at a certain point.
During the women’s ‘Prayvaganzas’, the Commander selectively recites certain parts of the Bible to convince the women that their willingness to abide by the rules would grant them peace in the afterlife. He manipulates the Handmaids to get them to do what he wants, using religion as a tool to brainwash them. He asks “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection? All? But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve?”
It is not just the names of the citizens which have been changed to sound more Christian; objects and shops have also undergone the same treatment. Shops have names such as ‘All Flesh’, ‘Milk and Honey’, and ‘Loaves and Fishes’. A clothing store names ‘Lilies’ is a reference to a line in a passage titled Matthew 6:28. ‘Milk and Honey’ is a reference to the description of the Promised Land, which read “A land flowing with milk and honey”. ‘All Flesh’ is the name of a butcher shop, and it takes inspiration from Isaiah 40:5 but the original phrase is ‘All of humanity’.
When the Handmaids eat lunch, they always listen to a recorded tape of a prayer. It is always a man’s voice because the Aunts are not allowed to read the prayers. It further signifies the authority that men hold over women in Gilead.
The prayer blesses the people who are poor in spirit, the merciful, the meek, the silent and the ones who silently grieve, so that these people are gifted with the virtues of Heaven. In this scenario, the Handmaids are the supposed ones who are poor in spirit, merciful, meek, silent and mourning. Gilead warps this prayer to convey the message in a way that the Handmaids are conditioned to be those weakened and obedient so that they are ‘blessed’ by the Lord.
The entire story highlights the how words can be twisted and interpreted in precise ways for the sake of one’s own advantage and ploys.