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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale


by Margaret Atwood

The Bible and Religion

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Bible Study

Say the word "dystopia" to most people, and a dependable string of associations spring to mind—"uniforms," "surveillance," "murder," "despair." Things that aren't usually associated with "dystopia" might include "fun," "puppies," "free ice cream," or... "Biblical phrases."

But that's just one of the reasons that The Handmaid's Tale ain't your standard dystopian novel. In Gilead, the Bible is crazy-ominous.

The novel is peppered with frequent allusions to different parts of the Bible. The most obvious is the reference to Genesis 30:1-3 in the epigraph, with its catchy phrase, "Give me children or else I die." That text, with its focus on bringing a "maid" or Handmaid into a childless marriage to create heirs, is the fundamental idea behind the Republic of Gilead. (For more on this, see "What's Up With the Epigraph?" or "Allusions.")

Specific parts of the Bible that glorify marriage, that absolve men of adultery for the purposes of childbirth, and that convict women of it have been cherry-picked from the text and made into law in Gilead. Other parts, like the ones that emphasize meekness and humility, have been used to dictate behavior to the Handmaids. (It goes without saying that there's only one authorized religion permitted in Gilead, the one promoted by the creepy state.)

In Gilead, what the government has decided should be taken from the Bible has become absolute law. The authority the Bible already had pre-Gilead becomes even more powerful... and infinitely creepy.

Strange, small pieces of Biblical text show up frequently throughout the book. This is particularly evident in place names and propaganda. For example, there's Gilead itself. Within it, all the stores the Handmaids are allowed to shop at have Biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Lilies. The hotel where the prostitutes are kept is called Jezebel's.

Whenever the narrator remembers a piece of dialogue or something that happened at the Center, it usually includes a piece of Biblical content. These references, though, have been bastardized or altered to further the goals of the Republic—so even if your knowledge of the Bible is excellent, you might not catch them all.

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