The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
So, this book has three epigraphs, which in itself is kind of confusing. Let's take them one at a time.
First, we've got Genesis:
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.
And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3)
Hard to go wrong with a Biblical quotation right out of the gate, right? It sort of promises an instant legitimacy and seriousness in the book to come. This is a discussion between Jacob and Rachel about how she can't give him children so he should go get her maid pregnant so Rachel can claim them as her own kids. This seems to set the tone for a solemn discussion about infertility and marriage.
The phrase "Give me children or else I die" is going to be key for the rest of the text. If you're looking closely, the desire for children seems to set up a kind of sanctioned adultery within marriage as long as the ultimate goal is to make children. Of course, Jacob had another wife, Rachel's sister Leah, who has plenty of kids. If you've read Genesis, you may remember that Rachel was Jacob's favorite wife, even if Leah gave him more sons. The issue of privilege and favoritism seems to be rearing its big, ugly head.
Our next epigraph's author is Jonathan Swift, master of satire:
But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal . . . (Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal)
Here we've got an excerpt from Swift's famous piece of satire "A Modest Proposal." (By the way, if you haven't read "A Modest Proposal" yet, you might want to go check it out. We're about to spoil it, and it's a lot more fun if you figure it out yourself. Go on, it's short. We'll wait.) The subject of this satire, although you can't tell from this quotation, is children. Yet while the Genesis quotation is concerned with the absence of children, Swift's is in reference to waaay too many kids. (The full title is actually A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.)
Swift is writing about Ireland at a time when there wasn't enough food and people were having more children than they could feed. He proposes that people should raise their children like cows or other farm animals and sell them to be eaten. Don't freak out – he's just kidding! What's scary about it, though, is how easy it is take the idea seriously, and how Swift can manipulate language to make his crazy ideas sound like rational solutions to what was, after all, a very real problem.
So we've moved from the ultra-serious to the ultra-sarcastic in the first two epigraphs, and it's up to the third to break the tie:
In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. (Sufi proverb)
Hm…. This one is a real head scratcher. Unlike the first two epigraphs, most Western readers probably aren't familiar with it, and at first glance it doesn't make a ton of sense. Unlike the other epigraphs, this quote is not about children.
This Sufi proverb presents us with a negative: there's no sign, but if there were one it would say don't eat stones. Well, if there's no sign, maybe it's because the rule is super obvious: of course you shouldn't eat stones, let alone stones in the desert. Sheesh. Maybe this epigraph is pointing to the fact that some things simply aren't acceptable (like breeding women), no mater how desperate the situation. Some rules don't have to be written down; they should be obvious. But that's just our take on this mysterious epigraph. What do you think?