Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaids Tale belongs to the genre of anti-utopian (dystopian) science fiction where we read about a woman’s fictive autobiography of a nightmarish United States at the end of the twentieth century when democratic institutions have been violently overthrown and replaced by the new fundamentalist republic of Gilead. In the novel the majority of the population are suppressed by using a “Bible-based” religion as an excuse for the suppression. How does this work and why can the girls, the so called Handmaids, be considered the victims of society? Also, in what way does Gilead use biblical allusions? That is some of the questions this essay will give answers for.
To begin with the so called Handmaids are girls who have only one purpose in life which is to reproduce. They are women who when have reached the age and maturity to reproduce have been taken to Gilead where they are tattooed with four digits and an eye (Gilead’s tattoo which works as a passport in reverse) which immobilises them, in contrast to the winged male eye which is the state symbol. Then they are re-educated at the so called Red-centre, the name emphasises female sexuality and how they are taught there can be linked with brainwashing. They are told how lucky they should feel because they have been saved from the primitive and cruel outside world where women are being raped and maltreated. Other things they learn are numerous sayings and mottos of the Red-centre like “Pen is Envy” which is based on a Freudian psychoanalytic theory which presents “penis envy” as an essential element of femininity, and a mark of “woman’s natural inferiority to men”. So knowing this, are they actually better of in Gilead? There they are “valued only in terms of their biological usefulness as child bearers” due to that the birth rate in the society has fallen to a catastrophically low level because of deadly pollution and sexually transmitted diseases which cause sterility and infertility. They are known by their Commanders first names, Of -(name of commander), this to underline their function as sexual objects without individuality.
Moreover, apart from being deprived their own names Handmaids are also deprived legal rights. They live at a Commander’s house where the commander that they are assigned to, (for reproductive purposes), is their only hope for freedom. This because if the Handmaid gets pregnant after one of the monthly “impregnation Ceremonies”, where the commander’s wife is also present, she becomes a “wife” and is not sent to the Colonies and a sure death as an “Unwoman”. (those who does not conceive a child and therefore not considered real women). During their stay in the Commanders household they are under constant surveillance from his wife and other female servants. Ordinary things like reading and writing as well as to close personal friendships are forbidden. These facts are enough to realize that it is far from a privilege to be taken to Gilead as a girl. So now to the question how they manage to brainwash the Handmaids to, if not to be happy with their situation then at least to accept it and in some cases believe that they are well taken care of.
It can be said that in Gilead they use a various number of ways, several related to religion using biblical allusions. The name Gilead itself is named after a place in the Old Testament which “projects the ideal image for an embattled state, run on fundamentalist religious and patriarchal principles”. Other means used are titles. For example the soldiers of Gilead’s army, so called Angels, fight in battalions with names like “Angels of Apocalypse” and Angels of light”. Furthermore the Gardians (members of the Gileadean police force) have the official title of “Guardians of Faith”, all these titles sound very pure and good. Therefore to be surrounded by them must contribute to give the Handmaids a feeling of safety and that they are protected from something. Now this is an illusion too in a way because the Handmaids have no real idea of how the outside world is or who the enemy actually is. To stop them from starting a riot they are given information that the Angels are victorious after this and that battle and also they are sometimes summoned for Prayvaganzaz where they pray for and honour the successes the Angels achieved. When no news are passed on to them about the wars and they are not summoned to the prayvaganza they can still se the results of the Angels work in front of a wall where people are regularly hanged up to show what happens to those who do not obey the rules. They all have sacks over their heads to cover their faces but each and one of them are signed which tells what they were condemned for.
To sum up, the dystopian science fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood describes a futuristic thought of what happens when a new fundamentalist republic is introduced in the United States and how they use Biblical allusions for propaganda. This they accomplish by distorting the source of the Old Testament, as well as other religious documents, in a rhetoric representation to fit the interests and ideologies of the Gileadean society. Continuously the so called Handmaid’s are women taken to Gileadean for reproductive purposes where they are brainwashed to believe that they are protected from a cruel outside world. Now that is what they are told to believe but the truth is that they are abused even worse as they are deprived their identities totally and used as well as thought of as fertilization tanks. Therefore it can be said that the only real victims in the novel are the Handmaids.