What are the epigraphs in The Handmaid's Tale

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The first of the three epigraphs comes from the book of Genesis in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible:

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...

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The first of the three epigraphs comes from the book of Genesis in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible:

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.

These lines seem to provide the biblical precedent for the establishment and treatment of handmaids in Gileadean society. The leaders of the community clearly have this passage in mind when creating the new society's social make-up. They interpret these lines as God's permission to use women in this way, and there is no provision made for men who might be sterile. There is no suggestion that perhaps Jacob is the reason Rachel cannot get pregnant, and so perhaps this is also why, in Gilead, it is illegal to speak of infertility in men, and only women can be "barren."

The second epigraph is from Jonathan Swift's satirical pamphlet, "A Modest Proposal." He writes,

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...

The narrator of Swift's essay, not Swift himself, proposes that the poor Irish sell their babies as a food source to the wealthy English who were, for all intents and purposes, taking over the country. He claims to have considered various other ideas before this one but never landed on something that could be so successful until now. Swift points out that, since the English landowners were, figuratively speaking, "devouring" the country of Ireland by impoverishing its native inhabitants, this logic pushed to its extreme would permit the English to literally devour the Irish; both scenarios amount to the certain destruction of a people. In raising rents too high for the Irish to pay, the English left them without food or other basic necessities and sometimes without homes. The situation had become so bad for the Irish that Swift ironically proposed that selling their babies would lessen the number of mouths a family had to feed and provide a sizable income to the mothers; the English would acquire a new food source, their pubs and restaurants would prosper from increased custom, and—as a bonus—there would be fewer Catholics in the world. It sounds like it could be the perfect solution: except that it fails to consider that the Irish are human beings with wills and feelings of their own. It fails to consider that such a system would be tantamount to the murder of children. The narrator gets so caught up in all the potential benefits of his proposed system that he neglects to ever consider the humanity of the people he so casually discusses: much like the leaders of Gilead fail to consider the humanity of the women of their society. The women are treated as a commodity, as Swift's narrator treats the Irish, to be used and exploited at will.

The final epigraph reads,

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.

This line seems to imply that there is no reason to make laws regulating actions that seem like common sense. We don't need to be told not to eat stones—it doesn't require a law—because who, in their right mind, would eat rocks? Likewise, we ought not to need laws that tell us that we cannot force women into sexual servitude just because the population is dwindling. We ought not to require laws that prevent some women from being declared "unwomen" and sent off to clean up toxic waste. We ought not to require laws that prevent us from forcing women to choose between certain death or a life of sexual servitude, because this is really rape masquerading as "concern for society," and rape is illegal and wrong. We should not need laws telling us that we cannot treat women as objects, because we should already know better.

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An epigraph is a sentence, usually a quotation from another literary work or a passage from a famous speech, that is set at the beginning of a novel or a document. The function of the epigraph is to introduce the reader to the themes of the text that they are about to read.

In Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale there are three epigraphs. The first comes from Genesis 30:1-3 and refers to the practice of ancient Hebrew male to get their slaves pregnant if their wives were not fertile. The epigraph introduces the theme of sterility and relates to the right of the novel's totalitarian government to appropriate fertile women's bodies for state controlled child-bearing programs.

The second epigraph is from Jonathan Swift's satire A Modest Proposal (1729). In this famous piece, whose full title reads 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 paradoxically suggests that, to solve the problems of poverty, starvation and overpopulation that were affecting Ireland at the time he was writing, the Irish could eat their own children or sell them. This is obviously an ironic argument. Yet, Swift is able to argue convincingly and logically even the most absurd ideas. Like the Atwood's novel, this second epigraph is concerned with children. Unlike the novel, however, it is about the fact that there are too many children. In addition to these thematic concerns, the epigraph and the novel share the idea that even the most horrible ideas can be given rational legitimacy.

Finally, the third epigraph is a Sufi proverb:

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. 

Sufism is an oriental philosophy that argues for a less wordly Islam. The application of the proverb to the novel has puzzled readers and caused much debate. What Atwood seems to be getting at here is that when something is obviously wrong (such as eating stones or breeding women), we shouldn't need signs or laws prohibiting it.

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