The Handmaid's Tale Questions and Answers
by Margaret Atwood

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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 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...

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