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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Student Question

How does Margaret Atwood address claims to authority in The Handmaid's Tale and what does this suggest about power and rulership?

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To analyze how Atwood explores the question of legitimate and illegitimate claims to authority in the novel, focus on who has authority and how those with power support their claim to it. From the beginning of the novel, we realize that we are seeing events through the eyes of someone without power. She is struggling to understand her world and lacks the freedom to answer the abundance questions she has about her dystopian environment. She questions her the uniformity of her surroundings in what, at first, appears to be a women’s dormitory.

On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue? Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.

She tells us: "time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries." We realize at once that her world is highly regulated by some distant “authority.”

When she is taken to the Commander’s house, she has an exchange with the Commander’s wife that illustrates both a clearly delineated hierarchy of power as well as the wife's lack of substantial power. It is a passive-aggressive scene in which her lack of true power becomes evident. Equally evident is her desire to wield and enforce what little power she does have. As the narrator describes:

She didn't step aside to let me in, she just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. She wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push and shove, these days, over such toeholds.

The wife has no power to bar the Handmaid from either entering her home or having relations with her husband. She claims what little power she has in barring the door momentarily. Nevertheless, she has much more liberty than the Handmaid has, and she has access to provisions that the Handmaid cannot obtain. Moreover, the Handmaid tells us that the wives can hit handmaids. The source of this power comes directly from the Bible or scriptures. She says,

They can hit us, there's Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands.

Thus, Scripture is identified as a source of power. The aunts have more power than handmaids in this hierarchy and cite Scripture as a precedent for Gilead's many rules. Aunt Lydia, for instance, has what the Handmaid calls “the smug authority ...of one who is in a position to judge.” In her speech to the handmaids, she condemns the pre-Gilead women who “were Godless...” This supports that the source of authority that much of Gilead power is cited as Scripture.

Yet, the Handmaid believes that:

There must be a resistance, a government in exile. Someone must be out there, taking care of things. I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.

We can interpret this to mean that she believes the government in exile is the true authority, the one that was democratically appointed and then overthrown. She laments the rebellion and overthrow of the legitimate government.

The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.

Gilead came into being with:

Top-secret Sons of Jacob Think Tanks, at which the philosophy and social structure of Gilead were hammered out.

The author reveals that at secret Sons of Jacob meetings the “original architects of Gilead” devised the powers and hierarchies that we see in modern day Gilead. These points support Gilead leaders illustrating their claim to power and authority as biblical in nature.

We also learn that:

the sociobiological theory of natural polygamy was used as a scientific justification for some of the odder practices of the regime, just as Darwinism was used by earlier ideologies.

Thus, the authority rests on a combination of biblical antecedents and precedents and scientific theories. Specifically,

Gilead outlawed the first two [pre-Gilead practice] as irreligious but legitimized and enforced the third, which was considered to have Biblical precedents; they thus replaced the serial polygamy common in the pre-Gilead period with the older form of simultaneous polygamy practiced both in early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century.

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