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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Significant Influences and References

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Margaret Atwood draws on many historical and biblical influences throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. These enable Atwood to imagine a dystopian reality based on Christian theology and actual events in history. 

Biblical: The Handmaid’s Tale includes many references to biblical themes, characters, stories, and locations. Atwood relies on these in part to criticize the underpinnings of the fundamentalist Christian idealism that was being espoused by conservative politicians during the 1980s. Here are two of the most prominent biblical references in the novel: 

  • The entire concept of the Ceremony is based on the Old Testament story of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob. Rachel and Leah are sisters who are both married to Jacob. Though Leah is fertile, Rachel cannot get pregnant. In Genesis 30:1–3, she advises Jacob to “‘Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’” In The Handmaid’s Tale, this biblical tale is recreated in the ritualistic raping of the Handmaid by her Commander in the presence of his wife so that they can “have children by her.” 
  • The Republic of Gilead alludes to the land of Gilead, or “the Hill of testimony” (Genesis 31:21), to which Jacob flees with Rachel, Leah, and their children in order to escape his tyrannical father-in-law and uncle, Laban. The United States government is overthrown by fundamentalist Christians, who call themselves the Sons of Jacob, and transformed into a figurative Gilead in order to combat the declining birthrate among white Americans. 

Historical: In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood draws on historical events that center on controversial issues taking place in her contemporary moment. As a work of dystopian fiction, the novel imagines what the world would be like if current social, political, and religious trends were carried out, as Atwood herself has said, to their “logical end.” As such, all of the horrors that she wrote about actually took place in reality. Here are two of the novel’s most prominent historical references: 

  • Gilead alludes not only to the Bible but also to Atwood’s study of American Puritan culture while at Harvard University. Puritans were English Protestants who wanted to banish Roman Catholic practices from the Church of England in the 1600s. Puritan culture was deeply oppressive, particularly for women. Women were considered inferior to men; they were excluded from public life, had few rights, and served primarily as reproductive vessels confined to the home. American history often remembers the Puritans as victims of religious persecution in England; however, Atwood’s characterization of Gilead implies that Puritan leaders left England in order to create a monolithic theocracy in which they could exert total control over society. 
  • Atwood refers to the Warsaw Tactic, also known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in the Historical Notes. The Warsaw Tactic was a resistance among Polish Jews who had been forced into a ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, as they awaited execution. By the summer of 1942, almost 500,000 people lived within the 840 acres of the ghetto camp. Those who did not die of disease or starvation faced being sent to the Treblinka concentration camp. In 1943, Polish Jews attempted to resist deportation. The revolt began on April 19, and despite the Germans planning to decimate the ghetto within three days, was crushed four weeks later on May 16. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Colonies seem to represent the concentration and forced labor camps, like that in Warsaw, that became common as the Nazis attempted to rid Europe of Jews. 

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