The Handmaid's Tale Significant Influences and References
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Significant Influences and References

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 Here are two of the novel’s most prominent historical references: 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...

(The entire section is 589 words.)