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Biblical Appropriation in the Handmaids Tale

Essay by   •  February 20, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,891 Words (8 Pages)  •  1,874 Views

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Margaret Atwood's, The Handmaid's Tale, constructs a near-future dystopia where human values do not progress and evolve, but instead become completely diminished and dominated under the Republic of Gilead. This powerful and secure new government gains complete political control and begins to abuse their power by forcing fertile women to reproduce. The Gileadean society is enforced by many Biblical laws, morals, and themes, yet the Gileadian religious ideologies are based on only a few specifically selected Biblical passages that are taken literally. The selection of certain passages in the Bible helps control and manipulate the women that are being enslaved by giving them a false sense of justification and security for the treatment they must endure. This literal connection between the manipulative use of religion with the Gilead government is first truly seen when Offred is patiently waiting in a sitting room and comments on a preacher that she notices on the television by saying: "These days they look a lot like businessmen?(82). Atwood is implying that these new preachers are not preaching on television for the moral benefit of the public, but are now used by the Gileadian government to help support their religious identity by brainwashing the public with propaganda. Atwood includes this small comment to illustrate how religion is now used for the benefit of the preachers and not the public; this self-centered view is similar to how businessmen treat business. Atwood depicts Gilead to illustrate her concern with the negative use of religion in society by demonstrating how a totalitarian-like government can simply justify all of these unequal rules and harsh values by appropriating the Holy Bible.

The Bible is taken literally and completely distorted out of context by the Gilead government to enforce the new laws that harbor in their theocracy. Subsequent to Offred watching the television in the sitting room, the Commander enters the room and begins to read a passage from the story of Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah. The selected passage that is read is Genesis 30:1-3: "Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her?(88). In the complete passage, Jacob is upset because his wife Rachel has not conceived a baby, which is much like the Commander. He does not blame it on himself, but instead accuses his wife of not being able to conceive. In the Gilead society it is forbidden for men to be called sterile; which forces women to be accused with the fault of withholding pregnancy. Rachel literally represents the Commander's wife because she wants children so badly that she is willing to let the Commander conceive with her handmaid Offred. There is a literal connection that both Bilah and Offred share due to the fact that they are both maids, and ordered to "bear upon?the wives knees so the men could have children through them.

This passage of Genesis taken from the creation story in the Bible is literally manifested through the process of the Ceremony. Offred describes her physical position on the bed with Serena Joy during the Ceremony: "Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me?(93). This description further supports the literal connection between Offred and Billah because of the physical style the Ceremony is conducted in. In the Bible the passage can be interpreted to show that Rachel is having the baby through Billah; this interpretation is taken literally and implied in the Ceremony. The story of Jacob and Rachel is found in the epigraphs, numerous times throughout the novel, and the school where handmaids are educated is named the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center. Atwood is implying that the exclusive choice of this passage by the Republic of Gilead was used to justify their ideologies and serve as a basis to control the women in the society. It is continually read to the handmaid's before breakfast so the process of reproduction is religious and instilled in their values for Gilead's means of reproducing. The passages that are purposely selected by the Commanders support reproduction, encouraging the handmaids to cooperate. Atwood does this to show how religion can be used to make the government more powerful and in control.

The Republic of Gilead also used the Bible to manipulate the society to support their ideologies. The means in which the selected passages from the Bible are introduced to the handmaids help manipulate the women to support Gilead's inequalities. For example, when the handmaid's eat lunch they listen to a prayer on a tape because the Aunts are not supposed to be given the privilege of reading. Offred comments that the voice on the tape is a man, which signifies that men are superior to women when it comes to reading from the Bible. The prayer reads as: "Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted?(89). In this tape recording, the handmaids are the ones that are symbolically being referred to as "poor in spirit, merciful, meek, and silent.?Gilead distorts this prayer to encourage these traits onto the handmaids by delivering the message that inhabiting these traits will result in being blessed and comforted in Heaven. Inhabiting all of these traits make the women very passive and accepting of a commanding force, which is what Gilead needs to stay in control. Afterwards, Offred narrates: "I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking?(89). Offred is aware that Gilead is manipulating them by selecting certain lines and perhaps even making it up. Manipulation is another tool that is used by the government to take away power from women by encouraging them that they will be rewarded in their after life.

The Bible is distorted once again to manipulate the women during the Women's Prayvaganzas. The Commander hosting the service makes a speech to the crowd: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection...All...But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve?(221). The Bible is once again used selectively, isolating only the passages that pertain to Gilead's interests, which in this case is restricting women to be submissive. Gilead is trying to implement the fact that women should be subservient to men in society by literally justifying it from a myth in the Bible. This is only one of the stories of creation in Genesis, and is secluded and appropriated to make the women believe

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