Friday, 26 September 2014

Biblical References in "The Handmaid's Tale"...

Published: May 28, 2007 on Helium

When a book relies on illusions to a sacred text, it becomes itself "sacred". Traditional beliefs may be reinforced or disturbingly questioned. A new sense of religious value may be established. Biblical references in "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), by popular Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, open the imagination to a dark, dystopian "other world" of the Republic of Gilead. Atwood creates a world where the dogged practice of religion may not be morally tasteful or acceptable.

Once, some remote country called the United States, Gilead is now imprisoned in its own apocalyptic rules. All sense of human life, motivated by unique will and purpose, is "stifled" by religious dogma. Only the men in the narrative seem to have a little bit of leeway. Religious dogma rules political and social values, culture and even personal relationships (because there are none! Any offenders are banished to the outer, nuclear wasteland! )

And the Bible told them so! Yes! A controversial premise for a "future worlds" novel, even if it is all imaginary! When reading "The Handmaid's Tale", expect confronting, Bible based scenarios! Expect black, devastating satire!

The title sounds very Chaucerish! Like "The Wife of Bath's Tale"! After all, Chaucer's storytellers were on a religious pilgrimage. But, in Margaret Atwood's world, the pilgrims have reached journey's end. There is no more journey. There is just the duty of living with a "religious habit" (pardon the pun!)

Offred is the handmaid of the title. She wears a red and white "nun-like" attire (very provocative, a challenge to our religious senses), and functions as handmaid and child bearer. The Commander is her third child bearing assignment. (Her original husband, Luke, was lost in the "old" world). Even Scrabble is a forbidden pleasure, because women are no longer allowed to read or write. But Offred dares to try to play occasionally. Offred's plaintive voice weaves the nightmare of the story.

Already, Biblical references are flying. The wonder of Gilead is sourced in the Old Testament. It is a fertile area of ancient Palestine. But notably, one source, in Hosea, is never mentioned:
"Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood".

Handmaid names are all Biblical names. In Genesis Chapter 30, verses 1-3, we find the functional handmaid.
"When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die! Then she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.'"
The Rachel and Leah centre, where handmaids are trained, are two names of women in the Bible; they are the wives of Jacob. Greetings between handmaids is confined to religious ritual e.g. "May the Lord open" or "Blessed be the fruit" followed by weather observations. It is against religious law to say more.

The Beatitudes of the Bible are "twisted" to suit the purposes of the Gilead regime. No female, at least, can check on the slight differences. The regime has locked the Bible away. Just as long as Gilead commandments begin with "Blessed be" (as the Bible does), then they must be right!

The Soul Scrolls of Gilead are only prayer machines. They can be ordered, registered, but not read, by females. Offred risks her life praying the Lord's Prayer, with a few adjustments.
"Now we come to forgiveness. Don't worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things."

Even apparently "small" images are imbued with Biblical connection. In the climactic mating scene, in Chapter 16, Offred notices the sickly scents of lily of the valley. To Offred, the scents symbolize the innocence of female flesh. But, there is the rather erotic verse, in the Song of Solomon Chapter 2, where Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his beloved. The BRIDE is the lily of the valley. But gospel lyrics perpetuate CHRIST as the lily of the valley, "the bright and morning star". Even small images in "The Handmaid's Tale" are highly electrified with satire.

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a confronting, dark view of where we "may" travel. Here is a sample of a "religious" world with no room for personal freedom of choice. Is this how you thought it would be? It IS strictly based on a wide range of Bible references! Perhaps a few Biblical criteria have been omitted. But is that really important? We can only be thankful that the Biblical references, Margaret Atwood persistently throws at us, all stem from early Old Testament worlds. Hopefully, we have progressed since then.

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