Sex and Religion: Foundations of a Dystopian Theocracy

Imagine a totalitarian government established almost immediately after the assassination of the current government. The new authoritative figures slowly but effectively take away women’s rights, day by day. Citizens are in a state of silent fear; a new, horrendous regime is rising. Written in the early 1980s and published in 1986, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale envelopes the chaos of early totalitarian rule. She introduces The Republic of Gilead (which is meant to be taken as the future United States of America), a dystopian society that both abuses and puts women on a pedestal. In this matriarchal society, women are separated into categories — Aunts, Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives, and Unwomen; the hierarchy and importance of each woman class is in that order. The protagonist of the novel, Offred, leads the reader through the day to day happenings in this newly reconstructed society, whilst simultaneously telling us her personal story through flashbacks. As the narrative persists, we eventually receive a complete picture of the history of Gilead and the newfound societal standards they have implemented.

Margaret Atwood has received a plethora of praises and criticisms since The Handmaid’s Tale’s publication in 1986. Many believe her social commentary was short sighted and naive, others saw it as a concrete prediction of the fate of our country. Either way, her novel is considered to be amongst the top novels concerning the social and political direction of modern first-world nations, comparable to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In writing this novel, Atwood drew her inspiration from her Puritan family history. Her New Yorker biography and several contemporary interviews from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Satirist cover her research into her own family background during her writing process. One of her ancestors was hanged in Puritan Cambridge, Massachusetts (which is where the novel takes place), but did not die because the drop hang had not been invented yet. When they took the body down the next day, her ancestor, Mary (also known as Half Hanged Mary), was still alive (The New Yorker). Furthermore, the fact that Atwood was born in 1939 reveals just how similar The Handmaid’s Tale was to the world she grew up in.

According to Margaret Atwood herself, in an essay she wrote for The New York Times on writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she was fully aware about the flaws of governmental regimes and how easily decisions could be made and carried out. She also wrote the book in West Berlin in 1984. This was when the Berlin wall was still surrounding West Berlin and the Soviet Empire was a concerning power. Atwood had a front row seat of the rise and fall of a government, and was able to harness her feelings and channel them into her novel. In many of her interviews, she stresses that by writing Handmaid she does not make predictions of what might happen to society in the future, but rather bases her commentary on what has already happened in history. It is important to note that many of the issues that are read in The Handmaid’s Tale can be linked to an event that has already happened in world history. Moreover, book critics from The Satirist, The New York Times, and The New Yorker remind readers that Atwood’s novel isn’t meant to prophecy, but to comment on current social patterns as a caution to the greater populace, thus enforcing Atwood’s original justifications. However, other contemporary critics argue that Atwood’s rendering of a future dystopia in which matriarchy rules is simply impossible despite the historical contexts within the novel– those who disagree focus their arguments on the writing style of the novel and the oh so incomprehensible belief that a matriarchal society can never be implemented.

The manipulation of sex is what ultimately makes Atwood’s novel a success; she capitalizes upon a basic human need and makes it political. Religion is the foundation of all that is The Republic of Gilead, and the practices of sex and roles of women in the Bible are implemented into Gileadean society as inherent parts of their government, otherwise known as a theocracy. Women are tethered to the roles the newly reformed government assigns to them, and the implementers of this society enforce manipulating basic human needs into political standards. This manipulation is essentially what fuels a totalitarian regime, which is evident in world history, and is seen in the novel through the labels the citizens are assigned to, the hierarchy of their positions, and the institutionalized misogyny that forces all the characters of the novel to not only be a part of — but participate in — in this reconstructed society.

The rise of a theocratic government is a crucial event to understand before analyzing The Handmaid’s Tale. During her writing process, Margaret Atwood implements her upbringing in society to her novel; she remarks “having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, [she] knew that established orders could vanish overnight” (Age of Trump). Her general uneasiness, worry, and cynicism bleed between the lines she writes. In Gilead, religion seeps into every aspect of the citizens’ daily lives. The new language is permeated with biblical terms and allusions- stores are named as “Milk and Honey” which represents fertility in the book of Exodus (Atwood 28), “Loaves and Fishes” which is an allusion to Jesus Christ multiplying seven loaves and a few fish from the book of Matthew (Atwood 164), and “All Flesh” which represents God’s inherent rule over humanity in the book of Jeremiah (Atwood 27). These are such names that represent stories in the Bible that are crucial to the Gileadean theocracy, and are meant to enforce the religious political regime that Gilead intends to ingrain into its citizens minds. They also reinforce the women’s roles in this new society; “milk and honey” as its obvious and direct parallel to a woman’s fertility, “loaves and fishes” as a subtle encouragement to multiply, and “all flesh” as a reminder that the women’s bodies belong to the government.

According to a critical analysis about the language in The Handmaid’s Tale, this biblical language “causes women to self censor their speech and their actions” knowing that they are being watched at all times by their dictators (Fouronesixlit). In fact, the women are not allowed to speak aloud at all, but do so illegally and in hushed whispers as Offred admits in the novel (Atwood 4). The language that is enforced throughout this society reflects religion’s role in Gilead, and introduces the readers to the idea that biblical speech is not the most extreme instance of control in this society even if it already reeks of misogyny and theocracy. Hints of canonical biblical women’s roles are strewn throughout the beginning of the plot, and more scarring misogynistic practices continue to be exposed until the novel’s very end.

The government takes caution to implement their theocracy not only into society as a whole, but into individual homes as well. This is seen in The Ceremony, a monthly rape that takes place between the Handmaid, the Wife, and the Commander of the household (Atwood 93). This ceremony is similar to the story of the story in the bible about Jacob and his two wives. According to Margaret Atwood’s essay for The New York Times, “the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids” (Age of Trump). It is biological human nature to possess a familial dynamic, and the government acknowledges this; however, because the Bible is essentially their new Constitution, they take Jehovah’s “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” Bible verse and turn it into a law (Atwood 88). Families in turn become polygamous, focusing on breeding for future generations, thus ignoring basic human emotion. The family dynamic in Gilead places more emphasis on bearing children that it transforms sex, once an act of passion and love, into an act of duty to the theocratic government. In fact, “arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary” in Gileadean society (Atwood 94). The Eyes reserve one day out of the month for a scheduled rape to take place; the Handmaid is the Victim, the Wife is the witness, and the Commander is the perpetrator. Not surprisingly, this three person Ceremony can be paralleled to the Holy Trinity in the Bible, representing the necessity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as a symbol of power and religion. It can also be compared to rape instances in real life in which there is a victim, a witness, and a rapist. The Ceremony is regarded as one of the central elements in The Republic of Gilead, therefore justifying sex being manipulated into politics. Religion feeds directly into their governmental regime, and because the sanctity of marriage must be upheld in Gilead in the same way it is upheld in the Bible, they perform the Ceremony routinely.

One of the more detailed aspects that reflect sex transformed into politics is evident in the new roles the women are bestowed, and the names they are assigned to. Although it is clearly stated that “The Commander is the head of the household” in the novel, it is obvious that the Aunts are the authoritative figures, simply because the “most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves” (Atwood 308). This can be thoroughly explained through a careful analysis of the mob mentality theory and inherent societal misogyny. Because women are deduced to domestic roles such as cook, maid, child bearer, and angel in the house, they are given no other purpose in life except the self fulfilling role they are assigned to.

Women thus are not considered individuals anymore, they “are containers” for a greater cultural end goal (Atwood 96). They are stripped of their independence, thier education, their roles, and their names. Every woman is dehumanized to a container for their Commander’s seeds. Even their patronymic names dictate whom they belong to- Ofwarren, Ofglen, Ofcharles, and Offred. The Satirist offers the analysis that naming the Handmaids in accordance to the Commander “suggests how the Western practice of assigning women the man’s last name upon marriage defines women in terms of their men,” and Margaret Atwood’s essay for The New York Times explaining her writing process affirms this analyzation, but also targets Offred’s name as the most important one, and rightfully so. Canonically, Margaret Atwood reveals that “when [she] first began ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ it was called ‘Offred’, the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, ‘Fred,’ and a prefix [of] denoting ‘belonging to,’” (Age of Trump). Both explanations portray women as property, and reflect the ideals of the Gileadean theocracy; Offred’s patronymic name and her position secure her status as a woman without freedom, a woman without rights, a woman that belongs to a man. ‘Offred’ can be analyzed in three ways, and all three ways justify sex transformed into politics. The first analysis, ‘Of Fred’, is obvious and explained by the protagonist in her story, “My name isn’t Offred. I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden” (Atwoood 84). The humanization of women is forbidden because the only contribution they make in Gilead is their ability to bear a child. The second analysis, ‘Off red’, represents Offred’s eventual deception of the system and downfall in her place in society. The Satirist states that Offred is a “name which suggests that she will eventually discard the red dress of the handmaids” which does happen. She trades the red dress for a feathered one-piece, per her Commander’s request, and secretly visits an underground club that depicts the old society’s vices. The Commander’s Wife eventually finds out about this, thus signaling the consequences that lead to the conclusion of the novel. Factually, the establishment of a totalitarian regime is always flawed, and there are bound to be rebels that do not agree with the system. Historical examples can be seen in Anne Frank and her family hiding underground from Hitler’s regime, and also in speakeasies in the 1920’s that sold alcohol despite the national and constitutional ban. Regardless, Offred removing her red dress is representative of her opposition to the system, and her refusal to conform; and yet, removing her red garment means suicide in Gilead. If she is exposed, she would be publicly hanged and turned into an anti-government example to the other Handmaids. Finally, the third analysis, ‘Offered’, which very much sounds like ‘Offred’, represents her body as an offering in both the religious and institutional sense. These analyses contribute to the argument that Gilead’s regime is based on the sex Handmaids are forced to take a part in with their Commanders, stripping it of its human aspects and turning it into something purely political.

An idea that is institutionalized is difficult, if not impossible, to dispel from societies. Rape culture is an issue that protects the upper class (a modern day example being Stanford swimmer Brock Turner who avoided a rape sentence because of his inherent privilege as a white male in society), and ruins lives of the middle and lower classes– seen in a plethora of rape cases that have been publicized in media today. In Gilead, rapists are not only scorned, but murdered.

The Handmaids are conditioned to believe that rape is their fault; in the novel, this is shown through the Handmaid practice of Testifying. Similar to the biblical practice of being testified for one’s sins, this is an activity in which the Handmaids share stories from the past; in one case, a woman known as Janine shares her story about being gang raped, initially expecting sympathy and female support. However, the Aunts train and encourage the other Handmaids to convince Janine that the rape is her fault, thus minimizing her scarring experience and reinforcing the idea that women are objects. The Aunts are in control, and the Handmaids do what they are told. This idea of slut shaming is repeated over and over; in this instance, Testifying, which at its root is a biblical term that includes Judgement Day at the hands of God, is turned into a dehumanizing act. The women testify against and judge Janine as guilty for being raped, just as Jesus will testify for the sinners of the world at the gates of Heaven. Politically, unconstitutional rape (rape outside of The Ceremony, that is) is an act that must be diminished from Gileadean society totally. In this government, it takes two to perform rape, and both individuals are executed; the Handmaid with a bullet to the head, and the rapist through Salvaging and Particution. Rape is seen as the worst crime one can commit in Gilead, which in truth appeases many modern feminist ideals, but is convoluted in this society to make the woman at fault. Gilead’s definition of rape and its consequences exhibits clear misconstruction of sex as a pervading role in Gileadean politics.

The most significant aspect of The Republic of Gilead’s manipulation of sex, however, is exemplified through the institutionalized misogyny that not only prevails, but flourishes even after the fall of the United States government. This can be seen in the Aunts’ role in Gilead and how they are symbols of this matriarchal yet misogynist society. The Aunts not only affirm the regime that is happening, but encourage and participate in it. They themselves are the catalysts for more cutthroat laws that further subjugate women to their roles as childbearers. As quoted earlier, the easiest way to implement a totalitarian regime against women, is to have it enforced by women themselves. In this sense, the Aunts are given a power no other female character in the novel has: control. Everyone else must submit to the system. In Tara J. Johnson’s 2004 article about the Aunts in Gilead, she states “Atwood has a history of placing powerful females in her novels who use their power against other females” (2), thus affirming the power that the Aunts possess over the Handmaids as canonical to Atwood’s work. Johnson also justifies her notion by quoting J. Brooks Bouson, the author behind the collection of criticisms for Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. He discusses “the female-directed oppression of women […] and describes the brutal re-education of the Handmaids, who are coerced by the Aunts to forego the ideology of women’s liberation and to revert to the ‘traditional’ values of a male-dominated system” (Johnson 2). The Aunts become the perpetrators of this misogynistic regime, and embrace the previous institutionalized misogyny that robbed women of their independence and security. They are the enforcers of the sex-as-politics regime that pervades Gilead, and have no remorse to the sufferings of the Handmaids they administer their dictatorship over.

An example of the cruelty they enforce is seen in Testifying, which is mentioned above. The Aunts encourage the Handmaids to blame Janine for her gang-rape, chanting “Her fault, her fault, her fault,” making rape a consequence of being an independent woman to “teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson” (Atwood 72). Institutionalized misogyny is thus ingrained into the Handmaid’s minds as normal, and they all give into it because of the mob mentality- a sociological theory in which groups adapt behaviors and or actions simply because their peers are adapting it. This can further be analyzed at the religious level, with the Aunts playing God as the shepherd and the Handmaids playing the sheep.

The shepherd and sheep analogy is comparable to the Salvaging and Particution ceremony that takes place towards the end of the novel. Atwood writes this ceremony as a “blood lust: [they] want to tear, gouge, rend […] [they] look at one another, seeing the hatred” for the rapist that took away one of their own (Atwood 279). Biblically, “salvaging” is read along the same lines as “preserving” and as “salvation.” Both “salvage” and “salvation” mean to save, but the former means to save in hopes of recovery, while the latter means to save in terms of the holy spirit and the soul. In this instance, the Aunts represent the shepherds in which the Handmaid sheep must follow. Lucy Freibert reinforces the Aunts’ power and the negative connotations associated with rape culture by defining the Salvaging and Particution ceremony: “At Particutions the Handmaids ritually dismember any man accused of rape. The Aunts supply the rhetoric that arouses the women to savagery” (284–85). This ceremony is a symbol of the Aunt’s total power in Gileadean society, and their affirmation of the politics that inevitably accompany sex in The Republic of Gilead. Throughout training, the Aunts remind the Handmaids of their roles as childbearers, reassuring them by speaking of the future generations: “For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts” (Atwood 117). The Handmaids are constantly reminded that they are merely robots to the system, that the only role they serve in this dystopia is the role of childbearer, and that they must fulfill their roles. Using the Aunts as the teachers of this new regime was the only way the new government could rule over women as effectively as they did. Additionally, if it weren’t for the history of institutionalized misogyny that many of these Aunts remember and often are guilty of (acts such as slut shaming, supporting the patriarchy, and preserving traditional gender roles), they would have no background for brainwash. Preserving sex as a nationwide law thus becomes the central and common goal of the Gileadean administrators and the Aunts, and ultimately characterizes the society as a society led by women, but still inherently misogynistic.

Historically, the 1980s were a time of global uncertainty. The 1985 Brixton riot, the ongoing research on AIDS, and the spread of Communism worldwide were such things that should be noted while reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s personal history with Puritanism in her ancestry, her residence in West Berlin during Soviet rule, and her consciousness during the time of World War II are factors that are implemented into The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood emulated the world’s, and her own, general confusion and fear into this text, as an extreme of what might happen if history is repeated, and if mistargeted hate and ignorance continues to prevail in modern day culture. Moreover, the influence of British writers across centuries is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale; Mary Wollstonecraft’s role in the Feminist movement and Doris Lessing’s contribution to Postmodern feminism are clearly seen throughout Atwood’s text. Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women rising up once the patriarchy is suppressed comes to light in the worst and most extreme way. Lessing’s role in Modernism and Modernist ideals are also seen throughout Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the characters lose hope for a past that they can no longer return to. Her ruse of media res, broken storytelling, and flashback bring the reader into a state of whiplash and confusion — thus paralleling the broken state of the novel itself. The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that was written ahead of it’s time; predicting societal circumstances that have come to fruition recently. Sex plays the dictator in Atwood’s dystopian fiction, and the connection between her social commentary and today’s society is uncanny.

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