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Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale

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Victoria Miller

Period 7


1 May 2014

Religion in The Handmaid’s Tale 

        The Republic of Gilead is a theocracy. However, most of the actual Bible verses are changed to fit the ideology of Gilead. This enhances the novel because this dystopian society uses religion for political purposes and satisfying the needs of men.

        Society in Gilead is broken into social classes based off Biblical references. Marthas are an example of this. Marthas are house cleaners in the Commanders’ houses. They cook and do domestic chores and can be viewed as allusions to Martha of Bethany. When Jesus visited Martha and Mary, Martha fretted around the house cleaning and making sure the house was spotless for Jesus. In addition, Marthas are separated from Handmaids and judgmental of them. This is seen when Rita says to Cora “that she wouldn’t debase herself like that” (Atwood 10), referring to being a Handmaid. Cora also comments that “it’s not what you’d call doing hard work” (10). This is also seen in Martha of Bethany when she judged Mary for listening to Jesus rather than help her clean and feels offended when Jesus praises Mary for doing so. In addition, Angels at the Red Center are a distorted version of the angel at the Garden of Eden. Although both are guardians, Angels at the Red Center prevent people from leaving while the angel at the Garden of Eden prevented people from entering. Both have weapons to complete their jobs. In the Red Center, Angels are “trusted with guns” (4). However, the angel at the Garden of Eden was given “flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life” (KJV Genesis 3:24). In addition, both are seen to be “objects of fear” (4). Both Marthas and Angels show that Gilead uses biblical references in order to keep social classes intact.

        Gilead uses biblical references to continue discrimination. “‘Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule’… ‘Lord knows what they’re supposed to do, once you get there. Farm is the theory’” (83-84). “Children of Ham” is a reference to the offspring of Noah’s son, Ham. In the Bible, Noah cursed Ham and his future generations to an eternity of servitude. “Children of Ham” is also another phrase for people of darker skin tones. This biblical reasoning was the justification that white people gave for capturing and enslaving Africans. This allusion can also reference Jews in Nazi Germany. Just as no one truly knows what happens to the “children of Ham” after they are relocated, the world did not know that Jews were being held in concentration camps until World War II was over. In addition, women are seen to be servants of men in Gilead because of biblical reasoning. “Wives submit yourselves unto your own husband, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and He is the savior of the body” (KJV Ephesians 5:22-23). The men in Gilead believe it is their duty to save the women from the error of their ways, just as Christ saved the Church.

        Just as the men believe it is their duty to save women, they believe that prayer and religion are commodities. The Prayvaganza shows that prayer is no longer personal in Gilead but a public affair. Church and state are no longer separated and “God is a National Resource” (213). “We must look good from a distance: picturesque…to demonstrate how obedient and pious we are” (212). In chapter 30 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred compares praying at the Red Center and her prayers in the present. In the Red Center, Aunt Lydia focused on the physical aspects of prayer, “she liked the look of the thing” (194). She wanted the women to kneel down with their “heads bowed just right, our toes together and pointed, our elbows at the proper angle” (194). These prayers were fake and ceremonial. The prayers at the Red Center were rituals without meaning. This completely contrasts Offred’s prayer in chapter 30. Offred prays while “sitting by the window” without closing her eyes out of familiarity with God. Instead of just reading scriptures, she uses the Lord’s Prayer as a basis for her prayer. Atwood uses Offred’s prayer to show how different she is from society and its view of religion.

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