By Professor Kevin Killeen
Much of the drama of The Handmaid's Tale depends on the oddness of characters who are modern in outlook forced to behave as though they are part of an Old Testament text. Gilead, in the novel, is a biblical ‘theocracy’ (a government ruled by religious law), with a particularly harsh and literal interpretation of the scriptures. But none of the characters seem to believe in this with much conviction. The Bible merely serves a purpose, and scripture is cited almost exclusively to insist on the subservience of women, or to talk about bearing children.
Very often, the apparently biblical phrases are distortions or misquotations, but repeated often enough, they supply the patriarchal underpinning of Gilead's control of women. We learn early in the novel how the misogyny and violence is mock-biblical: 'They can hit us. There's scriptural precedent'  (Atwood, 26) claim the truncheon-wielding 'aunts'. When, at a meal, they are read the 'Beatitudes' from the Bible, the reader adds 'Blessed are the silent', and even Offred, who never paid much attention to the Bible in the past, says 'I know she made that up'. Lydia cites both Milton and Karl Marx (28, 127), pretending they are from the Bible.
Gilead is loosely based on an American evangelical society – Serena, we find out, was once a 'televangelist' gospel singer. The mainstay of fundamentalist Protestantism is the idea that everyone must read the Bible, and that it should be understood in literal fashion. However, in Gilead the Bible is kept locked away in a box, because, as Offred thinks, 'It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?' This is not the only suggestion, in the novel, that the Bible might be a revolutionary and explosive text, if only they could read what it really said. Offred and her friend Moira play subversively with biblical quotes, altering 'There is a balm in Gilead' to 'There is a bomb in Gilead' (230).
The most horrific and skewed use of the Bible occurs in how Gilead mandates absolute control of birth and conception. The curse on Eve in Genesis, 'in sorrow shall thou bring forth', is used to ban anaesthetics in birth (124). The word 'sterile' is forbidden, because 'barrenness' is always attributed to the woman, even though it is presumed that it is men who are infertile. Abortion is a crime, in this world of malevolent evangelical literalism, with its control over women's bodies.
There is one exception, however, to this locking away of the Bible, when the Commander unlocks the bible-box, prior to the sex 'ceremony'. He reads a passage loosely based on the story of Rachel and Leah, Jacob's two wives, and their handmaids (Genesis 29–30). The parallel, the sexual 're-enactment' of biblical events, would be laughable were it not so horrific, and all the characters in the 'ceremony' seem to find it grotesque and a preposterous performance. When a little earlier, Offred says to herself, 'Give me children or else I die', she is again quoting Genesis, and Rachel's desperate plea to her husband to give her a child. For Offred, however, 'There's more than one meaning to it' (71). For her, the risk of death in childlessness is literal.
Atwood's novel is full of distorted and oppressive misrepresentation of the Bible, and in many cases, the Bible says no such thing. Towards the end of the novel, however, at the 'Prayvaganza', the commander reads a set of quotations that are more or less accurate, from the New Testament letters of St Paul (mostly) that command and restrain women, in what they wear and do and say (233). For many contemporary readers, this is the Bible at its most misogynistic.
But Gilead remains a plausible world because it is still recognisably American. 'God is a National Resource' (225) reads a sign at the prayer-meeting, even as its brutal capitalism falls apart. The Handmaid's Tale is so effective a novel precisely because it is, at one and the same time, realistic and unimaginable. Events take place in the most 'liberal' of states, Massachusetts, but the shock of things, for the characters, is precisely this, 'how little time it's taken to become used to it', as Offred says, its brutality becoming normalised.
Atwood's novel has become so important again in recent years because events in present day America seem to be catching up with Atwood's dystopia, with forced-births being the consequence of the recent abortion ban. Gilead hangs its enemies on the walls of Harvard Yard, not only Catholics and Quakers, but 'gender-traitors', doctors and 'abortionists' (53). While America is clearly visible in The Handmaid's Tale, however, the novel has been criticised for its lack of attention to Black Americans, who hardly exist in it. The only oblique reference to African Americans is a passing reference to the re-settling, or the ominous absence in the novel, of 'the children of Ham' (Genesis 9), a phrase long associated with and used to justify slavery. The Bible, or a distorted version of the Bible, has long played a part in American history, and The Handmaid’s Tale depicts this kind of interpretation as guiding the Republic of Gilead.
- Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (Vintage, 1996)
Kevin Killeen is a Professor of English Literature at the University of York and is the author of six books.