Imagery and allusions in The Handmaid’s Tale

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Leah and Rachel

The allusions in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are very wide-ranging, stretching from the Bible to late twentieth century feminism and environmental issues. There are also references to seventeenth-century American Puritanism, the slave trade, Nazism and pornographic films, as well as motifs from fairytales, quotations from Shakespeare, John Milton, Rene Descartes, Tennyson, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. The ‘Historical Notes’ add another layer of reference in an effort to set Gilead within an international history of totalitarianism and various forms of institutional oppression. This range of references is part of Margaret Atwood’s strategy for constructing her modern anti-utopia, and it is also a mark of her own impressive level of cultural literacy. However, the allusions in the novel are not daunting, for it uses allusions very wittily, one of its functions being to mesh together social details with which we are all familiar in order to show us how they might be shaped into a pattern for a future which we would choose to avoid.
It is Offred’s narrative voice transcribed into text which situates her as an individual woman grounded in place and time, whose identity transcends that of her Handmaid’s role. Through the language she uses, rather than the events of the story she tells, Offred convinces us of her resistance to Gilead’s values. Offred’s outer life is very constricted and drained of emotion, but her inner life has an energy and lyricism which enable her to survive emotionally as well as physically in the repressive state Gilead. There is a marked difference between the language she uses to record her muted everyday life, and the language of her real life of feeling and memory, which is expressed through a richly worked vocabulary of images. These register her entirely different perception of herself and her world from the one imposed by Gilead.
You will have noticed that there are a small number of recurrent images which form patterns or ‘image clusters’ throughout her narrative. They derive from the human body (hands, feet, faces, eyes, blood, wombs), also from non-human nature (flowers, gardens, changing seasons, colour and light – especially moonlight). Offred’s images, all related to nature and organic processes, constitute a ‘feminine’ language that works in opposition to Gilead’s polluted technological nightmare and its accompanying rhetoric.
Gilead’s official language with its texture of biblical allusions and deceit is likely to cause problems for most readers especially the biblical references and their significance. Gilead’s social principles are based on the Old Testament, where patriarchal authority is justified as the law of God. There are far more references to the Old than to the New Testament, a common feature of more extreme sects where the archaic language of patriarchy is used as a mechanism for social control. The patriarch Jacob is the state hero, and the name Gilead is closely associated with Jacob, for that was the place where he set up his heap of stones as witness to God and where heestablished his household, his lineage and his flocks and herds (see the note on Gilead in the detailed summary of Chapter 5).
The first quotation in the epigraph directs our attention to Genesis 30:1-3, which is the beginning of the story about Jacob and his two wives Rachel and Leah and their two handmaids who are required to produce children for them. As the basis of the novel it is reiterated many times in the text, most notably in the family Bible reading before the monthly Ceremony, and there are echoes of it in the name of the Rachel and Leah Center and in Offred’s remark that ‘Give me children, or else I die’ can have more than one meaning for her as a Handmaid (Chapter 11). The New Testament is less in evidence, though there is one long passage quoted (I Timothy 2:9-15) which is used at the mass marriage ceremony in Chapter 34 as part of Gilead’s propaganda about male domination and female submission.
In such a society biblical references pervade every level of discourse. Gilead’s leaders understand very well the importance of language as the main instrument of ideological control, and indeed it is just as repressive an instrument as the army and the police, and a great deal more insidious because rituals of naming determine the way we think about our lives. The law enforcers themselves are named after Old Testament figures, whether they are ‘Guardian Angels’ or the ‘Eyes of the Lord’.
On the domestic level, women’s roles are given biblical significance, as in the case of the Handmaids, of course, but also in that of the female servants who become ‘Marthas’ after the woman who served Christ. The use of the name ‘Jezebel’s’ for the state-run brothel, makes Gilead’s misogyny plain, for Jezebel’s name suggests the scandal of female sexuality which Gilead can neither condone nor ignore. In a country where God is treated as a ‘national resource’, biblical names filter into the commercial world. The car brand names available are ‘Behemoth’, Whirlwind’ or ‘Chariot’ and shops have been renamed with pictorial signs which pick up biblical texts like ‘Lilies of the Field’ and ‘All Flesh’. It is an ironic comment on the fact that such naming is only the most superficial sanctification of shopping by coupons, for everything is rationed in Gilead.
Perhaps the funniest misappropriation is Aunt Lydia’s exhortation to the Handmaids, which she claims is from St Paul: ‘From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs’ (Chapter 20). These words are not in the Bible at all; they are a garbled version of Karl Marx’s description of systems of production, though they do make the point that Aunt Lydia wished to stress about service roles. In a similar way the Freudian reference to ‘Pen Is Envy’ (Chapter 29) and the Miltonic reference, ‘They also serve (Chapter 4) also emphasise women’s subservience to men.
We may conclude that Gilead uses biblical references to underwrite patriarchal interests, but it uses them very selectively and sometimes inaccurately. The Word is in the mouths of men only, just as the Bible is kept locked up and only Commanders are allowed to read it. Even the hymns are edited, and Moira’s dissenting version of ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ (Chapter 34) is muffled in the massed choir of the Handmaids. Offred prays quite often in her own private way, saying her version of the Lord’s Prayer (Chapter 30) or crying out to God in despair (Chapter 45), but again her voice is muted. Gilead’s official discourse is a hybridised rhetoric which combines biblical language with traces of American capitalist phrases (‘In God We Trust is the motto on the dollar bill), Marxism and feminism. It uses and abuses the Bible in the same way as it uses the slogans of the liberal ideology it has overthrown. One hostile Old Testament reference which Gilead chooses not to use occurs in Hosea 6:8: ‘Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood.’

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