as Reflected in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale
In the olden days, religion and politics went hand in hand. The church either ran
the land or had a strangle hold on the people. If the church thought there was one way to
do something, one had to do as the church requested or suffer great penalty. To go
against the church was to go against God, and that meant death. The king was supposed
to be chosen by God to rule the people in the way he commanded. The king was the
closest thing to God on earth. Monarchs generally ruled hand in hand with the church.
As the monarchy’s rein started to come to an end, the church’s tight grip on the citizens
slowly started to loosen. With the implication of democracy, the church lost all real
power to make laws and actually govern the people. The church still held power over
peoples’ morals, but without the monarchy’s to enforce it the church’s found their power
decreasing. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the government and the church
are interchangeable. The government is what used to be called the church, they have
come together to become one unit of power. The power of a modern day government
with all the knowledge and weapons combined with the fanaticism of a medieval based
church create a dictatorship like none other. The novel deals with the treatment of
children harshly for a society which views children as their last hope, their most valuable
commodity. Children are taken away from their homes to be given to the privileged, and
women are forced to give birth to babies they can not keep. The society of Gilead takes
the views of a traditional religious monarchy and enforces them with modern day power.
In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a place called the “Red Center”, which
is a training facility. When one thinks of a training facility they tend to invision a military
base with young soldiers learning what they need to know to survive. Atwood’s “Red
Center” is very similar to this type of facility; it has soldiers inside the facility and people
are being taught how to survive. Women in the “Red Center” are being taught how to
become submissive to the new order. The “Red Center” is the place they take women
who they believe are prime child bearers, and the women are taught how to become
Handmaids. A Handmaid is a woman who goes into a home, usually of a high ranking
official, to get pregnant because in this age of pollution and death, may people are unable
to procreate. The Handmaids are sent to live in the homes and take the name of the male
in the household, where their goal is to become pregnant. If she does not within three
terms in three separate houses she is no longer considered “helpful” to society and may
be sent away to the colonies to live out the rest of her life cleaning up radioactive waste.
In modern times when a couple is not able to have children and is not eligible for
adoption, one possible choice is the use of a surrogate mother. A surrogate mother is
when the husbands sperm is injected into another fertile female, who then gives birth to
the baby and gives the it to the couple. This practice is not all that common but still can
be found happening in various places around the world. The use of a surrogate mother
often leaves emotional scars for the biological mother and can possibly end up in the
courts if the she changes her mind, and wishes to keep the child.
Children in Giliead are a valuable commodity. Custody of a child depends not on
birth rights, but on power and status of an individual. In the early years of Gilead, a child
could have easily been taken away from a family and given to a powerful commander or
anyone of high status. As the years went by, the under class were simply not able to have
any children, the right reserved for only the rich and powerful. Any woman who had the
ability to have children were taken away from there homes and forced to become
Handmaids for the elite. The public was told that it was all for the good of the society,
and if anyone resisted, they were delt with quickly and harshly. This was no longer a
democracy. Families were torn apart with no hope for reconcile. Custody depended on
In our society Custody is almost always given to the birth parents. Sometimes
custody can be taken away from a couple if they have proven themselves unfit parents.
Custody can be given to the state or it can be given to other family members if they apply
for it. Each year, cases of children being taken out of the homes of their unfit parents and
being given to there grandparents or other such relatives increases. As social conditions
and the ability for parents to remain fit decrease, the rate of grandparents applying for
custody of their grandchildren increases.
The political structure of Gilead is based around the church. The laws are devised
through religion and democracy is no longer valid. Society has reverted back to the
medieval days when the church and the monarchy ruled hand in hand and where a
minuscule upper class controlled a huge lower class. The values of Gilead have reverted
back to a holy conservative view, where men have a higher status than women and where
classes are very distinct.
In modern day North America, the liberal views of the sixties and seventies are
being shot down with mass aggression, as every major United States President candidate
since 1988 has used traditional family values as there main platform in running for
office. Politicians like Dan Quale are condemning the single parent household and
speaking out against such single parent role models such as Television’s Murphy Brown.
In Canada, three members of Preston Manning’s Reform party were kicked out of the
caucus for speaking out against homosexual rights and supporting the more traditional
view of strait only marriages. As more and more politicians use traditional values of the
fifties as a platform to get elected into office, more and more liberals get fed up with the
political system because they feel that there is no candidate that expresses their opinions.
Because most politicians feel that most of the voting population is conservative, they try
to increase their chances of getting elected by trying to appeal to the conservative
majority. This causes a lack of options for voters if the candidates have basically the
same stance on the issues.
The common threads between Gilead and our own society are surprising similar if
one looks closely enough. The possibility of things common in our every day society
taken out of control by fanatics is not all that hard to comprehend. It is possible that the
chain of events that lead a society to Gilead has already started to happen. The make
believe future world of Gilead is just that, make believe, but the possibility of extremists
taking us to a similar point is very real. Incidents like the Oklahoma bombing, the stand
off in Idaho with right wing radicals, and the Unibomber should show us that people with
radical ideas are willing to use force to get their views out to the public. Such shows of
force and extreme ideas are exactly how the society of Gilead was founded.
The Handmaid’s Tale
(Toronto: Seal Books, 1985)