Essay on the Religious Right and The Handmaid's Tale


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The Religious Right and The Handmaid's Tale  

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. A religious extremist right-wing movement assassinated the president and congress and took complete control of the government. The constitution was suspended and liberties revoked. Women found themselves completely subordinated in the new regime, generally assigned to the legal care of a male "guardian."

Offred, the main character of the story, was fortunate in many ways. Because she was still fertile, she was not branded an "Unwoman" and sent to the "Colonies," where thousands of individuals deemed undesirable by the government were sent to toil in toxic plants and agricultural camps. Instead, her fate was to become a "handmaid." Birthrates were declining in the republic, so a fertile female became a prized commodity. Since Offred had been divorced prior to the revolution, the religious leaders controlling the government saw fit to take her from her second husband and child and assign her to a "guardian," a high ranking male. Her sole purpose in life with the guardian was to become pregnant. Once a month an insemination ceremony would take place, during which the guardian would attempt to impregnate Offred while his wife read passages from the bible to them. All three remained clothed and there was no passion involved.

In the course of her life as a handmaid, Offred discovers more about Gilead. Her secondary duty (after getting pregnant) was to go into town each day and purchase food. She gradually makes contact with another handmaid, Ofglen, who introduces her to the underground movement against the republic. She eventually becomes involved in a number of illegal activities, and eventually is forced to try and escape.

The Handmaid's Tale is really about the role of women in society. If it were possible to eliminate women from Gilead, it seems that the republic would have done so. Instead, they are reduced into doing the one thing for which Gilead can find no substitute -- producing children. They are so reduced that they cannot even feel passion or enjoy sex. Infertile women have it even worse; they are not considered to be women at all, and are deported or killed. The message is that women are needed to continue humanity but that they are to have no other role in the society that they allow to exist.

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An interesting point is implied but left unspoken by Atwood. No matter how much their activities are confined, a society cannot function without women. Women always have a measure of power because they exclusively possess the means to propagate a society.

Atwood's work can be taken as a warning about the dangers of a patriarchal society and the dogma of the religious right. Realistically, the scenario presented in this book is impossible. The safeguards built into the system would prevent such an occurrence. But maybe Atwood's work could alternatively be perceived not as a warning but rather as a reflection (albeit an extreme one) of the past. Patriarchal institutions have controlled most cultures for thousands of years. Women may have been allowed to do other things, but arguably their primary purpose, according to the conventions of society, was to have children and propagate humanity. The Handmaid's Tale could be a warning about the future, but it is also certainly a cry to the injustices of the past.

 


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