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All around us we see evidence of the way in which belief is institutionalised and abused. Consider Atwood’s portrayal of religion in Gilead Many modern day beliefs have been used as excuses for war, or as a way of suppressing groups of people. In ‘The Handmaid’s tale’ Atwood has taken abuse of belief and religion to the extreme, using it to create a worrying futuristic dystopia where all laws are based on extracts from the bible and the texts have been twisted to suit the more powerful members of society.
It is impossible for handmaids, or many other members of Gilead to check the authenticity of the extracts that rule their life as they are forbidden from reading and the bible is kept locked up. In ‘The Handmaid’s tale’ free will is nothing more than a memory, different Christian branches are at war with each other. The bible is used to justify the regimes and practises of Gilead and sexuality has been suppressed into something shameful and dangerous. Chapter two offers the reader their first decent example of how religion is used within the society of Gilead.
It is in the simple use of a name that Atwood is able to immediately establish a link between her dystopia and the bible. ‘Her usual Martha’s dress’. In the bible Martha is the sister of Mary who would devote herself to the housework while Mary went to hear Jesus speak. Marthas in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ are unmarried, infertile women who are expected to perform household duties for the high-ranking members of Gilead. This is the first time the reader is given an example of rank based on religion with Gilead, the reader is made aware of Handmaids and of the Commander earlier in the book but this is the first obvious biblical reference.
Martha is not important in the bible, but the powers of Gilead has taken her role and expanded it so that they can justify having slaves within their society. This early example gives the reader an impression of what sort of society Gilead is and what they can expect further into the book as far as rank and religion are concerned. In Chapter eleven Offred is offered the opportunity to get pregnant by the doctor. Offred is worried about being caught having sex with someone who wasn’t the commander.
Offred considers the doctors offer, she knows it is a risk ‘but they have to catch you in the act, with two witnesses. ‘ This method of convicting people is taken from Deuteronomy 17:6 ‘At the mouth of two witnesses… shall he that is to die be put to death. ‘ The bible reference is saying that nobody can be convicted when it is just their word against someone else’s, this must be the same way people in Gilead practise law. Unfortunately it would be very easy for two people to get together and agree on the same story if they wanted to frame someone.
It also further removes individuality and freethinking, people are already expected to travel in groups of at least two and the suggestion is that one person’s opinion is useless unless supported by someone else. It also makes things very difficult for handmaid’s who are often required to be on their own with the commander’s wife and if there aren’t any witnesses present then there is no crime and the handmaids are left in a very vulnerable position.
Television in Gilead is censored, like everything else. It is clear that this society functions by keeping people ve for as long as possible, if they can’t read and their only visual entertainment in censored to suit the ideals of Gilead then they cannot really form their own opinions and would be entirely dependant on what others told them. However the information that comes from the television tells the reader about battles Gilead is involved in. The odd thing about the battles is that they are taking place with different branches of the same religion. ‘Angels of the Apocalypse… are smoking out a pocket of Baptist guerrillas’. ‘Five members of the heretical sect of Quakers have been arrested’.
It is possible to read more into the news reports than meets the eye. The Baptists are relying on guerrilla warfare that is commonly the form of warfare used by under-developed countries that aren’t looking for war. There is also a fair amount of irony in the sense that the report claims that the Quakers are heretical or sacrilegious when the reader knows that the society of Gilead is based on sacrilege. This may suggest that Gilead is fighting these other branches of Christianity to stop them from demonstrating to the world, and more importantly to the people of Gilead that their society is based on twisted truths.