The Handmaid’s Tale Essay
The Handmaid’s Tale
Gilead’s totalitarianism regime uses religion to meet the ends of the regime, rather than the regime being a means to serve God. ‘Soul Scrolls’ is a place where Handmaid’s purchase one of five prayers to be read to them, before being recycled. Offred’s prayer is a distortion of the Lord’s Prayer which is ostensibly much more personal to her. Offred describes ‘Soul Scrolls’ as ‘a franchise’. This suggests the presence of business and technology in Gilead, reinforced by the idea that the Handmaid’s accounts are debited and that the regime is everywhere.
This concept of business is continuous throughout the novel, for example the ‘ceremony’ previously discussed is portrayed to be a business transaction. ‘Franchise’ has connotations of something which is unavoidable. Everybody knows it and everybody has access to it, and it’s the same everywhere you go – it’s incredibly impersonal. Gilead uses ‘Soul Scrolls’ as a means of controlling the Handmaids. There is no flexibility because there is no choice in prayer – there are only five prayers to choose from, which seems quite artificial.
In only offering five exact choices – ‘health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin’, it prevents people praying for anything else. Despite the fact that the Handmaid’s can mentally think of other prayers, they can never articulate this because their freedom of speech is subverted to the state of Gilead. ‘Birth’ and ‘death’ are rites of passage and for the Handmaid’s; it’s the only two things they can be certain of.
They exist simply for the purpose to bear children, and constant reminders of the consequences if they fail to conceive are that they will eventually die. With only 5 prayers available, this creates uniformity which shows how Gilead manipulates religion, because in reality, prayer should be different for everyone. The concept of Christianity is based on the relationship between God and the person. Prayer is theoretically supposed to be a means of personal communication, a way to thank God, and to wish for things to happen.
‘Soul Scrolls’ is not personal. ‘The machines talk’ and by speaking in a ‘toneless metallic voice’, Gilead is taking all freedom from the Handmaid’s minds, and this autonomy removes any need for a thought process, which means the Handmaid’s cannot threaten the Gilead regime by thinking for themselves. ‘Soul Scrolls’ allegedly teach the Handmaids’ what they should think. However, their soul is a part of them and they should already know what they want to think, but the absence of this suggests the influence and power of Gilead.
The idea that the Handmaids’ minds are also controlled is emphasised by this because Gilead doesn’t let them develop, it uses machines and the role of people such as aunt’s and commanders to brainwash them. Regardless of the Handmaids’ being unable to express their thoughts, since God is omniscient he should know what they’re thinking. However, in articulating their thoughts they could confirm their own beliefs to themselves in a pragmatic way. It forms a part of positive thinking in the concept that the more you repeat it the better a chance they have of getting what they want.
There is also a value in articulating feelings to people you love because it’s comforting. God is a conscious living entity aware of people’s love. Nevertheless, Gilead completely restricts this because the Handmaids’ have been brainwashed for so long that it’s wrong to think and to have these feelings, and so this restricts the power that the Handmaids’ could have. ‘Soul scrolls’ is only one way communication from the machine to the Handmaid, and this stops them developing thoughts, making the ‘Soul Scrolls’ simply another way of controlling the Handmaids.
‘Soul Scrolls’ are described by the Wives to ‘help their husband’s career’, which shows the machines to be pragmatic and simply a way to get ahead and follow the regime. ‘Soul Scrolls’ also suggests that the regime is manipulative because it shows a yearning for money and power in charging for the prayers to be read, and in controlling the Handmaids’. In buying prayers, it’s a sign of faithfulness to the regime, which implies that the regime has completely replaced religion and which emphasises that the Commander is thought to be like a God.
Gilead completely distorts the meaning of prayer because with ‘Soul Scrolls’ it’s not about connecting with God, and in prayer you should want to pray which is not what this is about. Atwood’s repetition of ‘punching in the numbers’ reinforces this sense of autonomy and contempt for the regime, because it appears repetitive and tedious. Offred describes it as having ‘roll upon roll’ of prayers, which shows Gilead believes in quantity not quality, further emphasising the concept of business and money. Gilead’s regime is described as indestructible.
‘The window of ‘Soul scrolls’ is shatterproof’, which suggests that for the regime to have protected the franchise, they must have feared there would be dissenters. It suggests that not everybody in Gilead accepts it but they don’t dare to express this because of the consequences. There is reference to the spies in ‘Soul Scrolls’, ‘each machine has an eye painted in gold on the side’, which shows their superiority and that the Handmaids’ are always being watched – there is no escape and this is yet another means of controlling them.
Offred tries ‘to remember’ what the place sold before and realises it was a lingerie shop. This takes away the feminist aspect of women because Gilead attempts to strip women of any wants and thoughts, to make them only want to bear children. If a lingerie shop existed in Gilead’s society as it were then, it would be considered corrupt, which is ironic because Gilead itself is a mire of corruption. The concept of a patriarchal society is reinforced in that ‘most of the stores carrying things for men are still open’.
Offred’s parody of the Lord’s Prayer, which takes place by an empty garden (similar to how Jesus prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane), articulates Offred’s feelings of abandonment and despair. Line by line, such as ‘Who Art in the kingdom of heaven’, she regurgitates the sentiments of the Lord’s Prayer, typically used at ceremonies (the irony being in comparison to her experience of ceremonies), and in private commitment to express needs and hopes. Offred dwells on metaphors of ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘daily bread’, and ‘forgiveness’, from which arises a vision of the absent chandelier – where her predecessor attached a noose.
This shows Offred’s despair because throughout a hopeful prayer she arrives at the conclusion that dying is the only option. Offred tediously recites the recurrent line from a tombstone in Gilead’s cemetery, and despite her attempts to remain ‘In hope’; Offred suffers so much isolation that her prayer becomes a desperate cry for spiritual nourishment. Offred concludes with a plaintive rhetorical question, ‘How can I keep on living? ’ which emphasises her unhappiness within Gilead and her want to end it all.
Offred continually refers to God as ‘You’, which shows her yearning to be personal with God and to have a personal relationship. Atwood refers God as ‘you’ because it personifies God showing Offred as trying to talk to him personally. She wishes she knew ‘Your name’, which implies she needs God to answer her. She describes her thoughts as ‘hell we can make for ourselves’, which suggests that the hell is Gilead itself. Offred is uncertain about her capacity to find out about what’s happening in Gilead.
‘The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge’ is a reference to Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence after they disobeyed God and tasted the Tree of Knowledge. Offred applies this to herself because Gilead teaches that knowledge is dire and that they will no longer be innocent if they think such knowledge (the irony being that they were never innocent in Gilead’s corrupt regime). This suggests that if Offred was to find out about what was happening, this would be a sin, and this also reinforces Gilead’s influence in terms of how they brainwash the Handmaids’ with bible stories.
Offred avoids the ‘traditional’ posture of praying – ‘I don’t even close my eyes’. This is because it would draw attention to her and also shows that she is afraid of the consequences if she was found to be personally praying, and so this informal prayer becomes her only way of communicating with God. The ‘equal darkness’ even when her eyes are closed implies that nothing goes away because it’s too hard. However, there is potential optimism within Offred. ‘Or light’ suggests that there could be hope for Offred, except that Gilead takes this hope.
This informal way of praying seems like she’s not fully committed but she still wants to pray because she’s desperate. ‘Soul scrolls’ is very impersonal in comparison to Offred’s own prayer. All thought process is removed, unlike how Offred can reflect in her mind during her own prayer. In her own prayer, despite Offred not being completely committed, she does get the opportunity to think about what’s happening in Gilead. In ‘Soul Scrolls’, Offred cannot do this because she may be caught and also because the autonomous voices prevent her from thinking.
Offred’s own prayer becomes much like a desperate cry for help and the purpose of her prayer is to portray to the reader just how distressed she is. On the other hand, Offred commits to ‘Soul Scrolls’ because she has too since it’s a sign of faithfulness to Gilead’s regime, and if she didn’t, it would seem suspicious, even if she doesn’t believe in doing it. However, both do criticise Gilead, with ‘Soul Scrolls’ expressing the pointlessness of it, and her own personal prayer expressing how Gilead is a hell.
In her own personal prayer, Offred has hope for two way communications, and although his name is not known, God does offer some kind of contemplation for Offred, as she works her way through her feelings. ‘Soul scrolls’ is simply a one way communication because prayers are printed and read to the Handmaids’ before being recycled, which shows the uniformity of this prayer. Offred’s own prayer is also in a sense a rebellion from the constraints of Gilead, because although this isn’t her aim, it does go against what Gilead teaches – that she should not be thinking for herself.
When Offred visits ‘Soul Scrolls’, she is complying with the ways of Gilead simply to stay out of trouble. In conclusion, Offred’s personal prayer is much more personal than ‘Soul Scrolls’, and despite it being a distorted version of the Lord’s prayer, it does signify her desperation for salvation from the regime. ‘Soul Scrolls’ is something Offred simply goes along with because she has no choice but too, and this offers her no answers to her thoughts because of how autonomous and controlled it is.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 10 July 2017
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