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Margaret Atwood’s futuristic dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale explores specific value systems and ideologies in order to develop representations of cultural identity throughout the text. By creating a patriarchal dystopia based around Christian fundamentalism, Atwood is able to examine the values associated with a highly structured hierarchy. The ideologies of identity, control, power and sexuality are central in the development of the cultural identity of Gilead society.
Offred’s identity provides the basis for the development of meaning throughout the text, with her point of view influential in developing the plot, setting and secondary character profiles. Power structures throughout the Gilead hierarchy emphasise control at every level of Offred’s existence. Spatially, she is controlled through the reduction of physical freedoms and the constant militaristic ‘protection’ placed upon her. Psychological control exists through extensive propaganda and censorship of radical views by the Gilead government.
Women are controlled, as is their sexual activity, through the practices and beliefs imposed upon them throughout every facet of their existence within Gilead. These power structures result in Offred’s sexuality developing unnaturally. Her position at the bottom of the Gilead hierarchy provides her with little choice or influence over her sexual partners, resulting in her sexuality developing in an altered manner. Atwood’s extreme interpretation of fundamental Christian ideals throughout the text provides the basis for many of the values and ideologies the Gilead society employs (“GOD IS A NATIONAL RESOURCE” – p225).
Central in these ideals is biblical passage from Genesis 30: 1 – 3, which reads: And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
Gilead society appears to have based many of its customs and practices around this passage, including the sacred ‘ceremony’, in which the biblical verse is followed literally. Fundamental Christian or biblical value structures (“traditional values” – p17) are employed throughout Gilead society by a rigid patriarchal hierarchy that encourages the valuing of women as fertility devices to be used by the men to whom they serve. This basic hierarchal structure, with the men predominantly ruling the women, further encourages this conclusion, with the power lying in the hands of men.
The fanatical pursuance of religious values also explains the way in which unpleasant acts, such as the ‘ceremony’ and ‘birthing ritual’ are considered necessary, as they are ingrained in the core ideologies that the society represents (“which of us is worse for, her or me? ” – p106). Furthermore, many of the names used within the society are direct adaptations from the bible, for example Marthas as housemaids being a reference to the biblical Martha, who devoted herself to housework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus.
This ironic situation provides a metaphor for the society of Gilead – that the Marthas simply do housework without seeing the benefits of another value system. Throughout Gilead society, the identities of women are marginalised. Each caste is stringently controlled by the government, with the strongest controls being placed upon those castes at the bottom of the power hierarchy, notably the handmaids. Their communication is re-invented due to their position within society.
They are unable to read and write, with metonyms and rhyme used as propaganda in an attempt to influence the identity of the handmaids and encourage them to embrace the conditions provided. This is shown during the birthing procedure scene, where Offred states; “… we see the writing… This hasn’t been blacked out even though we aren’t supposed to be reading – p129… we chant as we have been taught – p133”. Offred’s first person recount style of events provides an important but limited view of the personality traits of all the handmaids.