Portents of the Monotheocracy in The Handmaid's Tale
American society has had certain cultural and political forces which have proliferated over the past few decades-described as the return to traditional Christian values. Television commercials promoting family values followed by endorsements from specific denominations are on the rise. As the public has become more aware of a shift in the cultural and political climate through the mass media, Margaret Atwood, in writing The Handmaid's Tale, could have been similarly affected by this growing awareness of the public consciousness. This may have led Atwood to write of a bleak future for the country where a new regime is established and one religion becomes so powerful as to take over the nation by a military coup, subjugating women into archaic stereotypical female roles.
Two of these forces, as reflected in the novel, are misogyny among Christian men and the rising political power of the Religious Right. Both are insidious because the real agendas are often couched in the authority of the Bible, and both serve to oppress women and their rights. Christian misogyny, like the brainwashing at the Red Center and ceremonial scripture readings preceding sexual intercourse in The Handmaid's Tale, keeps its foothold on the necks of women by distorting the meaning of Biblical scripture. In the case of the Religious Right, its tenets would abridge not only some of women's rights, such as the availability of abortion, but would also infringe on religious freedom for all Americans. In its forays into the political system, more recently through its Christian Coalition, the Religious Right, like Christian misogynists, interprets scripture to support its movement to meet its own agenda-the establishment of a Christian nation.
The distorted meaning of scripture in The Handmaid's Tale occurs in two contexts--during the ceremonial reading of scripture by the Commander before he has intercourse with Offred and at the Red Center as read by the Aunts. Though the Commander reads accurately from Genesis 30: 1-3 to the household--
Give me children or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her (Atwood 114)--
the Biblical context, however, is irrelevant to the modern society which existed before the coup. The context of the scripture is that of an ancient patriarchal society where men often had multiple wives whose value was to produce progeny, and the Judaic laws accorded women few rights. Though there are some similarities between ancient times and Gilead-the high infant mortality rate and death in childbirth--scripture is used by Gilead as a means to an end. In order to increase the birth rate, the regime forced the wives to accept their roles as barren women, hence inferior people, and surrogate mothers. Consequently, the handmaids are not...