Allusions, Setting and Themes in HMT

Biblical illusions are common in The Handmaid’s Tale because Gilead is a Theocracy and uses the Bible as its ‘constitution’. It is constantly being quoted, especially by the Aunts, in justification of its rules – and ironically by Offred and Moira.

Jezebel was the wicked wife of Kind Ahab, and the name is sometimes used as a label for any shamelessly wicked woman. The biblical name for the brothel emphasises the hypocracy of the theocracy that supposedly rules by Biblical precept, yet allows the rich and powerful men to break their own rules. The women are seen as wicked, even though they are there by force but the men are there by choice.

Rachel and Jacob (Genesis) the servant was made to bear the children, as the handmaids are in the novel. Gilead is a place in Jordan, as in the Bible.

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do”

In the Bible, these were the words said by Christ about those who were crucifying him. Doubly ironic, as it is being used to refer to the Wives who often resent the Handmaids, but is said by an Aunt who doesn’t see it as ironic.

“Blessed are the meek. She didn’t say anything about inheriting the earth. Blessed be the poor…comforted.”

From a sermon given by Christ. The irony is the Handmaids, all women, are required to be meek but there is no reward for them. Makes clear how the theocracy that purports to be ruled by religion and the bible distorts it to suit itself. There is no comfort, either. We can relate this to the way some Islamic fundamentalists distort the Koran.

George Orwell’s 1984.

Under His Eye – in George Orwell’s 1984, the slogan is Big Brother is Watching You. There is the emphasis that you are always being watched. Atwood deliberately evokes echoes of 1984. 1984 also prohibits any acts between anyone who’s not husband and wife.


Puritan New England. The novel is set in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. This is where the religious puritans settled in 1628. Also, Boston is the seat of American academia, and where the prestigious Harvard University is located. Harvard is now used as a prison, for salvagings and its walls used for hangings (another irony).

The world outside seems to be mainly continuing on as normal, although there does seem to be some religious fighting still occurring. Atwood describes Japanese tourists visiting and taking pictures of the Handmaids. Canada, to the north, is a place to escape and obtain freedom.

Offred’s Room: Chapter 2 “A chair, a table. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.” This shows how the Handmaids are not allowed even to escape through death. The society is desperate for the Handmaids to provide children that it has to prevent all possible ways of escape from taking place. Offred’s room is very bland, white and blank. It doesn’t feel homely and definitely not welcoming. Offred’s room is a significant setting in the novel that emphasises the control and power of the new government which results in the portrayal of a dystopian society.

The Garden: “The garden is the domain of the Commander’s wife”. This shows us that the garden is the territory/area controlled and ruled by Serena Joy (commander’s wife). The garden also represents the symbol of flowers. In this text, flowers symbolize blossoming life, beauty, fertility, freedom and prosperity. The imagery of nature within the novel implies a sense of freedom which humans within the Gilead society cannot achieve. “The tulips are red, darker crimson towards the stem, as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there.” The vivid description of the tulips in the garden portrays the vibrancy of nature and furthermore the impulse of nature, the only thing that cannot be controlled by a totalitarian state. The parallels between tulips and handmaids are found through their colour and gives the connotation of both function and death. The blood red represents the thriving of new life and offers biblical reference to the blood of Christ. Both nature and handmaids have the same function, this is to reproduce.


THEMES – rank your top five for homework

  • the value of freedom
  • the importance of love
  • freedom from is as important as freedom to
  • forbidden things become desireable
  • it is important to stand up for what you believe in
  • dictatorships abuse power
  • fear is a powerful human emotion
  • capitulation to and compliance with evil conditions create their own punishments
  • freedom of the mind is a victory against tyrrany
  • we get the governments we deserve
  • complacency allows tyranny to take over
  • language is a powerful tool in controlling people
  • we must fight to protect our freedoms
  • we must take responsibility, take notice, and pay attention
  • a free press is important  for ensuring freedom and democracy
  • suppression of human rights
  • control and exploitation of women
  • the dangers and corruption of language
  • ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’
  • the dangers of adherence to ideology
  • womens’ bodies are political instruments



The revolution was able to happen because people did not pay attention. There is the need for the individual to be responsible, to be vigilant so we can preserve our rights and freedoms. Even as things began to change, people became more self-absorbed rather than taking a stand. Offred made a point of not noticing political things, and instead focussed solely on her personal life – her family.

She says “Ignorance isn’t the same as ignoring. You have to work at it.”

Offred could have protested but chose not to, “I didn’t go on any of the marches….I started doing more housework, more baking.”

As a result, Offred has lost her freedom, family, friends, community and identity because of her (and others’) lack of involvement: a high price to pay for ignoring what was happening to her society.

Offred now notices everything: sight, smells, tastes, how the blood-red smile of the hanged man is like the tulips. She works constantly to retain her sanity -through irony, through humour, through making the best of a bad situation. Offred constantly examines the significance of things, looking beneath the surface and looking at the physical world in detail:

“The life of the moon may not be on the surface but inside.”

At the end of the novel, when facing arrest, Offred faces the truth about her response to her situation in Gilead:

“I’ve been wasting my time. I should have taken things in to my own hands when I had the chance. I should have stolen a knife from the kitchen, found some way to the sewing scissors….I should have paid attention.”


In a totalitarian state, Atwood suggests, people will endure oppression willingly as long as they receive some slight amount of power or freedom. Offred starts to think she is happy in Gilead with Nick. She remembers her mother saying:

“Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”

Offred’s complacency after she begins her relationship with Nick shows the truth of this insight. Her relationship wth Nick allows her to reclaim a fragment of her former existence. While a woman like Serena Joy has no power in the world of men, she exercises authority within her own home and seems to delight in her tyranny over Offred. She jealously guards what little power she has and wields it eagerly. The Aunts also act as willing agents of the state of Gilead. The indoctrinate other women into the ruling ideology, keep a close eye out for rebellion, and generally serve the same function for Gilead that the Jewish police did under Nazi rule.

Despite what the Commander says, the purpose of the new order is not to protect women but to suppress them. Serena Joy is a warning to women supporters of the religious right to be careful what they wish for, for they might get it.

Atwood’s message is bleak. At the same time as she condemns Offred, Serena Joy, the Aunts for their complacency, she suggests that even if those women mustered strength and stopped complying they would likely fail to make a difference. Ofglen is destroyed. Moira is crushed. Yet Offred comforts herself with the knowledge from history that no vicious regime lasts forever.

In Gilead the tiny pockets of resistance do not matter. In the end, Offred escapes because of luck rather than resistance.


Books are banned, newspapers censored – all forms of communication are controlled. Language, words, reading and writing are seen as dangerous – they are powerful.

“Pen is Envy.”

Even the Bible is forbidden to most – knowledge is power so it must be controlled. Freedoms are lost through religious, political, economic and social control. There are rigid social rules for men and women. Control of sexuality means that all natural urges are controlled or forbidden – friendship, communication, love, sex, touching:

“I hunger to commit the act of touch.”

Even motherhood is exploited and torn apart – nature Is controlled and tamed.

Atwood does not absolve the victims of this society, but shows them complicit in it, colluding with the atrocities in Prayvaganzas, Particicutions, spying, etc. The Handmaids are controlled by other women and just as women are reduced to single roles, so too are men. The full expression of human sexuality is reduced to dutiful procreation only, and even that is denied to most men.

Dehumanisation is an inevitable result of this type of tyranny: Luke refers to the cat as ‘it’ before he has to kill it; the victim of the Particicution “has become an it.”

WOMENS BODIES AS POLITICAL PAWNSBecause Gilead was formed in response to the crisis caused by rapidly decreasing birth rates, the state’s entire structure is built around a single goal – control of reproduction. The state assumes complete control of women’s bodies through their political subjugation. Offred represents all women; her story shows the exploitation, degradation and suffering of women in a patriarchal theocracy. The novel does not examine the suffering of men, though they suffer too. Women are dehumanised by this society, they become possessions. Women cannot vote, hold property or jobs, read, or do anything else that might allow them to become subversive or independent and thereby undermine their husbands or the state.

Despite all of Gilead’s pro-women rhetoric, such subjugation creates a society in which women are treated as subhuman. Deprived of their economic independence, they are identified solely with nature, the body, with reproduction. They are categorised according to their fertility – a womb on legs. In one of the novel’s key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and reflects that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument of her desires. Now she is just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to make her useful.

The position or the handmaid is contradictory:

  • they are powerless yet hugely threatening
  • because of widespread infertility, they are powerful – their necessity degrades the wives

The novel examines they dilemma of motherhood in a patriarchal society; it makes women vulnerable to manipulation and control, as well as being a source of personal pleasure and fulfilment. Offred’s challenge is to maintain her identity, her sanity and her humanity.


Gilead’s official vocabulary warps reality in order to serve the needs of the society’s elite. Men are defined by their military rank. Women are defined solely by their gender roles as Wives, Handmaids, or Marthas. Stripping them of their real names strips them of their individuality. Feminists and deformed babies are treated as subhumen – Unwomen and Unbabies. Blacks and Jews are defined in biblical terms – Children of Ham and Sons of Jacob, that set them apart from the rest of society, making their persecution easier.

There are prescribed greetings, and to fail to offer the correct greeting is to fall under suspicion of disloyalty. Specially created terms define the rituals of Gilead, such as Prayvaganzas, Salvagings and Particicutions.

Dystopian novels frequently explore the connection between a state’s repression of its subjects and its perversion of language (Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 is the most famous example).

Gilead maintains its control over women and their bodies by maintaining control over language.


The extreme feminist ideology such as that of Offred’s mother is shown as equally as dangerous. Burning pornography is compared with witch burning. Many of Offred’s mother’s ideas are used, only slightly altered, in the rhetoric of the Aunts.


Gilead corrupts human rights and language. There is corruption and hypocracy within the system – the Commander, Jezebel’s, the black market, Serena Joy, the doctors.

Several characters and incidents demonstrate the abuse of power; the Commander summoning Offred to his study, making Nick act as a ‘pimp’. There is censorship of the press and the taking over of banks, the loss of religious freedom and cancellation of women’s rights, and Serena Joy and her arrangement with Nick.





Posted by Tracey Hames

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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