Biblical References

Allusions provide important historical, literary and religious references in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Religious allusions are woven throughout the book. Most significantly, in the story of Rachel and Jacob from Genesis:

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 she said, ‘Behold my maid, Bilhah. Go in unto her and she shall bear upon my knees so that I might also have children by her.’ And she gave him Bilhah, their Handmaid, to wife, and Jacob went unto her.

Offred refers to this passage on Pg 99, as being drummed into the Handmaids at the Rachel and Leah Center.

The Republic of Gilead takes this verse literally, attempting to circumvent the world’s infertility crisis by having a class of Handmaids bear children for wealthy families. The name Gilead is mentioned in Genesis as the area south of the Jabbok river,which is known today as the Zarqa river in Jordan.

Before the Ceremony, The Commander says a prayer:

“And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband.”

Jezebels, where the commander takes Offred, is a place where the Commanders and visiting dignitaries visit for sex, drugs and a taste of the old life. In the bible, Jezebel was associated with false prophets and inciting trouble. She was a woman who loved personal adornment. References to Jezebels now refer to a shameless woman, a prostitute.

Atwood’s dystopia also includes features similar to those in George Orwell’s 1984. Fear is used as a method of control. Atwood has The Eyes who are always watching, similarly Orwell has Big Brother. Control is also exerted through language – slogans and neologisms are used, such as….




Posted by Tracey Hames

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

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