The Handmaid’s Tale

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Religion and Theocracy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon

Gilead is a theocracy, a government where church and state are combined. Religious language enters into every part of the society, from Rita’s position as a Martha, named for a New Testament kitchen worker, to the store names like Milk and Honey. And religion, specifically the Old Testament, is also the justification for many of Gilead’s most savage characteristics. Offred’s job as Handmaid is based on the biblical precedent of Rachel and Leah, where fertile servants can carry on adulterous relationships to allow infertile women like the Commander’s Wife to have families. Each month before the Ceremony, the Commander reads from Genesis the same lines that make the book’s epigraph, justifying and moralizing the crude intercourse that will take place.

Yet many of the biblical quotes in the book are twisted. The theocracy is so rigid about its religious influences, and so emphatic about the specific rules it upholds, that it even warps essential virtues like charity, tolerance and forgiveness. Offred knows that the prayers that the Aunts play the Handmaids in the Rachel and Leah Center are not the words that actually appear in the Bible, but she has no way of checking. The Salvagings and executions are supposedly the penalty for biblical sins like adultery, but Offred knows that others are executed for resisting the government. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a criticism of the Bible in itself, but a criticism of the way that people and theocracies use the Bible for their own oppressive purposes.

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Religion and Theocracy Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale related to the theme of Religion and Theocracy.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Eye
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Having recalled the time she spent sleeping in the gymnasium of the Red Center, Offred has moved on to describe a second room, which we later learn is her bedroom in the Commander's house. She has detailed the sparse furnishings and the plastered-over light socket in the ceiling, which reminds her of an eye socket. Offred notes that the rug looks like "folk art," reflective of a cultural preference for artifacts that are handmade by women. She observes that this reflects "a return to traditional values" and the principle "waste not want not." Offred's statement that she is not being wasted highlights the way in which women are used like tools or instruments in Gilead, treated as objects with no value beyond their designated function, which, for Offred, is her fertility. 

Once again, Offred invokes the moral disdain for desire, and particularly desire felt by women. She expresses the view that because she is "not being wasted," it is strange or illogical that she should "want." This reveals that Offred has internalized the idea that women are more like objects than people, and that it is abnormal or morally wrong for women to experience the most basic human emotions, including desire. Her use of a well-known saying highlights how deeply embedded this idea is within the culture of Gilead. 

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I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has continued describing her room in the Commander's house, and recalled Aunt Lydia telling her to "think of it as like being in the army." She describes the single bed in the room, saying that the only thing that happens there is sleep ("or no sleep"), and says that she "rations" her thoughts. This statement highlights the austere, dull scarcity of life in Gilead. Not only has Offred lost access to material pleasures, intimacy with others, and freedom, but even her thoughts are restricted and impoverished by the oppressive world in which she lives. Offred's admission that she tries not to "think too much" suggests that too much thinking is dangerous, especially for women who, like her, live such tightly controlled lives. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker), Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has continued to describe her walk through town, reflecting on the differences between the world she currently lives in and the society in which she grew up. She has recalled that there were "rules" for women's behavior in the time before Gilead, such as not opening the door to a stranger and not turning around if someone whistled at you. She remembers Aunt Lydia telling her that in the old days, women only had "freedom to," but now they have "freedom from," and that she should be grateful for this. To some extent, Aunt Lydia's words seem ridiculous; clearly, Offred is far less free than she was before she was made a Handmaid, proving that "freedom from" is not equal to "freedom to," and perhaps shouldn't be considered "freedom" at all.

On the other hand, Offred's description of the "rules" for women that existed in the past demonstrates that during this time women were not completely free, either. Although Aunt Lydia exaggerates how terrible life was for women before the Gilead regime, Offred's comparison reminds the reader that throughout history women have been oppressed and controlled, often with the explanation that this is for their own protection. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is once again lost in her memories, recalling Aunt Lydia describing, horrified, the way women used to dress with, while meanwhile Moira was planning an "underwhore" party in which she would sell lingerie to women. With the benefit of hindsight, Offred sees how the extreme misogyny in Gilead came to be, though she notes that at the time people dismissed evidence that society was headed in this direction. As a result, society changed in a severe way without people noticing until it was too late. This is both an accurate description of historical change and a powerful warning about the world in which we live. The Handmaid's Tale carefully shows how features of our present world might be distorted with nightmarish results, and this passage serves as a warning about how easily this could happen.

Chapter 12. Quotes

I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is having a bath, which she has at regular times that are not chosen by her. The bath has been run by Cora, who sits outside, and items such as a mirror, razor, and lock are all forbidden. In the bath is one of the only times when Offred is able to touch her own hair, which she enjoys; however, she refuses to look at her body, resenting the fact that it "determines me so completely." This passage emphasizes the fact that Offred has been reduced from being a person to being a body, an object or tool appreciated only for its use. The fact that her bath is scheduled and controlled further confirms the way in which Offred is treated like a tool or animal, rather than a person.

Note that this treatment creates a different kind of body shame from the kind promoted by a religious mindset, but a body shame nonetheless. Offred's thoughts indicate that there is not much difference between being treated as a sex object and being "valued" for your fertility––both are equally degrading.

Chapter 19 Quotes

A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get.

Related Characters: Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has been taken to Janine's house, where Janine is giving birth. As they wait to find out if the baby is healthy, Offred experiences a flashback to the Red Center, where Aunt Lydia taught her and the other Handmaids about the causes of infertility, including the history of sexual contraception. Offred resentfully recalls Aunt Lydia's statement that "a thing is valued... only if it is rare and hard to get." Aunt Lydia is referring to women's sexual availability, and once again, it is clear that in Gilead women are considered to be no more than "things." Aunt Lydia's concern over value is similarly degrading, by implying that women are not just objects but commodities whose value is conditional, rather than inherent. 

Although Aunt Lydia's words seem strikingly harsh in the context of the novel, in reality she echoes much of the kind of language used to promote abstinence among unmarried young people in the real world. Even at the most basic level, many young women are encouraged to play "hard to get" or otherwise not agree to sex too early or enthusiastically. By drawing this parallel with our contemporary world, Atwood once again emphasizes that the contemporary U.S. may not be as far from Gilead as we think. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control…maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has returned to the Commander's house after the birth of Janine's baby, where she thinks about the nature of storytelling and memory. She reflects on the "temptation" to forgive, and muses that perhaps the Gilead regime is "about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it." Offred contrasts this to the thought that Gilead is about "control"; yet her words suggest that being forgiven is perhaps an even more extreme version of control, because control itself consists of "who can do what to whom."

This passage is an important reminder that even the strictest totalitarian regimes are made up of thousands of interpersonal relationships. Offred's thoughts point out that even the most cruel and oppressive people want to be forgiven for the suffering they inflict on others.

Chapter 26 Quotes

“Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom.”

Related Characters: Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred and the Commander have continued to meet in secret and their relationship grows friendlier; this then makes it awkward for both of them to participate in the Ceremony. Offred recalls Aunt Lydia telling her that, once the population has grown large enough, the Gilead regime hopes that every family will have a Handmaid. In this passage, Aunt Lydia explaining the reason behind such a policy, in terms that perversely echo certain forms of feminist rhetoric. As with her previous statement about "freedom to" and "freedom from," Aunt Lydia couches her logic in terms of freedom. Her words suggest that, even though the Handmaid system requires women to have a preassinged role not chosen by them, they will ultimately be more free because they will not have to run their household alone. 

There are, of course, clear logical and ethical problems in Aunt Lydia's argument. Most obviously, she fails to address why "the serene running of a household" is entirely the responsibility of women, without any input or responsibility from men. At the same time, Aunt Lydia's words relate to a criticism of certain types of feminism that exist in the real world. Some people argue that the American feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s created a system in which well-educated, middle and upper-class women were able to pursue the "freedom" of a career at the expense of domestic workers who then had to take on responsibilities such as cleaning and childcare. Although this situation is different from Gilead in many ways, Offred's role as a Handmaid is comparable to the experience of these domestic workers. 

Chapter 41 Quotes

Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.

Related Characters: Offred’s Mother (speaker)
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has started seeing Nick more regularly, enjoying her time with him and even idolizing him. When Ofglen offers to help her escape, Offred admits to herself that she no longer really wants to leave. At times, she feels that she loves Nick, but on other occasions she reasons that it is not love but simply necessity; she remembers her mother saying that people are "so adaptable," and that is amazing what they "can get used to." The world depicted in the novel reveals the truth of Offred's mother's words. Despite how quickly society has changed, and despite how oppressive life now is, people find ways to keep going and survive. 

However, it is debatable whether or not this is really a good thing. While adaptability and survival skills are impressive, they are also shown to be selfish. After all, now that Offred has managed to make life more enjoyable, she has lost interest in the Resistance. Adapting to one's circumstances can also, then, be interpreted as acquiescing to being controlled by others, as well as ignoring the plight of those who are in a worse position. 

Chapter 46 Quotes

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Eye
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

The Eye van has arrived at the Commander's house to take Offred away, and Offred is terrified, wishing that she had killed herself while she had the chance. However, Nick has told her that the people in the van are actually members of the Resistance posing as Eyes; this is somewhat supported by the fact that they refuse to tell the Commander and Serena Joy why they are arresting Offred (although this is not conclusive). The final sentence of Offred's narrative describes her getting in the van, unsure if she is stepping into darkness or light. "Darkness" in this passage symbolizes suffering, death, and the meaninglessness of Offred's life if she is indeed killed by the state. "Light" is hope, morality, and the possibility of escape from Gilead, or even the end of the regime altogether.

This final sentence leaves the reader unsure of Offred's fate; given everything else that has happened in the novel, it seems almost equally likely that Offred will die or be saved. This ambiguity is connected to the novel's ambivalent presentation of human nature. Every major character in the narrative has the capacity to act in a cruel and selfish way, while also possessing at least some redeeming features. Offred's unknown destiny thus emphasizes the fact that people's behavior is difficult to predict, and the fate of the world is thus equally hard to determine. 

Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale Quotes

We must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific…our job is not to censure but to understand.”

Related Characters: Professor Pieixoto (speaker)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

The "Historical Notes on the Handmaid's Tale," the final section of the novel, is an invented transcript of a speech at an academic conference on "Gileadean Studies" in the year 2195. Professor Pieixoto, an expert on Gilead from Cambridge University, has explained that he found Offred's story recorded on cassette tapes in Maine. Early on in his talk, Professor Pieixoto emphasizes that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean."

At first glance, this passage can be read as a critique of the cultural relativism that has become dominant in the academic world and in contemporary feminism. Although it is usually good not to be overly judgmental, it is difficult to read Offred's story and be neutral about the world it depicts. Further, one could certainly argue that to insist on not judging the Gileadean's is to treat their society's terrible and oppressive treatment of women as legitimate and acceptable. Additionally, consider the impact of the choice to make Professor Pieixoto a man. Perhaps the dispassionate attitude he encourages is only possible because, as a man, he does not feel as intimately connected to Offred's suffering and the issue of misogyny in general.

On the other hand, Professor Pieixoto's words do resonate with the ambiguities and complexities depicted within Offred's narrative. Most characters, including Offred herself, are shown to be motivated by a complex mix of selfishness and altruism. Even symbols of Gilead authority, such as the Commander, are depicted as being conflicted and oppressed by the world which they have created. In this sense, Professor Pieixoto's advice may cohere with the overall message of the novel.

Finally, the phrase "our job is not to censure but to understand" is particularly significant, given the fact that The Handmaid's Tale has frequently been banned from high school syllabi. Such bans usually occur because local authorities deem the novel's explorations of sexuality to be too explicit, but making that assessment those authorities are therefore implying that women's sexuality and bodies are somehow shameful and should be controlled rather than understood. In other words, those banning the book seem to suggest that the impulse that, in the novel, led to the creation of Gilead is widespread in American society as well.