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.
Religion and Theocracy ThemeTracker
Religion and Theocracy Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale
Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.
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.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
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.
A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get.
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.
“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.”
Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.
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.”