The Handmaid’s Tale Historical Context ♀️

Although ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is fiction, it would be a disservice to the novel to ignore the important historical allusions at its heart.

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood

Atwood is a highly intelligent writer who knows that history is very capable of repeating itself. In the novel, readers will be exposed to many troubling historic and religious practices that take Gilead back to a time before the concept “equal rights” was even conceived of. 

The Handmaid’s Tale Historical Context

When asked about the historical references Atwood considered when writing The Handmaid’s Tale she has often spoken about the Salem witch trials. During this period of history in 17th century New England, women such as Mary Webster, were put on trial as witches after residents of the town fell ill. The townspeople attacked Webster and eventually decided to hang her. She survived and her story is detailed in ”Memorable Providences”. It is to Webster that The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated.

Other elements easily related to historical precedents include the public executions (hangings on the Wall), which were commonplace in 20th century America and England. As well as the more general oppressive powers of totalitarian regimes such as the practices of Nazis during WWII. Forced adoption is another terrifying topic that Atwood’s novel brings into the forefront of the reader’s minds. This was a practice that occurred throughout the mid to late 1900s in countries like the United States and Canada. Babies and young children were kidnapped from their families and forcibly re-homed to new, paying families. 

The Handmaid’s Tale and the Bible 

It does not take much analysis to realize that a great deal of The Handmaid’s Tale, specifically the new titles that many of Gilead’s residents are given, come from the Bible. For example, the Rachel and Leah Center, what Offred refers to as the Red Center, is a reference to the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah, two sisters who were both married to Jacob. 

Rachel had trouble conceiving children, but Leah did not. Rachel was incredibly frustrated by this situation so decided to give her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob. She was to be a “vessel,” as the “Handmaids” in The Handmaid’s Tale are vessels, for Rachel’s child.  Bilhah eventually gave birth to two sons who were then turned over to Rachel. 

The story is the precedent that the founders of Gilead turned to in order to create the Handmaid program. The fertile women are the Handmaids, unwillingly given to the Commanders, by the Wives. Throughout history, the Bible has served many of the world’s worst leaders and societies as an excuse for dangerous, oppressive, and even murderous practices. This makes its centrality in Gilead even more easily believed.

Readers will also likely be aware of the fact that throughout the novel several biblically inspired sayings make their way into the lexicon. For example, “May the Lord Open” and “Blessed be the fruit”. The phrases are allusions to Deuteronomy 28, part of the Blessings of Obedience. They are meant to encourage faithfulness in those who hear and speak them.

One of the most obvious connections is the belief that promiscuousness and sex are sins. Women in Gilead should have no sex appeal or sex drive. Their only desire in life should be to have children for the Commanders they are assigned to. 

1980s America and Conservatism  

Margaret Atwood did not look only to the past for inspiration. Her contemporary world in the 1980s provided a great deal of inspiration on its own. When speaking about the novel, she described the truth of America’s founding as a theocracy, like Gilead, rather than a true republic. Atwood also speaks about Christian conservatives at the heart of the American government, especially in the 80s when Reagan was president.

Unfortunately, for contemporary readers of the novel, these features of inspiration do not feel at all surprising. Around the word today, particularly in American, this kind of controlling theocracy is trying to rear its head, seen through attempts to repeal Roe v. Wade in the United States and assert control over women’s bodies around the world. This is one great example of the impact of a genre such as speculative fiction, which Atwood believes her novel is part of.

The Handmaid’s Tale Publication History and Legacy 

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart in Canada. The novel has remained in print for the last thirty-five years and is only gaining in popularity. After the 2016 election in the United States and the inaugurations of Donald Trump, the novel was turned into a television series that was terrifying poignant as moves were made to abolish Roe v. Wade, the court case that legalized abortion in the United States, and threats were made against doctors who performed the procedure. In protests around the country, and around the world, women could be seen dressed in the striking red and white outfits worn by the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale television series and carrying signs with related slogans. One particularly poignant moment occured when numerous women lined up on the step so fthe American Capital Building in Washington D.C. dressed as Handmaids.

The novel has become a feminist landmark and reminder of the terrifying future that any country, even one as outwardly democratic as the United States, could face. Atwood, even at the time she was writing the novel, was very much aware of the historical implications. This is partially why she chose to end the novel as she did, looking forward to the future and featuring Professor Pieixoto. 

Through his descriptions of Offred’s story and his sexist jokes, its clear that some things have changed since the time of Gilead, but not everything. Gender still presents an issue in the years after the fall of Gilead, suggesting that equality is something that is going to take a great deal of time to reach and preserve. Gender, sexual, and racial equality are things that must be cared for, as a democracy must be. The novel, like many in the dystopian genre, like 1984 and A Brave New World, serves as a reminder of this fact. 

Emma Baldwin
About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.
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