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Vol. 10 No. 1 (2024): Fiction, Religion and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Biblical Narratives in The Handmaid’s Tale

May 29, 2023


Through her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood fuels the debate surrounding the global plight of women. Atwood weaves many biblical concepts, names, and motifs relating to the status of women into the novel, with a particular focus on the concept of the handmaid, whose sole function is childbearing. Atwood thus warns against fundamentalist readings of the Bible and other canonical texts that are the foundations of our culture. In order to reach a fuller understanding of the contextual biblical sources of the novel, in this article I take an in-depth look at the biblical source of the name “Gilead”, as Atwood chose to set her tale in the “Republic of Gilead”. Furthermore, as the novel presents a radical social hierarchy among women based on their childbearing duties, I will also examine the biblical narratives foundational to the hegemonic male interpretation that gave rise, according to the novel, to this dystopian reality. In this terrifying novel, the transformation of women into childbearing handmaids is based both on the biblical story of the handmaids and on the proprietary relationship of men over women in the Bible. I argue that the novel’s critical approach deconstructs the unspoken assumptions of a particular way of life.