Margaret Atwood’s Testaments: Resisting the Gilead Within

by Janet Karsten Lawson

Janet Karsten Larson teaches English at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and is an Editor-at-Large of the Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 20-27, 1987, 496. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a futuristic novel about the wretched future which has much to say about the present. Although it is harrowing in its vision, it is not without an element of hope. She is neither a rescuer of biblical religion from its feminist critics nor only a "post-biblical feminist" who must reject the Bible wholesale as a gynocidal text. For her, women cannot live toward the future without having roots, nor is it safe for them to forget where they have been.

We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Everywhere on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid pictures of ourselves that our suppressors wanted us to accept. And because of all this we were free. Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. . . . every word took on the value of a declaration of principles.

And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were the real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered No [Jean-Paul Satire in The Republic of Silence, edited by A. J. Liebling (Harcourt, 1947) ].

Among this century’s writing prophets perhaps the most compelling social critics are the creators of dystopian fiction -- those writers, filmmakers and other artists who imagine grim futures to teach us to read the signs of our own times. In George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, even ABC’s Amerika, we find ourselves disoriented yet at home in futures that are pastlike, familiar, futureless. Puzzling over the where and when of the story, we ask with new urgency of our own present, what time is it -- if there is time? The biblical prophets used some devices of dystopian writing to drive home the message that the disastrous future was already breaking into the present; but within the Covenant framework they could locate hope. In modern dystopias, where the inescapable model for this dark futuristic genre is the Third Reich, the prospect is not optimistic. Dystopian writers typically bear no gospels, though they may bring light.

Since 1972, when Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood published Survival, a critical study of her own national literature, and Surfacing, a novel about a woman’s recovery of identity, this powerful writer has been acclaimed for her canny exposures of sexual politics and modes of human survival. Her latest novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 1986) , is commanding attention as a considerably more ambitious book, part of a new phase of her work that includes the poems in True Stories and the novel Bodily Harm (both published in 1981) Exposing male/female power games within an alarmingly widened field of vision, Atwood bears prophetic witness to the largest, most subtle and most violent manifestations of power in our time.

In the Tale, the nazification of the United States has arrived in the late 20th-century Republic of Gilead. In this far-rightist religious regime, it is the women who must keep silent in the state, though it menaces all. Chapters titled "Night" begin, end, and return in the tale, with chilling echoes of Wiesel, Nietzsche and Job. Yet Atwood’s heroine infers that there is in fact a resistance movement, reasoning that there can be "no shadow unless there is also light" (p. 105) Despite all odds, the Handmaid’s tale is a darkly mirroring apokalypsis of the earthly grounds for hope.

The book confesses on almost every page a deep familiarity with the scriptural tradition. Why should this nonreligious writer bother? Of course, to expose Gilead’ s backward-looking fundamentalism, Atwood needs to use material from the patriarchal narratives, and distorted quotations from Jesus and St. Paul. Those readers not compelled by Moral Majority outrage to fling this book on the bonfire will be amused and appalled by its grotesque cartoon of theocracy. But the caricature is matched by Atwood’s considerable subtlety, which challenges us to look deeper into her satire. Like biblical Hebrew, Atwood’s witty prose is thick with double entendre and allusion, including hidden puns whose meanings dawn on us only later, and outrageous jokes that don’t so much dawn as "bomb" (one of the book’s metaphors and an effect of Atwood’s powerfully laconic style)

The volume is also divided into two separate stories, set a century apart: a long first-person narrative by a Handmaid in Gilead is followed by "Historical Notes on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,"’ a fictive academic commentary by the urbane male editor of the anonymous woman’s tapes discovered in the late 21st century, decades after Gilead’s fall. These two texts constitute Atwood’s testaments: one older, in subject matter more violent; the other more recent, seemingly benign, but insidiously continuous with the violence in the first. Together they give us back the lost or muted voices of some scriptural women, while demonstrating how they were silenced by the language and values of patriarchy that have dominated biblical storytelling, canon formation, commentary, theology and historical-critical scholarship. At Union Theological Seminary’s recent Biblical Jubilee, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann testified to the field’s "incredible naïveté about the management of power in our hermeneutical conversations." It is this naïveté that The Handmaid’s Tale addresses with its appended "historical" commentary, challenging us to think about something otherwise difficult to see: the relationship between the crises of our civilization and its historic textual politics -- the continuing story of who controls, legitimates, engenders and eliminates whom and what through the power of authoritative language, grounded in the Word.

Gilead’s Commanders of the Faithful have fulfilled their dream: they have constructed a theocracy (centered in Cambridge, Massachusetts) on the lines of ancestral Puritanism and biblical patriarchy. But as the true modems they don’t realize they are, they have remembered these traditions faithlessly -- by the letter and without the spirit of traditional piety -- and have erased the life-affirming themes of Israel’s covenant. In Gilead the valuing of seed has become a neo-Puritan fertility cult, which serves the Republic in a depopulated world. The "Ceremony" of its state religion is a passionless scene of begetting (based on a reading of Genesis 30:1-3) in which the Handmaid’s fruitful womb is interposed between the presumably nonsterile patriarch and his barren wife. Preliminary rituals of Bible-reading (by the Commander to his household) preserve "bits of broken symbolism left over from the time before" (p. 60) -- bits that also appear on police vans (the Winged Eye) , in uniforms (Handmaids wear red habits and stiff white blinders) , in common speech (their standard farewell is "Under His Eye") and military orders (Guardians of the Faith watch everywhere, outranked by Angel forces). At the Rachel and Leah Reeducation Center, "Aunts" armed with cattle prods and words from St. Paul have trained up the Handmaids in the way they should go, promising salvation through childbearing, under the threat of dismemberment and death. ("For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential," one Aunt explains, perversely re-membering the body language of I Corinthians 12:21.)

Atwood’s outrageous caricature is justified partly by the point it makes about the dangers of reducing "reality" to a rigid, life-denying ideology. For it is Gilead’s denial of history, its own historicity and any reading of Scripture other than the literalistic that make the regime a social menace. It must refuse the historical validity of "others" who do not share its privilege or ideology -- such as Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘gender traitors," scientists, and former abortionists hung by giant fish-hooks (from Amos?) on "the Wall" of Harvard Yard.

The regime itself sends genetically defective Unbabies to the "shredder" and practices a historical sweep of genocides. Meanwhile, the perpetually whirring lawn mowers testify that nothing natural can escape state cultivation. In fact, the "heart of Gilead" is a sleepy suburban landscape out of Better Homes and Gardens, tidily gridded with roadblocks. The greensward is more than a nice touch: Gilead in the Old Testament is a scenic grazing area (remembered in the Song of Songs for its goats) , and its famous trees produced a highly prized medicinal balm, absurdly recalled in the Handmaid’s longing for prohibited hand lotion. But in this Gilead, Atwood has imagined a time when our nightmares about the perils of toxic waste, radioactive fallout, chemical and biological warfare, nuclear sabotage and the building

of atomic power plants along earthquake fault lines have all come true. What was New World Edenic grazing land, "America the beautiful," has become lethal to all creation and human good. Like the cursed fig tree withered from leaf to root in Mark’s passion narrative, the infertility that plagues Atwood’s dystopia is a prophetic sign of the withering of a whole culture.

The prophet Amos also recalls that the Ammonites have "ripped up the women with child, of Gilead, that they might enlarge their border" (1:13) In the Tale, the Handmaids’ own children have been ripped from them so that these "twolegged wombs" may become the property of a state mobilized to invade all private spaces (including those "pockets of Baptist guerrillas" engaged in border warfare) In her latter days, Atwood’s heroine, like the "handmaids" in Joel 2:29, prophesies against such state-sponsored terrorism, but even more against its inscription in the people’s hearts (Jer. 31:33) : "The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you" (p. 23)

Repeatedly the reader realizes that the regime in Gilead is no anachronistic theocracy like Iran, but the religion-based state of our continuing American Puritan tradition. It is also a paradigmatic political system that makes its (male) power plausible through control of the word. In this republic of silence for women, men have once again expropriated literacy, hoarded books and banned acts of reading from public places, replacing lettered signs with pictures. While religion flourishes to justify the state, and the Word is stripped of its transcendent reference and power, propaganda is the one balm in Gilead and its most natural product.

But even propaganda’s fictions are never so powerful as those by which people choose to live. The heroine remembers the time before when she and her friends had dismissed news stories of violence done to women (as readers might dismiss literary dystopias) as "too melodramatic": "We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories." These were not gaps in their knowledge, as she confesses: "We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it." The gaps are a vacuum, nowhere for humans to breathe in. The gaps are that venerable noplace, utopia. Where daily surviving is based on fictions of denial, it is our way of life that is implausible.

Surfacing issued a stirring manifesto for women in 1971: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing." Early on, Atwood’s Handmaid voices a motto for the ‘80s: "Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last" (p. 8). And yet the value of the struggle Sartre has described -- to think an accurate thought, speak a true word -- is inscribed on every page of this underground testimony, to me the more eloquent for resisting the absolute certainties of the "true Resistant." Like Rachel smuggling out the family gods under her voluminous garments, this Handmaid has secretly brought remnants of the word with her into exile. Although she can parrot the state’s language, as in her wondrous passing remark that oranges have been hard to get "since Central America was lost to the Libertheos" (p. 25) , her main hope for survival lies in exercising her ability to "read" and "write." For survival to be based on literacy is not a new idea in dystopian fiction or in Atwood. But in the crisis of the ‘80s (when "reading" has been escalated to "hermeneutics") , Atwood sees that we have to produce meaning in the face not only of a "basic skills" crisis in the schools but a massively anti-literate world order that has invested even its knowledge in "ignoring." The Handmaid’s illegal taletelling, though often consciously fictional and of necessity fragmentary, is her resistance to the Gilead within that brings her to the brink of deliverance from the Gilead without. Resisting is her hope-work; it becomes ours.

Czech author Milan Kundera has said that the struggle of human beings against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Although she never reveals her real name (effaced now under the patronymic "Offred") , the Handmaid begins her tale in the old high school gymnasium by recalling youthful "expectation, of something without a shape or name" (p. 3) , preserving, like Israel in exile, the time of hope, and returning in memory to the sources of existence as the only way forward. Offred’s efforts to weave together the different stages of her life remake some crucial years of common history, while keeping alive the social idea by "testifying." "I tell, therefore you are," she addresses an assumed "Dear You," enfleshing already in her reader the intimacy banned in Gilead and her hope for the future in us.

Resistance also requires a constant effort to withstand the doublespeak of the Re-education Center, a nightmare Sunday school whose lessons she must unlearn (such as the wonderful revisionary slogan said to be in Acts: "From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs" [p. 117]) At lunch they hear new Beatitudes she knows are "wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking" (p. 89) except through memory and moral imagination. Offred also creates her own subversive counter-texts and continually practices the mental acts of poetic synthesis and analysis, remaking distinctions that the State elides and reviving the language for which she hungers in this famine of the Word.

Again like Rachel sitting on the household gods, Atwood’s Handmaid sits in her room on a petit-point cushion (so faded it has been overlooked by the state redecorators) and spells out its single word "FAITH." Reconstructing from this inscription the whole Corinthian formula, she remembers what Gilead has forgotten in its "amputated" pseudo-Christian speech -- and she acts on the discovery. The comic irony of Atwood’s gospel is that as Offred sits brooding on "FAITH," "HOPE" and "CHARITY" hatch (words that keep turning up in the tale). At any rate, for a bad joke to be the good news is the kind of absurdly hopeful reversal (as in Jesus’ wittier parables) that we find often in this surprisingly funny book.

The humor of this novel is dark, and its’ vision harrowing, yet it also contains a kind of celebration, a gathering of a vast sisterhood in the ‘Everywoman’s voice narrating the tale. Just as Rachel resisting false comfort for her children symbolizes the nation in Jeremiah 31:15, so this Everywoman tells everyone’s story.

Among those gathered here in her modem voice (through scriptural images, verbal echoes, parallel situations) are women whose stories have been muffled in the Bible’s tradition -- Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah, Mary, the Lord’s "handmaiden," Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Rebekkah, Ruth, Puah and Shiphrah (the Hebrew midwives in Egypt) , Jael, Jephthah’s daughter, the "Jezebel" of Revelation, and other, unnamed ancestresses, "missing persons without textual authority.

The novel offers no unified "character analysis" of these ancient women, certainly no hagiography; but through Offred’s tale it does suggest the complexity of their inner lives as well as the trickiness of their textual words that we do have to ponder -- discourse rarely simple, since historically women have had to express themselves indirectly, within, the suppressive language of patriarchy. And in Atwood’s sly juxtaposition of epigraphs from Genesis and Swift’s "A Modest Proposal," another bomb drops: the Handmaid idea originated with a woman and is connectable, via Swift, with cannibalism.

Lest we be tempted to romanticize woman’s capacity for rebirth" in a dying culture, Atwood tests the reader’s discernment by appending the "Historical Notes." In these Proceedings from the Symposium on Gileadean Studies, the limits of the Handmaid’s point of view become clearer with a century’s hindsight. Yet, more cleverly exposed are the ways the intellectual class, in processing the tale and its history through the standard academic apparatus, fosters the advent of the next authoritarian regime by its naïve belief in its own objectivity and its refusal to judge Gilead’s practices. The passionate immediacy of the Handmaid’s witness is muffled in a talk spiced with "harmless" sexist jests that should give the game away. But not all readers report that they understand Atwood’s irony at first. Here (as in Swift) plausibility seduces. This second testament continues Atwood’s book of revelation, showing how insidiously Gilead can persist within a text and its readers, reflecting and abetting the Gilead without.

Is it not a miracle, then, that the Handmaid’s tale does not lose its power after this historical-critical afterword? But this, too, is a parable. Even patriarchy’s deepest plots have not wholly’ silenced women in the biblical tradition, nor does our knowledge of these infamous "proceedings" have to cancel other values of Scripture for us. But as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has argued in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1985) the biblical past, which cannot be obliterated from the Western past, can be a source of power for us in the present only as we confront ‘what is absent in it and why.

Resisting classification as ever, Atwood is neither a rescuer of biblical religion from its feminist critics nor only a "post-biblical feminist" who must reject the Bible wholesale as a gynocidal text. For her, women cannot live toward the future without having roots, nor is it safe for them to forget where they have been.

In this novel Atwood does not abandon biblical history to those who have muted female testimony; instead, she imaginatively writes this testimony back into cultural contexts that would destroy it utterly and that fail to do so, even as she reveals the violence in any amputations of human stories and the historical vulnerability of all speech and silence. To reclaim a term from Gilead’s lexicon of euphemisms, a "Women’s Salvaging" of Scripture is a possible venture, crucial for our common future, but only if undertaken with the historical awareness and moral discernment that can also illumine our reading of the current times. Only then perhaps can "faith, hope, and charity" be for women not a formula for "ignoring," but words with sustenance for our common life.