“You often hear in North America, “It can’t happen here,” but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn’t agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there.” 

Through the creation of a deeply oppressive and depressive atmosphere, the presentation of a hellish society where its public is doomed of all rights, where women become girls and men become commanders, Margaret Atwood uses allusions from the past and the present in order to build a fictional totalitarian regime that portrays convincingly the theme of a dystopian future within the dystopian novel: The Handmaid’s Tale by witnessing its physiological, physical, emotional and sexual destruction from the main character Offred’s point of view. With Margaret Atwood’s ultimate purpose of the novel to be as a warning of what has happened and then can therefore happen again, Which is all the more relevant now as it was when the book was published in 1985. The main allusions throughout the text that were the most successful in presenting this theme were Margaret’s historical and biblical allusions and allusions to world war 2 Nazi Germany.

The novel is set in a theocratic totalitarian state called Gilead that was once the United States of America. Reproduction rates inside the USA had become dangerously low and the Gilead regime put into place laws that obliterated most humans rights and  all women’s rights completely whilst in the desperate attempt to bring reproduction rates back to normal. The novel is told from the first person by the main character Offred who is classed as a handmaid within the Gilead regime, handmaids only purpose within the regime is reproduction and they are assigned to a couple of high stature who are no longer able to reproduce, each month they undergo a ceremony in which the “commander” (the husband of the couple) has intercourse with the handmaid as his wife sits behind her in attempt to get the handmaid pregnant. The handmaid’s lives are completely stripped of all freedom and choice, they cannot dress how they would like, talk to who they like, do what they like, they have been classed as nothing more than a tool of reproduction and any disobedience towards the way of the regime either results in being sent away to work in colonies amongst toxic radiation or killed by hanging as an example of what happens when one is to disobey.

“Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear fruit upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Offred’s commander reads from the bible upon the beginning of the monthly ceremony, this moment presents a direct allusion to the use of similar proceeds in biblical times where handmaids were used to conceive children.  This allusion presents the use of extreme biblical occurrences to base the laws of a modern society from, exploiting human rights and indicating strongly towards the workings of a theocratic totalitarian regime. This bazaar religiously driven ceremony adds to creating a sense of the wrongness and unjust within this Gilead society that causes emotional and sexual torture, creating a scenario for the handmaids to dread every month. “below me the commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for”. Margarete in this case gives a very powerful insight to the awfulness of this ceremony and situations Offred and handmaids alike are forced to undergo. As a successful theocratic totalitarian regime sets out to do it has forced its members to complete sickly tasks that make them feel and act as the regime wants them to – sinners who are not worthy of the rights of freedom. This allusion by Atwood presents the danger of religious resources and how they can be used far to literally in ones favour to create tormenting experiences, through laws in a totalitarian regime. It brings some light to Margret’s purpose, the bible and other religious outlets alike create a mass of people who can use them to build large-scale regimes, These outlets have been the groundwork for theocratic totalitarian society’s in the past and may be used for many more in the future.

The previous allusion segways into what kind of government or group of people created this totalitarian society? This is where Margaret Atwood alludes greatly to the beliefs of puritans. “The society in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a throwback to the early Puritans whom I studied extensively at Harvard under Perry Miller, to whom the book is dedicated”. Puritans were a group of english protestants, they were known to take aspects of the bible very literally and to them humans in the eyes of god were seen as absolute sinners, with their only motivation for their actions being to satisfy god. The puritans had very strong views on sexuality and relationships being that laws within their society stated that all non-marital and non-reproductive sexual endeavours were not allowed and disobedience to these rules would lead to whippings, and even sometimes death. These puritan beliefs that were studied more extensively by Atwood allowed her to allude to them within the makings of all aspects of a theocratic totalitarian society, handmaids are made to speak in biblical phrases, extreme measures of punishment for not abiding by the regime especially towards strict rules on sexual endeavours that exist in Gilead alike puritan society’s were seen many times. Through the descriptive nature of the novel’s narrator Offred we witness the way the puritan driven regime makes it citizens feel as if they are depraved sinners and adds to creating a tone of dystopia; Offred and other citizens are brainwashed to believe that everything terrible that is happening or being forced upon them is to achieve merit and be worthy of god – as if apart of a living hell. Throughout history religion has been used largely as a way to brainwash people or society’s into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do, such as within ancient Egyptian society it is thought that the workers believed that a lifetime spent creating the pyramids for their pharaoh was a way to prove their worthiness to their god and a pathway to the afterlife. Atwood’s allusions to puritans and the presentation of how a theocratic totalitarian government and society can be created by a group of religious extremists helps to present the purpose of her novel showing how these religious overcoming and rise to control can happen and do happen.

Aspects of the totalitarian society during Nazi controlled Germany can be compared closely to those of the Gilead totalitarian society. Hitler’s rise to control over germany was very likely to be happening during the writing of this novel which gives good reason to believe Margaret used these grim times to help her in achieving the dystopian theme of this novel and use aspects of this event to allude to within the makings of the Gilead society. One of the most closely connected allusions to Nazi Germany is the Lebensborn Program, the purpose of this program was to restore the constant declining childbirth rates inside germany which is identical to the purpose of the Gilead regime. Alike the women within the Gilead regime women within the Lebensborn program had to meet the exact requirements of the ideal women for the program to produce the perfect offspring and if they did not were classed unworthy and were often not able to marry. Women inside nazi germany like Gilead were seen as “two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” and were otherwise unnecessary. Other areas of Nazi Germany were also heavily alluded to throughout the book. People inside nazi germany that had broken the laws of its regime were publicly humiliated, tortured or killed to intimidate the public and make them think twice before not conforming with the state. Within Gilead very similar procedures of public humiliation, torture and killings would take place to insist fear into the public and stop them from going against the regime. Concentration camps inside nazi germany are alluded to through the use of the colonies inside Gilead, and in both societies police had the authority to take people to these places, often without trial. By alluding to a real life totalitarian regime of this scale that is so well-known, in which the similarities are uncannily close gave Gilead’s regime an underlying presence of realism. As reader I felt much more immersed by this added realism from these allusions and I was able to understand more so what offered and the characters throughout Gilead were undergoing by having passed knowledge of extreme society’s such as nazi germany’s effect on its people, this added realism made the overall creation of the dystopian theme of the novel more effective. By alluding to these events that have happened in our very close past develops a sense in the viewer of the high likelihood of these things happening again and strongly brings realisation to Atwood’s purpose of the novel: given the right opportunity certain extremists can take advantage of religion or many other things to brainwash a society into conforming with their ways and take over an entire state, region or country through the likes of a totalitarian regime.

Through the eyes of Offred, throughout the handmaids tale, we as readers are subjected to Margaret Atwood’s clever use of allusions from bible excerpts that give insight to the cruelty of the Gilead regime and give an initial insight to Gilead being apart of a totalitarian regime, allusions from puritan religion that shows the origin of the theocratic system in Gilead and its brainwashing tendencies and allusions from nazi germany that presents a very similar totalitarian society that existed at the time of writing the novel. With these allusions purpose being to successfully manifest a fictional theocratic totalitarian society that presents a dystopian theme with intensity and realism to ultimately bring forth Margaret Atwood’s purpose to writing the novel which is to bring realization to the reader that even though the occurrences in the novel may seem far-fetched, not so different ones have occurred in the past and they by all means can occur in the future. This novel is Atwood’s warning to be ready for when it does or we may all face fates similar to those of the citizens of Gilead. Many Modern occurrences prove Atwood’s warnings to go un-wasted as extremists such as Kim Jong-un control current theocratic totalitarian regimes that present freakishly close situations as Gilead, and the election of donald trump as us president causes the spread of extremist, racist, sexist and prejudice opinions throughout the USA brainwashing its citizens,  moving towards a country that has the potential to be overcome with a totalitarian regime. As Murphy’s law states “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. A great start, Noah!
    Points for editing:
    – Write in complete sentences (there are quite a few incomplete sentences here, e.g; the creation of a deeply oppressive and depressive atmosphere) – amend these.
    – ensure capitals are utilised where they need to be.


  2. A strong intro that gives great clarity and direction for your reader. I look forward to seeing the development of your piece 🙂

  3. Make sure you move into analysis now…you’ve given plenty of novel context and grounding 🙂

  4. – A lot of incomplete sentences. Read aloud to hear these. In a lot of instances, these simply need to be linked together through removing a full stop and putting in a comma. In general check the construction of your sentences.
    – capitalisation still needs addressing.
    – give more biblical allusions. Theocratic state, Handmaids to talk in Biblical phrases only.
    – Margaret Atwood – check the spelling of her name.
    – Mention the purpose behind this theocratic state and the use of the allusion – what is Atwood doing? What is she asking us to consider?


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