Hypocrisy in The Handmaid's Tale

Hypocrisy of the state

The Republic of Gilead is ostensibly founded on Christian principles. Cars and shops are named after events, places and people in the Bible and the Aunts apparently quote the Bible frequently to support their ideas. Yet the whole state is founded on hypocrisy:

  • The biblical quotations spouted by the Aunts are twisted, misquoted or selectively incomplete, just like the cushions in Offred's room where only ‘Faith' remains and ‘Hope' and ‘Charity' (love) have been removed
  • The new state's name presents a false idea of its values. It calls itself Gilead, after a mountain mentioned in Genesis 31:22, on which was taken an oath to let God be the judge in human affairs and disputes. But God is not the judge in the Republic of Gilead
  • Meanwhile, the state's leadership is completely anonymous, since democracy has been done away with in a violent coup, and freedom is now unknown
  • There is nothing loving about Gilead. Terrible tortures and punishments are inflicted on those who in any way fail to conform or to meet the standards imposed by the government.

Principles overthrown

The principles which are supposedly the raison d'être of Gilead are never seen in practice. The most obvious example of this hypocrisy is Jezebel's, which practises the reverse of the ideas of sexual purity and morality so frequently mouthed by the Aunts at the Red Centre. Aunt Lydia preached that Gilead protected women from pornography and sexual violence, yet Jezebel's, where those with some power in Gilead go to be entertained, is nothing more than a brothel where the women are compelled to work if they do not want to be sent straight to the Colonies (in effect, to death camps).

Gileadean ‘family values'

Serena Joy was once a television evangelist urging women to give up their careers and to be stay-at-home wives, looking after their husbands and children. Gilead now promotes its own idea of the family:

  • In Gilead, divorce and adultery are crimes, and those who have been involved in such behaviour - including Offred and Luke - are condemned; this means that their family is torn apart
  • Homosexual love is punishable by death
  • Love between men and women is strictly regulated. Marriages are arranged by those in power, and the girls who take part in the mass wedding at a Prayvaganza have no choice of partner
  • The state now organises the family. Children are in short supply, so the offspring of offenders are forcibly removed and women are forced to become ‘Handmaids'. As we see from the behaviour of the Wives in the section ‘Birth Day', the Commanders' wives bitterly resent these women; yet Gilead seems to pretend the opposite, by choosing the term ‘handmaid' from the story in Genesis describing how the infertile Rachel herself told her husband Jacob to have intercourse with her handmaid.

Because the rulers of Gilead are invisible, it is difficult to see what they ultimately hope to achieve, but Atwood leaves us in no doubt that most of what the state apparently stands for is a facade. In showing this, she is prompting us to ask ourselves how far we, and our religious, political and other organisations, can stand up to scrutiny.

(In her later dystopian novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, she focuses especially on the hypocrisy and corruption of huge pharmaceutical conglomerates which deliberately spread diseases while selling medicines which purport to heal.)

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