The Manipulation of Religion in "The Handmaid's Tale"

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The Manipulation of Religion in "The Handmaid's Tale" essay
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The manipulation of religion is a key idea in both The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Power by Naomi Alderman. The novels both share this idea of religion being exploited for their own ends. The Handmaid’s Tale features frequent misuse of biblical language in Gilead. For instance, Aunt Lydia’s slogan “Gilead is within you” can be seen as blasphemous- perhaps being a parody of Christ’s words “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). This further highlights just how Gilead operates to embed its forceful ideas into everybody’s everyday lives and emphasises the way in which Atwood manipulates religion. In contrast, The Power constantly develops an idea of religion. Allie’s persona is taken over by ‘Mother Eve’, of whom talks to her through her mind in a way which would often be associated with a God- much like God’s will. Allie has become a faith leader: “Mother Eve will you give me your blessing?” asks one boy. A blessing is typically an act associated today with other religious figures such as ministers and other such members of clergy. This is a clear example of religious imagery that Alderman cleverly uses to connect with her readers effectively and get her points across.

The Power begins in Saudi Arabia and moves onto discuss other countries in which the female characters seize political control and undertake violent revenge on men who have enslaved and abused them. They utilise this newly found power to defend and liberate themselves and this changes their own view of themselves. Alderman told New Public Radio that “if you were able to live your life as if you were able to hurt when you needed to, your life would be so different, even if you never ever had to do it. This makes you less afraid all the time.” However this power corrupts rapidly- the prologue describes how a teenage girl electrocutes her foster-father who has been repeatedly sexually abusing her until he “spasms and pops out of her. He is juddering and fitting… He falls to the floor with a loud thump”. This act of power seems righteous and just but later in the novel some women become far more cruel and predatory. A female officer who is on guard feels obligated to make an example of an aggressive young male resistor: “his scalp crisps under her hand. He screams. Inside his skull, liquid is cooking… the lines of power are scarring him, faster than thought… The body tumbles forward, face first into the dirt”. The men also fight back with even more brutality; they try to destroy and steal this power surgically in order to blind and confine females- using high weaponry against them.

Alderman’s portrayal of Allie’s change in persona to Mother Eve began as a spontaneous decision to create distance between her old life and her new. However, as the weeks pass, Allie feels her powers grow and sees more and more girls arriving at the convent, cast out by their families and communities, desperate for somewhere to stay. Eve welcomes them and helps to care for them. Allie watches, from behind Eve’s eyes, and listens to the voice that has guided her steps this far. Later, Eve begins to work miracles. And before long, with her sermons and acts of faith broadcast across the world on YouTube, Eve’s power ceases to be merely physical and becomes something wider, more irresistible and more dangerous. She preaches a message to all women across the world: God has revealed Herself. God has given us the power to make a difference as Alderman states, “It doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.” By comparing this level of power to being a kind of wealth, the author emphasises the degree of advantage these females hold over the opposite sex and that this is not simply a physical edge over men, but has a deeper meaning. Mother Eve’s powers to make miracles happen and welcome those in need with open arms mimic those of the Bible through Jesus’ acts in well-known parables such as ‘Feeding the 5000’ in Matthew 14:13-21. Not to mention Eve’s sermons. Sermons typically address a scriptural, theological or religious, topic, usually expounding on a type of belief or law within both past and present contexts. Her degree of authority and power to make important changes to her own life and those around her severely contrasts with the lives of the Handmaids, of whom have no voice or rights. Therefore, The Power clearly manipulates this idea of religion as Alderman plays on these typically religious images, acts and symbols - such as sermons, parables and a person of high authority having special powers/abilities they use to communicate.

Similarly, In addition to Gilead’s selective use of biblical language to support and enforce a system of patriarchy, Atwood uses other, wider references throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. For instance, Aunt Lydia’s words of encouragement to the Handmaid's “From each, according to her ability, to each according to his needs”. She claims this comes from St Paul but is in fact a description of systems of production by Karl Marx- A hugely influential revolutionary thinker and philosopher whose writings formed the theoretical base for modern international communism. Atwood’s references to Freud in “Pen is Envy” a pun on the phrase ‘penis envy' which the psychoanalyst Freud suggested to explain jealousy which girls might feel towards males. For Aunt Lydia, however, it is the pen which is the more dangerous object of desire. Also, Milton’s sonnet in “They also serve”- also helps to emphasise women’s subservience to men. They also serve who only stand and wait’ – comes from John Milton’s sonnet ‘On his Blindness’ ends with this famous line. The context is obedience to God’s will even when in the harshest and most unpromising circumstances:

Who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

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Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,

And post o'er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.

The use of this line by Aunt Lydia is also an example of the way Gilead – a theocracy – likes to identify itself with the Kingdom of God, which Milton is writing about. The novel features frequent references to different parts of the Bible. The most obvious is the reference to Genesis 30:1-3 in the epigraph at the very beginning of the book, with the phrase, 'Give me children or else I die”. This small body of text is the fundamental idea behind the Republic of Gilead, emphasising its focus on bringing a 'maid' or Handmaid into a childless marriage to create heirs.

There are specific parts of the Bible which glorify marriage and that free men from the guilt of committing adultery when it is for the purposes of childbirth. There are also parts which convict women of adultery, and these have been cherry-picked from the text and made into law in Gilead. Other parts of the novel have been used to dictate the behaviour of the Handmaid’s - like the ones that emphasise meekness and humility. There is only one authorised religion which is permitted in Gilead, which is one promoted by the state itself. In Gilead, whatever the government has decided should be taken from the Bible and has become absolute law. The authority the Bible already had pre-Gilead becomes even more powerful. Strange, small pieces of Biblical text show up frequently throughout the book. This is particularly evident in place names and propaganda. For example, there's Gilead itself. Within it, all the stores which the Handmaids are allowed to shop at have Biblical names; Loaves and Fishes (referencing Jesus feeding the 5000 in Matthew 14:13-21), Milk and Honey (Also in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, a Hebrew God promised Abraham that he would find a great nation that would live in a land flowing with milk and honey), All Flesh (In the Bible, the word 'flesh' is often used simply as a description of the fleshy parts of an animal/human beings, and typically in reference to sacrifice) and finally Lilies- in Matthew 6:26 Jesus told his followers not to worry about food, because even the birds are provided for by God. In this verse Jesus presents the example of the lilies, who also do no labour, further emphasising that The Handmaid’s Tale manipulates an idea of religion. The hotel where the Handmaids are kept is called ‘Jezebel’s’ who is a figure of the Hebrew bible. Whenever the narrator remembers a piece of dialogue or something that happened at the Center, it usually includes a piece of Biblical content. Although, it is evident that these references have been altered to reinforce the goals of the Republic.

Alderman’s writing style in The Power is confident and rather bold in places and her decision to write in the third person helps engage readers as she is able to easily switch between the characters without getting too deep into their inner thoughts and feelings. The multitude of characters does not detract from their full realisation- each and everyone is made distinct and memorable by the author.

It is impossible to read The Handmaid's Tale without being aware that issues of gender and aspects of feminism are central to the novel. Atwood is well-known for her feminist views, though she is never narrow-minded, and in The Handmaid's Tale she raises questions rather than simply asserting her views. As Offred comments: ‘if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a woman-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away.’ Nevertheless, women are the main victims in the society which Atwood conceives - the Republic of Gilead - and her vision of this society reflects (though it may also sometimes seem to exaggerate, by bringing together several diverse examples) many of the inequalities and abuses faced by women worldwide in the past and currently. In Gilead, female subjection is complete, and as far as the Handmaids are concerned even their identity is subsumed by the male who controls them. They are forbidden to use their real names, but are instead made the property of their masters: Ofglen, Ofwarren, Offred. A notable quotation from The Handmaid’s Tale highlighting this is ‘He begins to whistle. Then he winks.’ – Possibly, Offred has earned this mild flirtation – she has been looking intently at him – but there is also a sense here that men can ‘whistle’ and wink and women will inevitably be drawn to them. Offred’s obvious need for sexual fulfilment with a male gnaws away at any feminist credentials she might otherwise possess. However, in contrast, in The Power, Alderman builds on this shift in traditionalism by using bold, strong feminine characters to combat men who are living in fear of this power and authority the opposite sex has over them. ‘Roxy, the woman with more power than she knows what to do with, sends a bolt through the water, and each of the police officers starts and bucks to the ground’. Alderman’s effective word choice of the word bucks has connotations of a breakdown and staggering to the ground- the men are so weak in this novel that they cannot even begin to put up a front and challenge the opposite sex, as much as they would like to.

Offred’s private narrative is the secret of her emotional survival and this is focused on memory and her own female body. The language of her body- her physical sensations, emotions and desires uses poetic imagery and imagery landscapes. In writing about her body, Offred shows how a feminine voice can find a way of speaking even when silenced by the male order. Her intimate narrative is as subversive as the flowers in the Commander’s Wife’s garden ‘Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently’. There are a small number of recurring images which form patterns or ‘image clusters’ throughout the narrative. They refer to the human body (hands, feet, face, eyes, blood, wombs). Images from nature also run through the tea such as flowers, gardens, changing seasons, colours and light-specially moonlight. Offred’s images, ask related to nature and organic processes, create a natural, ‘feminine’, language that works in opposition Gilead's unnatural, polluted, technological nightmare. Similarly, Alderman’s The Power uses the female body to convey emotions and desires within the novel.

The entirety of the women in the novel represent a range of views about women’s role in society at the time. Offred’s mother is a single parent, who identified with the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s that demanded equality between the sexes in a range of spheres, including sexual and reproductive freedoms. As she reminisces, Offred comments on her own indifference to her mother’s feminist activism and she laments the political apathy of many younger women. Some years later, under the Gilead regime, a woman’s function and value in society are biologically determined by her ability or inability to conceive and bear children. The Handmaid’s names- ‘Of-fred’ and ‘Of-glen’ etc, symbolise the women’s lack of status or even lack of an identity in their own right.

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The Manipulation of Religion in "The Handmaid's Tale" essay

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