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Margaret Atwood is publicly acknowledged for creating works with enigmatic women characters and open-ended stories while dissecting the contemporary urban life and sexual politics. The critical perspectives that she depicts throughout the book will cause some to feel daunted. Atwood reveals a whole dystopian world based on the world we live in today and includes some of society’s issues, such as radicalism, totalitarianism, and feminism. However, a crucial part of the society that Atwood creates is religion. Although Atwood seems to criticize radicalism, she only believes that faith can have bad iterations when the abuse of power comes in. According to Atwood, it is not a “question of religion making people behave badly; it is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it” (Williams). Atwood uncovers the depersonalization of religion and the oppressive effects of it when a society twists the interpretation of a holy text.
Within the society of Gilead, religion is used to justify the radical ideas that were forced onto everyone. Atwood specifically creates The Red Center with the Aunts to brainwash the Handmaids while using bible verses to tell them that their only job is to have children. The Aunts would repeatedly recite biblical stories such as “God to Adam, God to Noah, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the truth” (Atwood 88). God told them to be fruitful and multiply to indicate that God has blessed them with more children of God. The society interprets the text too literal to the point where it creates a class system for children-bearing women. However, this is a ploy to create a surface of superiority due to the elimination of others with different religions, such as the Muslims and the Jews. Karen Stein argues that “Gilead reads the biblical text literally and makes it the basis for the state-sanctioned rape…and turns a woman’s desire into an instrument of male control” (195). Stein’s analysis referred to the story of Rachel and Leah, who are two sisters that Jacob married. Initially, Jacob loved Rachel more; however, God counterbalanced for the lack of love Leah received by allowing her to have children but restricting Rachel to bear children. The society uses this story to illustrate that the main purpose of a woman’s body is to be vessels of life. The principles of Gilead “foster the idea that the primary purpose of the system is to protect women, while the actual purpose is to control them and reinforce the notion that their biology is their destiny” (Freibert 15). The Red Center educates Handmaids to pray for emptiness, such as denial, semen, and babies. Therefore, religion appears to be a controlling factor towards the women. Because of the guise of the repopulation program, the people of Gilead unravels a story from the Bible and wrongfully interpreted it; therefore, there is more chaos and disorder in the society. The holy text went from a balm for the believers to an irritant for the society. Not only did the Republic twist the meaning of biblical stories, but they also distort the act of praying.
In this dystopian society, the depersonalization of religion rises to the next level when prayers become computerized. When Offred and Ofglen went on their walk, both Handmaids passes a Soul Scrolls store, which is “a franchise that is in every city and suburb and known for making lots of profit” (Atwood 166). The stores have machinery that prints out certain prayers for the citizens of Gilead. These machines show the hypocritical and superficial use and abuse of religion that Gilead forces upon its society. The concept of the Soul Scrolls is ironic because prayers are supposed to be free and from the depths of one’s heart; however, one has to pay for it in Gilead. A prayer is a way to openly communicate with God and it was “once a human act of devotion and commitment that has been automated, quantified, rendered excessive and, in its utter tastelessness, obscene” (Filipczak 175). When one prays, it is simply a request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God. In Gilead, the prayers of the Soul Scrolls are offensive to the moral principles of Christianity. According to Filipczak, the prayers are now seen as obsessive and robotic and there is no special meaning behind the prayers anymore. The Soul Scrolls “are supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime…the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot and it helps their husbands’ careers” (Atwood 167). The prayers appear to be a sign of faithfulness to the regime but they give the impression that it was only a publicity stunt for the Commanders’ Wives. Atwood uncovers that the sole purpose of the Soul Scrolls is to let the Wives feel pious with no real effort. In Gilead, God is viewed as a “national resource, stressing the manipulative function of pseudo-religion” (Filipczak 45). A pseudo-Christian religion is a group of people who follow leaders who claim to be fundamentalist Christians and teach true Christian doctrines. However, the group, in reality, distorts the fundamental and distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith. An example of pseudo-religion in The Handmaid’s Tale is the Soul Scrolls and they demonstrate the abuse of religion and the dehumanizing effects of radicalism.
The Handmaids face oppression through many aspects of the society but the Ceremony clearly illustrates the dehumanizing effects of the society. The Ceremony is a ritualized sexual act in which the Handmaid and the Commander have sexual intercourse while the Wife is holding the Handmaid during the process. Before the Ceremony starts, the Commander “reads the locked up Bible to the Handmaids, which they cannot read it themselves” (Atwood 87). The Republic prohibits people from reading the Bible so the government can keep on using it without being questioned. The locked up Bible became “an incendiary device…a lethal instrument because the regime makes it generate oppressive laws” (Filipczak 41). The Bible becomes a symbol of hierarchy and a dangerous tool in society, instead of simply being a sacred text. Filipczak refers to the Bible as an “incendiary device”, which is basically a combustible device that is designed to cause fires. By creating the oppressive laws, it defeats the purpose of the Bible quotes and meanings. The Ceremony also exhibits the patriarchal nature of this particular society. During the ceremony, the Commander cleared his throat and said, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him” (Atwood 92).The Commander is in charge of the Ceremony process and everyone around him would automatically assume that it is time to stop praying just by the way he clears his throat. The quote is derived from 2 Chronicles 16:9 and it means that God has chosen men and women to do His work and He is looking for a person whose heart is completely towards Him. To depict that the Commander was being reasonable, as well as, to prevent the rise of any suspicions, the Commander uses a bible verse to back himself up. Because of the forced religious rules, the Republic becomes detached from reality and freedom. Therefore, curiosity becomes apparent as an effect of the stringent rules.
Some may say that curiosity is the most powerful thing you can own. During Offred’s and Ofglen’s walk, both Handmaids passes by a Soul Scrolls store and had a moment of importance when they both look at each other through the reflected glass of the window. The occurrence fills with risk and Ofglen proceeds to ask Offred, “Do you think God listens to these machines?” (Atwood 168). This forbidden conversation felt like a rush of blood for Offred, a sign of rebellion. Nevertheless, Ofglen’s own curiosity separates herself from the ones who are merely going through the motions because it conveyed that it was a question of treason; it is an indication that she is different from the others and more likely to rebel more. Her inquiry represents the suspicions that are starting to emerge within the society and she begins to realize that Gilead’s system is based on hypocrisy. God is sovereign and can certainly choose to answer any suitable prayer. To answer Ofglen’s question, God does not listen to the machines because of personal and selfish motives, iniquity in their hearts, and offer unworthy service to God. The society creates “a system that recognizes divine power but relies heavily on human control; the system brooks no resistance or dissent” (Freibert 14). The society emphasizes religion but everyone now relies on the human control that Freibert refers to. They are all forced to pray for children and asks for prayers through a machine. The depersonalization of religion in the Gileadean society causes unanswered prayers.
After realizing that the praying machines do not work, Offred decides that “tonight she will say her prayers” (Atwood 194). So far in the book, it seemed unlikely for the characters of The Handmaid’s Tale to pray themselves, unless they are told to by the regime. This is truly the first time that Offred decides to recite her own prayer and that action itself is an act of resistance to the oppressive society. Instead of fitting in with the society, she decides to build a personal relationship with God now, which will help her get through the abuse she is going through. Lucy M. Freibert states that “Offred realizes than an embodied imagination offers the real potential for freedom…and this self-generation frees her from the limitation of biological determinism” (17). Biological determinism is an idea that most human characteristics are determined at birth by the hereditary factors passed from parent to offspring. The biblical sources that the society used causes biological determinism and women gender roles to be prominent. With the use of her imagination, Offred escapes from the society. Another act of rebellion from Offred is during the Ceremony and she decides to pray silently of nolite te bastardes carborundorum because she “[did not] know what else [she] can say to God” (Atwood 90), even though she was not aware of the meaning. The writing that she found in the cupboard is her mantra and it gives her solace and joy to inwardly chant it, even when she is supposed to be praying with the others. Offred succeeds to find comfort in the oppressive society through her prayers.
Although the society forces religion onto the Republic, Offred manages to establish her personal relationship with God by reciting her private prayer. Throughout the whole book, Offred struggles with her identity as a Handmaid. A way she copes with self-denial was to speak of her past by mentioning tales of her childhood with her feminist mother, her affair with Luke, and her last moments with her own daughter. As the book progresses, the conflicts that revolve around Offred got more intricate, especially because of her new secret relationship with the Commander. In times of trouble, Offred has no other choice than to pray: “…sitting by the window, looking out through the curtain at the empty garden. I don’t even close my eyes. Out there or inside my head, it’s an equal darkness” (Atwood 194). Offred feels disconnected in Gilead; therefore, she decides not to close her eyes during the prayer because there is only darkness in her world. The key point of her prayer is to search for the light she cannot seem to find in her life. Ironically enough, the book of Genesis begins with the divine proclamation of “let there be light”. With obvious major differences between light and dark, both values can describe man’s moral state, which is emphasized in the Bible. Man associates light with the good, while the associating dark with the evil. In Offred’s case, the prayer becomes a symbol of her desperation for hope. Offred’s personal prayer reflects her own thoughts and feelings, unlike the Soul Scrolls machine. She is genuinely reaching out to God for balm. She rejects the willingness of approved prayer in Gilead. She now has her own way of praying and reaching out to the things that are sacred to her, such as how she has enough daily bread and she will not waste her prayer on that. Offred confesses that the main problem is “getting it down without choking on it” (Atwood 194). At that moment, Gilead replaces the aspect of enjoying food with the nourishing aspect of food. Offred makes the connection between bread and spiritual sustenance, which stresses her emotional despair. In her mind, she is secretly resisting Gilead’s ideology. Roberta Rubenstein, a critic, insists that “Food serves only functional, not emotional, appetites…the aroma of bread recalls comfortable kitchens and “mothers”. It’s a ‘treacherous smell’ that she must resist in order not to be overwhelmed by loss” (21). Moreover, she discusses Offred’s twist on the Lord’s Prayer as a sign of resistance. The smell of the bread made her remember all the memories she had in her old life. She forces herself to resist the smell because it symbolizes her own misery in this case. The God-fearing community generates oppression against freedom.
Offred was one of the many victims that suffer through the depersonalization of religion and the oppressive effects of radicalism. The society brainwashes the Republic through the use of a holy text, more specifically, the Bible. With the use of the biblical stories and verses, Gilead creates its own class systems, which one of them ends up being the children-bearing women called the Handmaids. The nation has resources of Aunts in the Red Center to drill in the basic doctrines of the fundamental Christian beliefs; the Handmaids are taught that the only purpose of their bodies is to conceive children. Atwood delves more deeply as she criticized the pseudo-Christian religion with the hypocrisy of the Soul Scrolls. The prayer machines dehumanize prayers and it becomes repugnant. However, Offred was able to find comfort in this society by maintaining a relationship with God. Offred’s own little twist on the Lord’s Prayer forces her imagination to run wild, which gives her an escape from her own reality. It was her way of rebelling and by doing so, Offred manages to elude the oppression.
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