The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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19 ‘with short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs’ – This is quite a cruel jibe at Ofglen who is actually a courageous member of the Mayday underground and is also very good at disguising her true feelings and intentions. The Handmaids, as seen already in Chapter One of the novel, are expected to behave as infants or trained animals, and this is an important strain of imagery in the early chapters of the book.

19 ‘“Praise be”’ – This sounds like an archaism, conjuring up the early days of Puritan America. The Gilead regime would like to return society to a – for them, ideal – past. The puritan settlements of New England were a small coastal colony of Christians threatened by a vast pagan hinterland, and Gilead, too, seems to be surrounded by enemies on every side. The Biblical ‘Gilead’ was an area of Transjordania originally captured by Moses and the Israelites from ‘Og the King of Bashan’ and ‘Sihon, King of the Amorites’ (who are frequently mentioned together in the Old Testament) prior to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan. It is, thus, a kind of ‘first fruits’ of the Promised Land, and the choice of the name ‘Gilead’ suggests, among other things, a desire or expectation that other liberal, secular states will eventually conform to its theocratic ideals. Beyond the Jordan, however, Gilead was always vulnerable, since the tribes living there were surrounded by Israel’s traditional enemies, the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites. Gilead, therefore, was a territory under constant threat, without the advantage of natural frontiers to the north, east or south.

19 ‘Baptists. They had a stronghold in the Blue Hills.’ – Gilead presumably had its roots in an alliance between Evangelical Christians and the political right such as that which occurred in 1980s America. The kind of organisations the reader can imagine leading eventually to the ‘Sons of Jacob Think Tanks’ would probably have been similar to those associated with the ‘Moral Majority’ movement of the 1980s. Southern Baptists – who make up a significant part of America’s ‘Bible Belt’ – can reasonably be assumed to have been part of some kind of pre-Gilead movement. The fact that the regime is fighting Baptists, therefore, implies serious disagreements and schisms within this putative pre-Gilead movement – which is hardly surprising considering the radical direction taken by Gilead after the coup. It is also worthy of note that the regime’s enemies are generally seen as opposing them for religious , rather than political reasons: opponents include Baptists, Quakers and Roman Catholics. Perhaps one reason Atwood took this line was to avoid making her novel look like an anti-Christian tract. The Blue Hills are located in Massachusetts, south of Boston.

20 ‘floodlights […] for use in emergencies’ – implies that Gilead suffers from power shortages.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul