Religious Fundamentalism in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

23 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Context
2.1. Christian Fundamentalism in the United States
2.2. Islamic Fundamentalism
2.3. Feminism

3. Religious Fundamentalism
3.1. Women in Gilead
3.2. Other Groups in Gilead
3.3. The Totalitarian Republic of Gilead

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Margaret Atwood needs no longer an introduction in the common sense, because she is one of the most popular and productive writers in the world. Her works, especially her novels are taught at many universities worldwide. Her books are bestsellers and subjects of critical reviews and academical studies. Margaret Atwood wrote her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in a time when religious fundamentalism had already been established in the United States. Through this historical background and her own experience with religious fundamentalism and the rising of feminism, it is not surprising that her novels also deal with such a thematic aspects. Moreover, Atwood copies her own experiences and imaginations of religious fundamentalism into the fictive and futuristic world of Gilead.

The following paper will deal with the topic of religious fundamentalism in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It will take as starting point the historical context of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism and of feminism. The first abstract on Christian fundamentalism will provide a very close look at the development of religious fundamentalism in the United States. It will include as well a look at its beginnings in the early twentieth century, the discovery of television evangelism during the 1960’s and 1970’s, as at the actual appearances of religious fundamentalism in the United States. These new form include special television programmes, movies, songs, and the internet which are today used for religious purposes. The abstract on Islamic fundamentalism, will deal very briefly with the development of Islamic fundamentalism in the last century. The third and last abstract will then deal with the development of feminism in the United States, from the 1960’s onwards. But it will also provide a short look at the fight of Offred’s mother in the past for better women’s rights. The main part of this paper will deal with the central aspects and variations of religious fundamentalism in The Handmaid’s Tale. This will include as well a look at the establishment of the regime in Gilead, the treatment and the social position or function of women in the totalitarian society, the persecution of other groups like for example certain members of religious groups and homosexuals as the totalitarian Republic of Gilead with its forms of systematic control, terror, surveillance, and ideology. At the same time, I will compare these findings with the background of present- day and historic definitions, theories, and versions of fundamentalism. These will include mostly references to the National Socialists, the Former Republic of Germany, the regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Apartheid regime, the segregation of Afro- Americans in the United States and to the regime of Pinochet and the forced disappearances, which were initiated by his regime. The last point of this paper will then provide a detailed bibliography of the recommended secondary literature.

2. Historical Context

First of all, Margaret Atwood is very much interested in Puritan New England. This shoes her dedication of the novel to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster was hanged as a witch in New England in 1863, and Perry Miller was her director of American Studies at Harvard (cf. Divasson 1990: 31). Miller also wrote two influential books, namely The New England Mind: Seventeenth Century (1939) and The New England Mind: from Colony to Province (1953). The rhetorical and the cultural practices in the Republic of Gilead are deeply influenced by the works of Perry Miller. In one of his books, he for example mentions the reference of the Founding Fathers to women as “Handmaid’s of the Lord”. Gilead also provides Puritan references to childbirth and to the Birthing Stool or to the so- called birth refreshments. These include refreshments like the “groaning beer” or the “groaning- cakes” (cf. Howells 1996: 130).

Moreover, the worldwide political climate turned in the 1980’s toward fiscal restraint and social conservatism. Pierre Trudeau for example was replaced by a Progressive Conservative politician. Other politicians like Margaret Thatcher sold industries which were run by the British government to private owners. The election of Ronald Reagan created a fast reversal of the social policy (cf. The Handmaid’s Tale (Historical Context) 2008: 1)

Another historical context, which should be mentioned, is the worldwide fear of a nuclear destruction. Magret Atwood portrays the Republic of Gilead as a place that is surrounded by areas of toxic waste. Those who do not fit into the totalitarian structure of Gilead are sent to the so- called colonies to clean up the toxic waste. In my opinion, Atwood hints with this portrayal of the colonies at the actual destruction of the environment. Moreover, Margaret Atwood tries to personify this fear of a nuclear destruction. The audience is directly confronted with the environmental destruction, and she leads us to think about the future and what will happen to the environment, if things are not changed in the nearest future. The idea of religious fundamentalism and the existence of a totalitarian regime make up a great deal of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the past, previous dictatorships like Hitler and the National Socialists, Mussolini in fascist Italy, Pinochet in Chile, or the present day dictator Saddam Hussein tried to control every single aspect of the daily life. Religion, in a way,

provides a high potential for the erection of a totalitarian regime. Each regime finds plausible ways to justify their totalitarian activities. In this respect, Elizabethans for example believed that childbirth was an act of God to punish women for Eve’s sin. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the “Rachel and Leah story” provides a plausible justification for the “jobs” of the Handmaid’s. A religious justification can today for example be found in suicide bombers in Iraq or Afghanistan, who kill themselves and may innocent people with the permission of God (cf. An essay on The Handmaid’ Tale 2007: 2).

2.1. Christian Fundamentalism in the United States

Margaret Atwood published her work the Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, in response to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States. The origins of religious fundamentalism can be found in the religious movements of the late 19th century. In this context, the first Bible Conference took place in 1878 in New York, where the leader of the Baptists, Presbyterians, and of the Christian Church established the nine important principles of religious fundamentalism. These included the infallibility of the Bible, Trinity, eternal sinfulness of man, the atonement of Jesus for the sin of man, and his imminent return to reign of one thousand years (cf. Ba- Yunus 2008: 1). The term ‘religious fundamentalism’ first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, in relation with the religious writing Fundamentals. A Testimony to Truth (cf. Birnbaum 1989: 121). In the following years, movements such as the Bible Conference gained more and more influence and power. The first organization “World’s Christian Fundamental Association” was then founded in 1919 in Philadelphia (cf. Prutsch 2007: 56). However, the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II influenced those movements negatively. As a result, the number of members successively declined during these years. Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism gained a new impulse at the beginning of the 1940’s. The American Council of Christian Churches was founded in 1941

and the National Council of the Evangelists followed one year later in 1942. At the beginning of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, evangelists discovered the media like the radio or television for their religious purposes. The first Gospel Hour started on television on January 1stin 1949. Youth on the March, another religious broadcasting show followed some months later. From that moment on, television evangelists reached nearly everybody in the United States with their religious preaching (cf. Youth on the March 2008).

The late 1960’s were a time of intensive social changes. The Civil Rights Movements for example broke the old and traditional roles of men and women and women gained a lot more rights like for example the right to vote. After the elections in 1976, Robert Grant formed the group Christian Voice, which provided the money of its members and which tried to receive enough votes for the right- wing Republican candidates. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, more and more organizations were founded. Among them groups like the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, Focus on the Family, Coalition for Traditional Values, American Conservative Union, Pro- Family Movement, Praise the Lord, Christian Broadcasting Networks, Eagle Forum and the popular Moral Majority (cf. Flank 2005). During the 1970’s, American fundamentalism experienced a “new” renaissance, which went hand in hand wit the immense growth of the Electronic Church. During these years, television evangelism became one of the most simplistic and conservative kinds of religion. Consequently, millions of potential voters became members of those organizations, spending millions of dollars to support their work. These members gave the organizations, like for example the Moral Majority, a very strong influence in various political issues. In this respect, the Moral Majority for example opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which in particular provided equal rights form men and women. A new revival of religious fundamentalism started in 1984, and since then, fundamentalism became a very important political issue. Certain groups supported for example the fight for the protection of the family, the prohibition of homosexuality, death penalty, the fight against feminism and women’s rights and attacks against hospitals that offer opportunities for abortion (cf. Kienzler 1996: 18). The number of members declined during the 1990’s, because some important leaders were involved in several sexual and financial scandals. As a result, religious fundamentalism developed a serious image problem. Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism still exists in the United States, especially in the American South. Today one can find many Christian entertainment programmes and other shoes on television like for example “Christie”, “Seventh Heaven” or “Touched By an Angel”. Additionally, one can also find Christian fundamentalist elements in

movies such as in “The Ten Commandments” or the “Omega Code” or in pop music like for example Sixpence None the Richer[1]. Today most television evangelists use new forms of media, such as the internet, for their religious purposes.

2.2. Islamic Fundamentalism

The origin of fundamentalism in Islam refers mostly to the so- called Salman-Rushdie-Affair that came to power with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. However, fundamentalist orientations can be found in Islam since 1900. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to oppose Western imperialism and secularization. A further intensification of Islamic fundamentalism can be found at the end of the 1960’s (cf. Islamic Fundamentalism 2008:1). Similar movements arose in Iran in 1979, in Sudan in 1993, in Turkey, Afghanistan, and India in 1996 (cf. Salamun 2005: 177).

The Islamic organization Ayatollah Khomeini for example forced women out of the universities in Iran in 1984. They also forced women out of their jobs and back into their traditional roles as mothers and housewives. This historical context can be compared with the treatment of women in the novel, in which women are also forced out of their jobs, and where they are not longer allowed to hold any property (cf. Neumann 2006: 859).

Today the Al Qaeda is one of the most vivid and one of the most powerful and extreme examples of Islamic Fundamentalism. Their influence was tragically revealed on September 11th 2001 when more than three thousand people were killed by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and on the U. S. Pentagon (cf. Salamun 2005: 178)

2.3. Feminism

Margaret Atwood wrote her novel The Handmaid’s Tale when women experienced major improvements such as a better access to higher education, to jobs and to abortion because a new law made abortion legal (cf. Neumann 2006: 858). The beginnings of feminism itself go back to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960’s. In this context, Offred’s mother belonged to the sort of women who fought for women’s sexual freedom and legal abortion (cf. Montelaro 1995: 239). At the indoctrination centres, the Aunts show the women videos of pro-abortion meetings in the 1960’s. However, the slogans on the banner are used as a means for the religious purposes of the regime (cf. Staels 1995: 459). Abortion is even illegal and doctors can be now punished for it.


[1] Most popular song: Kiss Me

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Religious Fundamentalism in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik)
Utopian and Dystopian Novels, SS 2008
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Religious, Fundamentalism, Margaret, Atwood, Handmaid, Tale, Utopian, Dystopian, Novels
Quote paper
Melanie Lemke (Author), 2008, Religious Fundamentalism in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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