Gilead is a truly terrifying world – and in the Handmaid’s Tale, there are plenty of lines to prove just how awful it truly is.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopian, not-so-distant future, that is almost as insightful as it is terrifying. The social structures of the Republic of Gilead place a select few Commanders at the very top, with everyone else significantly below them in some capacity or another.
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As the show follows June’s life as a Handmaid, the horrifying reality of the present that she is now forced to live in becomes apparent, through the actions of those above her. From Commander Waterford to his wife Serena, and Aunt Lydia who is responsible for disciplining the Handmaids, the stringent rules of Gilead are ever-present in the words of those in power.
In conversation with Offred, Commander Waterford – although not apologetic by any means – attempts to rationalize his actions. As one of the Sons Of Jacob, Commander Waterford was instrumental in the formation of Gilead, and takes this moment to inform Offred that they “only wanted to make the world better”.
The absurdity of the claim is lessened as Waterford admits that this has not meant better for everyone, a surprising acknowledgment considering Commander Waterford’s attitudes. In the eyes of the leaders of Gilead, the lives of the Republic’s female citizens are irrelevant when compared to the potential to reproduce, and as such the Sons of Jacob’s violence and injustices are forgiven.
Aunt Lydia is one of the primary enforcers of the harsh rules of Gilead, and as such, spends a lot of time coaxing the girls into accepting their collective fate. Like most characters in the series, specifically those on the side of Gilead, Aunt Lydia is often found trying to rationalize the actions of Gilead to herself as well as to others.
In this instance, Aunt Lydia is suggesting that the situation in which the Handmaids now find themselves is not an extreme injustice, but simply something that the women must get used to. Aunt Lydia’s conformity says just as much about her own character, as it does Gilead’s society.
It is often repeated throughout the series that Gilead was formed as a direct response to increasing infertility among the women of the United States. As Gilead was allegedly founded in scripture, this phenomenon becomes referred to as a plague inflicted by God, brought about by the life choices of modern women.
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This claim allows the Commanders to bury their actions in scripture, and as such, shield themselves from criticism. Referring to the increased infertility as a plague, allows the Commanders to create a guise of reform, to rectify the acts of sinning that lead them to this stage.
In the eyes of Gilead, and the Sons of Jacob, many aspects of the modern way of life are now punishable by death. With the formation of the Republic, however, the fertile women – the Handmaids – now have the chance to redeem themselves for their past actions.
This statement emphasizes one of the many glaring contradictions in Gilead’s laws – that those who engage in outlawed behavior may be forgiven, so long as they are valuable to the Republic. Female gender-traitors for example can have their previous behaviors overlooked if they happen to be able to bear children and accept their roles as Handmaids.
One of the pillars of life in the Republic of Gilead is the superiority of men, specifically the Commanders. The women of Gilead, even the wives of the Commanders, have become stripped of any independence and must simply follow their husbands.
Even the wives of the leading Commanders, like Serena Joy, must adjust to a life in which they are completely segregated according to their sex, albeit not to the same extent as the Handmaids. As audiences come to learn, even Serena Waterford, who was instrumental in the formation of Gilead, is now completely subjected to her husband’s command.
Commander Waterford’s wife, Serena Joy played by Yvonne Strahovski, is shown throughout the series in flashbacks which showcase her involvement in the formation of Gilead. Serena is presented as holding strong beliefs about the place of women and in the time before Gilead, she published a book on the subject titled ‘A Woman’s Place’.
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While promoting her book, Serena often gave speeches in an attempt to enlighten audiences on the gravity of the falling fertility rates. Although Serena was highly educated and chose academic circles to spread her message, Serena completely disavows women’s involvement in the public space and preaches a form of Domestic Feminism.
The Republic of Gilead is one very much founded in status, with the Commanders at the very top and everyone else below them, all the way down to the women in the Colonies. Through flashbacks, audiences are given insights into how some of the rules of Gilead came to be.
This concept of rounding up the fertile women is voiced by Commander Guthrie, in conversation with Commander Waterford and Commander Pryce, and effectively sums up the sentiments of the Republic. In this same conversation, Guthrie mentions how they will use the guise of scripture to make the acts more palatable to the wives of the Commanders.
We are first introduced to Elisabeth Moss’ character as Offred, who is so named as she is the handmaid of Commander Fred Waterford, and goes on to become Ofjoseph when she is assigned as Commander Joseph Lawrence’s Handmaid.
Offred’s real name, however, is June Osborne, something that is now very much forbidden, alongside any and all agency for the Handmaids and women at large within the Republic of Gilead. June, however, shows her rebellious streak from the outset as she asserts her own identity in an internal monologue from the first episode.
Aunt Lydia, as is customary in Gilead, often quotes the Bible when scolding the Handmaids, or when reminding them of their place. In this case, “blessed are the meek” is intended to remind the Handmaids to quietly accept their newfound fate, that they shall be rewarded for their silence.
June, however, outright refutes this sentiment as she retorts “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”. With this, June acknowledges that the quote in its entirety speaks to the ultimate rising up of the meek.
Through following June and her many challenges throughout the series, the place of women in Gilead is made unquestionably clear, regardless of their status. Gilead has been founded on the concept of preserving fertility, however, the possible infertility of men has never come into play.
In the dystopian future society of Gilead, women have been reduced to those who are fertile, and those who are not. The former become Handmaid’s if they are lucky, and the latter are usually sent to the Colonies, with the exception of the wives of the Commanders.
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Shannon is a writer currently living in the South-West of Ireland. She has a Master’s in literary theory, and extensive experience in film theory and criticism. As well as working on a variety of academic and fiction projects, Shannon is an Organic List writer for ScreenRant.