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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
Main Ideas

Allusions

Main Ideas Allusions

Chapter 2

Literary

I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing.

This is an allusion to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” in which a young girl is forced to dance in her red shoes—even after her feet have been amputated—and her only release comes when an angel takes her to heaven.

Literary

If I turn my head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger.

This is an allusion to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which a young girl dressed in a red cloak is eaten by a wolf pretending to be her grandmother.

Literary

A Sister, dipped in blood.

This is an allusion to Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play The Changeling (1622). The “sister” refers to a virgin who, having convinced a servant to murder her fiancé because she loves another man, is forced to have sex with the servant as recompense.

Religious

Rita is in here, standing at the kitchen table, which has a top of chipped white enamel. She’s in her usual Martha’s dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil. She puts the veil on to go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of a Martha.

The term “Martha,” the title given to cooks in Gilead, is an allusion to a biblical story from the New Testament (Luke 10:38–42) in which Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary; Martha is so distracted by making preparations for him that she fails to listen to his teachings, as her sister Mary does.

Chapter 3

Religious

As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.

This is an allusion to the wedding vows first written down in the Book of Common Prayer (1549) for prayers used in England’s Anglican Church.

Chapter 4

Religious

The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot, much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth.

The names of the cars are allusions to stories from the Old Testament; a chariot and a whirlwind are both mentioned in 2 Kings (2:11) when the prophet Elijah is taken to heaven, while a behemoth, a term used to name a large animal, is mentioned in Job (40:15).

Literary

They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it.

This is an allusion to John Milton’s Sonnet 19, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” which maintains the importance of serving God.

Religious

Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns.

This is an allusion to the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head by his executioners, and it signifies hardship and sorrow.

Pop Culture

There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes.

This is an allusion to a popular song about loneliness called “Me and My Shadow” (1927), which has been recorded by many singers and used in numerous films and TV shows.

Chapter 5

Religious

This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.

This is an allusion to the ancient land of Gilead, known for its pasturelands and spices, which appears numerous times in the Old Testament.

Religious

Our first stop is at a store with another wooden sign: three eggs, a bee, a cow. Milk and Honey.

This is an allusion to the Promised Land, described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” in several books in the Old Testament.

Religious/Political

Ever since Central America was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not.

This is an allusion to liberation theology, popular in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, which mixed Christianity with left-wing ideology and socialism.

Religious

Next we go into All Flesh, which is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains.

The store name is an allusion to a verse from the Old Testament (Isaiah 40:6), reminding people that, unlike God, they possess only a transitory nature.

Chapter 6

Historical

Inside it you can see paintings, of women in long somber dresses, their hair covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling. Our ancestors.

This is an allusion to the Puritans, who were Protestants who left England in the early seventeenth century and settled in present-day New England.

Historical

The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists. Doctors and scientists aren’t the only ones, there are others, but they must have had a run on them this morning. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. Angel makers, they used to call them; or was that something else?

This quote contains several allusions: The doctors marked by a fetus allude to doctors who performed legal abortions. The term “angel makers” alludes to women in Scandinavian countries who adopted unwanted babies for payment (also called “baby farmers” in other parts of Europe); many of these “adopted” babies were neglected and died or were even murdered.

Religious/Historical

They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or—more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen—by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible; or another doctor, hoping to save his own skin; or someone already accused, lashing out at an enemy, or at random, in some desperate bid for safety.

This is an allusion to ancient Islamic law, which states in the Quran that one woman is insufficient to provide incriminating testimony against another person and that her word must be supplemented by that of another woman.

Chapter 7

Literary

Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

This is an allusion to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592) and reflects words spoken by the devil, Mephistopheles, with a slight alteration (“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”)

Historical

There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.

This is an allusion to a censorship practice of burning books and reading materials, which has occurred throughout history, notably in Nazi Germany.

Chapter 8

Literary

“Under His Eye,” she says. The right farewell. “Under His Eye,” I reply, and she gives a little nod.

This is an allusion to the character of Big Brother from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (1949), whose slogan is “Big Brother is watching you.”

Literary

Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come.

This is an allusion to the H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which chronicles the development and overthrow of a future worldwide dictatorship.

Religious

It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you. It is only natural. Try to feel for them. Aunt Lydia thought she was very good at feeling for other people. Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

This is an allusion to a verse from the book of Luke (23:34) in the New Testament that relates how Jesus, with his dying breath, asks God to forgive his executioners.

Chapter 10

Religious

Sometimes I sing to myself, in my head; something lugubrious, mournful, presbyterian: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound Could save a wretch like me, Who once was lost, but now am found, Was bound, but now am free..

This an allusion to the popular Christian hymn “Amazing Grace,” but Offred alters the last line, which actually says, “Was blind but now I see.”

Pop Culture

I feel so lonely, baby, I feel so lonely, baby, I feel so lonely I could die.

This is an allusion to Elvis Presley’s song “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956), with slight alterations to the lyrics.

Chapter 11

Religious

Give me children, or else I die.

This is an allusion to a verse from the Old Testament (Genesis 30:1), referencing Rachel’s words to Jacob when she was unable to become pregnant. In the biblical context, Rachel is telling Jacob that he should get her maid pregnant and then Rachel will claim the child as her own.

Religious

But they have to catch you in the act, with two witnesses.

This is an allusion to the Bible, which states in several books that one witness is insufficient to accuse a man of a crime.

Chapter 12

Religious

My hair is long now, untrimmed. Hair must be long but covered. Aunt Lydia said: Saint Paul said it’s either that or a close shave.

This is an allusion to Paul the Apostle’s decree in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:3–7) that a woman must cover her head when worshipping, and if a woman refuses to do so, her hair must be shorn.

Religious

Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth.

This is an allusion to Matthew (5:5) in the New Testament.

Historical/Pop Culture

The red veil goes on, though, covering my damp hair, my head, which has not been shaved. Where did I see that film, about the women, kneeling in the town square, hands holding them, their hair falling in clumps? What had they done? It must have been a long time ago, because I can’t remember.

This is an allusion to the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), based on a book by French writer Marguerite Duras, in which a French woman who had sexual relations with a German soldier during World War II was later shamed by having her head shaved in public.

Chapter 13

Pop Culture

Arms at the sides, knees bent, lift the pelvis, roll the backbone down. Tuck. Again. Breathe in to the count of five, hold, expel . . . lying on little Japanese mats, a tape playing, Les Sylphides. That’s what I hear now, in my head, as I lift, tilt, breathe. Behind my closed eyes thin white dancers flit gracefully among the trees, their legs fluttering like the wings of held birds.

This is an allusion to the ballet Les Sylphides (1909), which was one of the first ballets to lack plot and instead focus on mood as represented by female sylphs (imaginary spirits of the air) and one male dancer.

Chapter 14

Literary

The sitting room would once have been called a drawing room, perhaps; then a living room. Or maybe it’s a parlor, the kind with a spider and flies.

This is an allusion to the nursery rhyme that begins with the line “Will you walk into my parlor? said the spider to the fly” and depicts the spider’s successful effort to entrap the fly in its web.

Religious

The room smells of lemon oil, heavy cloth, fading daffodils, the leftover smells of cooking that have made their way from the kitchen or the dining room, and of Serena Joy’s perfume: Lily of the Valley.

This is an allusion to the Song of Solomon (2:1) from the Old Testament, in which a bride refers to herself as a “lily of the valley.”

Pop Culture

There’s a clatter as she gropes on the lamp table, then a click, and the television set runs through its warm-up. A male choir, with greenish-yellow skin, the color needs adjusting; they’re singing “Come to the Church in the Wildwood.” Come, come, come, come, sing the basses.

This is an allusion to the song “Church in the Wildwood,” which was written about a church in a valley near Bradford, Iowa, in 1857; the song has since been sung and recorded by country and bluegrass singers.

Religious

“Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,” says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. “Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.” How are they transporting that many people at once? Trains, buses? We are not shown any pictures of this. National Homeland One is in North Dakota.

This is an allusion to Ham, who was cursed by his father Noah in Genesis in the Old Testament. Ham’s children later came to be viewed as black-skinned, providing justification for racism and the enslavement of Africans. This allusion indicates that Gilead is resettling African-Americans away from the rest of society.

Pop Culture

Cheer up, says Luke. He’s driving a little too fast now. The adrenaline’s gone to his head. Now he’s singing. Oh what a beautiful morning, he sings.

This is an allusion to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the opening song from the musical Oklahoma!, first performed in 1943.

Chapter 15

Religious

It’s the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the moldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Center. Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth.

The italicized lines are allusions to stories and verses from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament that focus on having children.

Religious

For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man’s. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

This is an allusion to the Beatitudes—eight blessings described by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount that focus on spirituality and compassion—which are recorded in the books of Matthew (5:3–12) and Luke (6:20–22) in the New Testament; the blessing upon the silent is not actually in the Bible.

Religious

“And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband,” says the Commander. He lets the book fall closed.

This is an allusion to a verse from Genesis (30:18) in the Old Testament and explains Leah’s belief that God allowed her to conceive another son for her husband, Jacob, since she gave her servant to him.

Religious

The Commander clears his throat. This is what he does to let us know that in his opinion it’s time we stopped praying. “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,” he says.

This is an allusion to a verse in the second book of Chronicles (16:9) in the Old Testament, which analyzes Jerusalem’s military victory with the help of God.

Chapter 16

Historical

I remember Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter: Close your eyes and think of England. But this is not England.

This is an allusion to the rumored advice Queen Victoria gave to her daughter to help her understand that the payoff for having unwanted sex is having children.

Chapter 17

Religious

The butter is a trick I learned at the Rachel and Leah Center.

This is an allusion to Rachel and Leah, sisters who were the wives of Jacob in the Bible. Jacob preferred Rachel to Leah, so God prevented Rachel from getting pregnant, and eventually Rachel gave her servant to Jacob to conceive children as her surrogate. Their story is told in Genesis in the Old Testament.

Literary/Pop Culture

I fold back the sheet, get carefully up, on silent bare feet, in my nightgown, go to the window, like a child, I want to see. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.

This is an allusion to Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Chapter 19

Religious

I get out of bed, go to the window, kneel on the window seat, the hard little cushion, FAITH, and look out. There is nothing to be seen. I wonder what has become of the other two cushions. There must have been three, once. HOPE and CHARITY, where have they been stowed?

This is an allusion to a verse from the first book of Corinthians (13:13) in the New Testament, which names faith, hope, and charity (in some biblical translations, charity is defined as “love”) as the key virtues associated with Christian theology and salvation.

Religious/Historical

It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg.

This is an allusion to a group of Christian hermits, known as the Desert Fathers (and Desert Mothers), who valued self-denial. During the third century, they renounced society and went to live in the desert near Egypt.

Religious/Historical

This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations. It’s like a handprint on stone. Whoever made that was once alive.

This is an allusion to the handprints left behind by Hindu widows who practiced a now-banned custom called suttee, in which widows burned themselves to death on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.

Religious

Once they drugged women, induced labor, cut them open, sewed them up. No more. No anesthetics, even. Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.

This is an allusion to a verse from Genesis in the Old Testament (3:16) in which God says women will have pain in childbirth and in the following verse says that a woman is subordinate to her husband.

Chapter 20

Political/Historical

From each , says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.

This is an allusion to a slogan that was common among socialists but made popular by Karl Marx after he included it in an 1875 publication.

Religious

It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you.

This is an allusion to a verse in Matthew (5:11) in the New Testament, which is part of the Beatitudes, the eight blessings described by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount that focus on spirituality and compassion. The quotation and its meaning have been altered from the original.

Chapter 24

Historical

The program was a documentary, about one of those wars . . . The interviews with people still alive then were in color. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said[.]

This is an allusion to World War II and the German concentrations camps where Jews and other prisoners were exterminated by the Nazis.

Chapter 25

Literary

There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid[.]

This is an allusion to the Victorian-era British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. One of his well-known longer poems is “Maud,” which is set in an English country garden.

Chapter 27

Religious

We got the fish at Loaves and Fishes, with its wooden sign, a fish with a smile and eyelashes. It doesn’t sell loaves though. Most households bake their own, though you can get dried-up rolls and wizened doughnuts at Daily Bread, if you run short. Loaves and Fishes is hardly ever open.

The store name “Loaves and Fishes” alludes to different stories told in the New Testament, referring to two miracles Christ performed when he fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. The store name “Daily Bread” is an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, which according to the New Testament is the prayer Jesus taught his followers.

Historical

Then, inside, another white staircase going up. To either side of it, on the wall, there are angels. Also there are men fighting, or about to fight, looking clean and noble, not dirty and bloodstained and smelly the way they must have looked. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and Death is on the other. It’s a mural in honor of some war or other.

This is an allusion to two murals created by the painter John Singer Sargent, Death and Victory and Entering the War, both of which commemorate Harvard soldiers who died in World War I.

Chapter 28

Religious

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbies, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. . . . The Book of Job.

This is an allusion to the Book of Job in the Old Testament, in which God forces his loyal follower, Job, to suffer in order to test his faith.

Historical

Now it’s like remembering the paper money, when they still had that . . . Pieces of paper, thickish, greasy to the touch, green-colored, with pictures on each side, some old man in a wig and on the other side a pyramid with an eye above it. It said In God We Trust.

This is an allusion to the American $1 bill, which was designed in 1957; it features President George Washington on one side, the Great Seal of the United States (a pyramid with the Eye of Providence, also known as the all-seeing eye of God) on the reverse side, and the official motto of the United States.

Literary

Ours is not to reason why, said Moira.

This is an allusion to Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) about British soldiers who made a heroic but mostly fatal assault during the Crimean War.

Chapter 30

Literary

Context is all; or is it ripeness?

This is an allusion to a quote from Shakespeare’s play King Lear, which means that one must accept one’s death.

Religious

The Eyes of God run all over the earth.

This is an allusion to a verse in the second book of Chronicles (16:9) in the Old Testament, which analyzes Jerusalem’s military victory with the help of God; the verse has been rephrased and shortened from the biblical verse.

Religious

Oh God, King of the Universe, thank you for not creating me a man.

This is an allusion to the daily morning prayer recited by devout Jewish men: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.”

Religious

My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within. I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will do as well as anything.

This is an allusion to the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Religious

I have enough daily bread, so I won’t waste time on that. It isn’t the main problem. The problem is getting it down without choking on it.

This is an allusion to a line in the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “Give us this day our daily bread.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Religious

Now we come to forgiveness. Don’t worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things . . . I suppose I should say I forgive whoever did this, and whatever they’re doing now. I’ll try, but it isn’t easy.

This is an allusion to a line in the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Religious

Temptation comes next. At the Center, temptation was anything much more than eating and sleeping. Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say.

This is an allusion to a line in the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “And do not bring us into temptation.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Religious

The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.

This is an allusion to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, when Eve and Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and lost their state of innocence.

Religious

Deliver us from evil.

This is an allusion to a line in the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “rescue us from evil.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Religious

Then there’s the Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now.

This is an allusion to a line in the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father: “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever.” According to the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer as the way to pray.

Pop Culture

All alone by the telephone.

This is an allusion to the Irving Berlin ballad “All Alone” (1924), which was recorded many times over the decades.

Chapter 31

Historical

The body is marked only with J, in red. It doesn’t mean Jewish, those would be yellow stars.

This is an allusion to the practice in Nazi Germany of making Jews wear the yellow star of David on their clothing.

Religious

Because they were declared Sons of Jacob and therefore special, they were given a choice. They could convert, or emigrate to Israel.

This is an allusion to the Jewish people: Jacob, whose story is told in Genesis in the Old Testament, is considered the patriarch of Israel, and his 12 sons became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Chapter 32

Historical/Religious

On the white enamel surface is a pile of radishes, washed but uncut. Little Aztec hearts.

This is an allusion to a sacrificial practice of the Aztecs—the culture that flourished in Mesoamerica from the 1300s through 1521—in which the hearts of the still-living victims were extracted as an offering to the gods.

Chapter 33

Historical

I glide with Ofglen along the sidewalk; the pair of us, and in front of us another pair, and across the street another. We must look good from a distance: picturesque, like Dutch milkmaids on a wallpaper frieze, like a shelf full of period-costume ceramic salt and pepper shakers, like a flotilla of swans or anything that repeats itself with at least minimum grace and without variation.

This is an allusion to the caps Dutch milkmaids once wore, made famous by a Vermeer painting from the 1600s, which resembled those of the handmaids.

Political/Historical

We turn in at a more modern building, a huge banner draped over its door—WOMEN’S PRAYVAGANZA TODAY. The banner covers the building’s former name, some dead President they shot.

This is an allusion to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.

Chapter 34

Religious/Historical

Then there’s a long prayer, about unworthy vessels, then a hymn: “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”

This quote contains two allusions. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” is a line in Jeremiah in the Old Testament (8:22). The balm of Gilead is a tree that grew in Gilead during biblical times, and its substance was used to make medicinal perfumes. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is the title of a traditional African-American spiritual.

Religious

“I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he says, “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; . . . And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”

This is an allusion to verses in the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:9–15) that concern the role and conduct of women.

Chapter 35

Religious

God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner.

This is an allusion to the First Epistle of John, told in the New Testament, in which John says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Historical

Like a White Russian drinking tea in Paris, marooned in the twentieth century, I wander back, try to regain those distant pathways[.]

This is an allusion to the Russian refugees who fled the country after the Russian Revolution and Civil War in the early 1900s because they opposed the new political regime.

Chapter 37

Pop Culture

She’s dressed absurdly, in a black outfit of once-shiny satin that looks the worse for wear. It’s strapless, wired from the inside, pushing up the breasts . . . There’s a wad of cotton attached to the back . . . I realize that it’s supposed to be a tail. Attached to her head are two ears, of a rabbit or deer, it’s not easy to tell . . . She has a black bow tie around her neck and is wearing black net stockings and black high heels.

This is an allusion to a Playboy “bunny suit,” the kind worn by waitresses at a Playboy Club, one of a chain of nightclubs owned by Hugh Hefner, who founded the men’s magazine Playboy.

Chapter 38

Religious

She grins at me. “You look like the Whore of Babylon.”

This is an allusion to a biblical female figure, in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, who symbolizes sexuality and evil and is said to have represented a “great city.”

Historical

“The other house was Quakers too, and they were pay dirt, because they were a station on the Underground Femaleroad.[”]

This is an allusion to the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that smuggled escaped African-American slaves to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.

Religious

[“]Know what they call this place among themselves? Jezebel’s.[”]

This is an allusion to Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of Israel, who prevented the worship of the Hebrew god, Yahweh (1 Kings, Old Testament). Originally Jezebel was associated with false prophets, but she is now associated with promiscuous, ruthless women.

Chapter 39

Literary

I must be back at the house before midnight; otherwise I’ll turn into a pumpkin, or was that the coach?

This is an allusion to the fairy tale Cinderella.

Chapter 41

Literary

By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.

This is an allusion to a statement by French philosopher René Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” which appears in Discourse on the Method (1637). According to Descartes, the act of doubting one’s own existence proves that one exists.

Chapter 42

Literary

The bell is tolling; we can hear it from a long way off.

This is an allusion to the poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” written by English poet John Donne.

Chapter 43

Religious

The penalty for rape, as you know, is death. Deuteronomy 22:23–29.

This is an allusion to the verses of the Old Testament that describe different punishments surrounding illicit sexual relationships between men and women. Deuteronomy 22:29 says that a man who rapes a virgin who is not betrothed must marry her instead of being put to death.

Chapter 45

Religious

So she’s dead, and I am safe, after all. She did it before they came. I feel great relief. I feel thankful to her. She has died that I may live.

This is an allusion to the central Christian belief that Jesus died for the sins of others: “He died that we might live.”

Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

Religious

Tomorrow afternoon, Professor Gopal Chatterjee, of the Department of Western Philosophy, University of Baroda, India, will speak on “Krishna and Kali Elements in the State Religion of the Early Gilead Period[.]”

This is an allusion to two Hindu deities: Krishna is a major god connected with music and dance, while Kali is the divine protector and goddess of creativity and destruction.

Historical

Professor Van Buren will give what I am sure will be a fascinating illustrated lecture on “The Warsaw Tactic: Policies of Urban Core Encirclement in the Gileadean Civil Wars.”

This is an allusion to the ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place in 1943 when the 60,000 Jews revolted and refused to surrender to the Nazis who were attempting to enter the ghetto to deport them to concentration camps. More than 10,000 Jews died, and the remaining were sent to the camps.

Literary

Also, there is a certain reflective quality about the narrative that would to my mind rule out synchronicity. It has a whiff of emotion recollected, if not in tranquility, at least post facto.

This is an allusion to William Wordsworth’s preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which he writes, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Historical/Religious

[T]hey thus replaced the serial polygamy common in the pre-Gilead period with the older form of simultaneous polygamy practiced both in early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century.

This is an allusion to the practice of polygamy followed by men in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1800s; the practice was banned in 1904.

Religious

We argued that such a highly placed individual had probably been a participant in the first of the top-secret Sons of Jacob Think Tanks, at which the philosophy and social structure of Gilead were hammered out . . . The official records of the Sons of Jacob meetings were destroyed after the middle-period Great Purge[.]

This is an allusion to the story in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament about Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. While Leah bore Jacob children, Rachel had her servant sleep with Jacob, and then she raised the progeny as her own. The twelve sons of Jacob became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Mythological

We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.

This is an allusion to the Greek myth regarding Eurydice. After Eurydice died, her husband, Orpheus, journeyed to the Underworld, where the god Hades agreed to let Eurydice return to the land of the living on the condition that Orpheus walk in front of her and not look back until they were in the land of the living. However, Orpheus did not keep this bargain, and Eurydice disappeared back into the Underworld.