Epigraphs in The Handmaid's Tale

Summer Pearce
Slide Set by Summer Pearce, updated more than 1 year ago
Summer Pearce
Created by Summer Pearce about 5 years ago


A-Level (Year 1) (Year 1) English Language and Literature (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood) Slide Set on Epigraphs in The Handmaid's Tale, created by Summer Pearce on 06/06/2016.

Resource summary

Slide 1

    Epigraphs illustrate the main themes and tone of the novel. Epigraphs are usually quotes that appear before the start of the novel. The Handmaid's Tale has three epigraphs.
    Caption: : Example of an epigraph (NOT from The Handmaid's Tale)

Slide 2

    1st Epigraph
    The first epigraph is a Biblical quote:And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?And she said, Behold my maid Bilah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. - Genesis 30:1-3 In the Bible, Rachel is unable to have children, but tells her husband to have sex with her maid so they could have children. In this time, women were shamed if they couldn't have children, as it was considered their duty to get married and bear children.
    This epigraph is significant in various ways: The fact that it is from the Bible means that it is more difficult to disagree with it, because of people's personal beliefs. It also demonstrates the influence of religion within the novel, and perhaps suggests that there is a return to the past (in values at least). Fertility is a central issue within the novel, and it is also a key part of a woman's role. This is evident in the quote from Rachel; 'Give me children, or else I die.' The Handmaid's Tale is considered to be a feminist text, as it highlights the way in which women are being overlooked in society. In this way, the novel can be considered to be a critique of society itself. 

Slide 3

    2nd Epigraph
    But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering, vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal...- Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift wrote a parody essay about the Irish potato famine, and the possible solutions that could be done to remedy the mass starvation. He was persuading people to eat the children to solve the problem of the famine. This unusual proposal is a last thought, after exploring all the other options, as it is not something one might immediately suggest. 
    This epigraph thus suggests that in the novel; Something dire has happened, and society as it is now is that last option to try. Therefore, the proposal itself is ridiculous and disgusting, however it is the only option left. 

Slide 4

    3rd Epigraph
    In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.- Sufi proverb A Sufi is a Muslim mystic. The desert represents a lawless place. By comparing human civilisation to a desert, the proverb is making the point that we should be grateful for the laws we have in place. Of course, it is really obvious that we shouldn't be eating stones. A person would only want to eat stones if they were really hungry and desperate for food. This proverb discusses human survival instincts. It makes the point that human will find a way to survive, even if it is ridiculous.
    This epigraph is significant because... An epigraph from Islam, as well as the first which is from Christianity, suggest that all religions point to this sort of society that Atwood describes. The comparison of human civilisation to the desert perhaps suggests that there are strict laws within the society in the novel. Women in the novel are desperate for children, and will do something as ridiculous as eating stones to get them - they are doing things they wouldn't otherwise do if they weren't desperate.  The proverb describes something that is completely unacceptable (eating stones), and similarly, people in the novel are doing things we would find unacceptable. 
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