The Republic of Gilead, sometimes colloquially referred to simply as Gilead, is the authoritarian, theocratic regime that takes over the United States of America in The Handmaid's Tale. The regime can be seen as the overall main antagonist of the novel and the television adaptation.
The origin of the Republic of Gilead is not entirely clear, mostly because all information on it comes from the accounts of Offred, who has limited knowledge or can be seen as an unreliable narrator. It would seem that Gilead originally began as various far-right religious extremist groups that believed that America needed to be 'saved' from sin and corruption. According to the conference transcript at the end of the novel, these coalesced into a single conspiracy which referred to itself as "the Sons of Jacob."
Eventually, the Sons of Jacob devised and executed an elaborate coup d'etat against the United States government. They assassinated the sitting President and members Congress, blaming it on Islamist terrorists, and established martial law. In quick succession, the United States Constitution was suspended, online bank accounts were frozen, and all employed women were fired from their jobs. Offred recalls that the entire coup happened so fast that the widespread emotion among the general population was bewilderment as the troops systematically cleared women out of places of employment. There were a few protest marches at first, but the government immediately responded with blunt, naked aggression, deploying soldiers who shot to kill and not to disperse. After the first protests were quashed with little tolerance, the population was too terrified to mount any further reaction.
The new government quickly began hunting down anyone they perceived as being "unGodly" or a threat. This included political activists, members of other religious groups and gender minorities, and intellectuals. Soon, the United States of America became a rumps state,and in its stead the Republic of Gilead was born.
It isn't entirely clear if Gilead exerted control over the contiguous 48 States; the events of The Handmaid's Tale are centred in New England. Areas euphemistically termed "the Colonies" exist, which have been ecologically contaminated - apparently due to a mixture of industrial pollution, chemical/radiological accidents, and chemical/possibly-nuclear warfare. Gilead sends condemned criminals to slave-labor on cleanup projects in the Colonies, which is essentially a death sentence. There are also rebel groups fighting against the regime in some parts of the former United States such as Florida.
Not much is known about the foreign relations of Gilead, due to extreme media censorship. The novel mentions in passing that the overthrow of the United States government by a totalitarian regime has understandably resulted in a massive shakeup of the global political scene, with every country affected in varying degrees. Delegates from the Middle East are shown visiting Jezebel's, which is mentioned as being frequented by other foreigners on business visits to Gilead. On one of their walks, Offred and Ofglen also encounter a group of Japanese tourists who were being escorted around the city by an Eye.
Refugees from Gilead try escaping to Canada or Europe, which are apparently still free societies with minimal influence from Gilead. Several "Save the Women" campaigns exist in England for former Handmaids who have managed to flee.
Society and Politics Edit
Little is known of how Gilead's government functions; as its official name contains the term "Republic," it can be assumed that the country has a Senate or similar governing body. In the early years of Gilead, the nation's leaders were from amongst the regime's earliest supporters.
Gilead has a strict class system and hierarchy, with everyone being assigned to a particular class and expected to fulfill certain roles. The high-ranking men who govern Gilead are known as Commanders of the Faithful. The Eyes serve as Gilead's police force and spies. Guardians serve as bodyguards, security officers and personal drivers to Commanders, while Angels serve as soldiers and can become high-ranking if they serve their country well.
Gilead is a patriarchal society, with only men having access to education and holding political positions. Women are regarded as second-class citizens as they cannot hold property or be employed, and must submit to the authority of men. Women, except for Aunts, are forbidden to read or write. The lowest class of women are probably Econowives, who are wed to poor or low-ranking men and must fulfil all functions of a Gileadean woman. Wives are probably the highest-ranking women, though they still remain oppressed. Unwomen and similar criminals or "infidels" are not considered citizens at all.
Gilead is a strict, totalitarian regime that bases its laws and customs around a very literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian Bible, in particular the Old Testament. Hence, much of their teachings and legislation are influenced by their own rigid interpretation of scripture.
The law is absolute in Gilead. Any rule-breaking or subversion must be reported and is harshly punished. Criminals are often executed and their bodies displayed as a warning; the Eyes also use torture and other brutal interrogation tactics on their prisoners.
All citizens must follow Gilead's own official version of Christianity. No other religion or belief system is tolerated; as Gilead rose to power, those of other faiths were forced to convert on pain of imprisonment or death. Jewish people - known also as the 'Sons of Jacob' - were given the choice of converting or leaving for Israel. It is implied in the novel that those who chose to leave were actually killed in secret.
Executions are referred to as 'Salvagings' and are held in public. Women are executed by hanging, with Handmaids being given the rope to hang the condemned together, thus sharing in the 'responsibility' of punishing the wicked. Those that are spared execution can be sent to the toxic Colonies, where life is short and brutal. The Colonies are often polluted by rubbish and radioactive waste, and those sent there are tasked with cleaning up, eventually falling ill and dying slowly and painfully. Some regard being sent to the Colonies as a fate worse than death.
The media and the news are heavily censored, and often include propaganda to promote the ideals and values of Gilead, whilst demonizing their enemies. As a result, it is difficult to obtain reliable information. To discourage women from reading, public writings or names of any kind, including shop signs, are removed. Information is instead relayed by signs with pictures or pictograms.
Gilead's names for shops, streets and certain concepts or practices are often derived from scripture. The name Gilead itself is taken from the Bible, referring to several different locations and individuals and generally translated as "hill of testimony".
Known Classes Edit
Values and Beliefs Edit
Gilead believes that their strict interpretation of the Bible is the absolute truth, and that in order for people to achieve salvation and live a pure, godly life, they must follow these. To do otherwise is seen as living in sin, and the guilty must either repent, or be eradicated to prevent them from spreading their evil influence to others.
Women are believed to be the "lesser" sex, who should be subject to men. Woman's main purpose in this society is bearing and raising children, which is given particular emphasis due to the rampant infertility present in North America at the time. Women are not allowed to participate in the government, be educated, hold property or have a career. By law, only women can be considered infertile, not men, thus placing the blame for the fertility crisis solely on women. Because of these beliefs, men cannot "factually" be infertile, even if this is the case; to suggest otherwise is heresy.
Modesty and purity in all areas of life are greatly emphasised, particularly for women, who are believed to be more prone to weakness of character and sin. Abortion and contraception are considered some of the greatest sins. Doctors who performed abortions before Gilead's establishment are executed. Adultery or fraternization is punishable by death for all involved. Homosexuality, referred to as "Gender Treachery," is considered a sin and a crime punishable by death.
The "Sons of Jacob" that founded Gilead were essentially a junta of heterosexual white men who wanted to seize power for themselves in a totalitarian regime, using warped trappings of Christianity as propaganda and basis. Some of their most entrenched enemies, however, are other mainstream Christian denominations that view them as evil. Catholics abhor them for forcibly conscripting nuns to be sexually enslaved as Handmaids, and the novel makes sporadic mention that Gilead's military is fighting a protracted insurgency by Baptist groups across the American South.
Gilead's leaders are largely just using women and minority groups as scapegoats because they can be easily discriminated against. They are also engaged in mass deportation of Jews from America to Israel, cramming them into cargo ships - though in practice many transport ships simply cut corners by dumping their holds once they reach the open sea, leaving them to drown by the hundreds. In the novel, Gilead also discriminates against African-Americans, whom they refer to in their religious rhetoric as the "Children of Ham" (although this prejudice is absent in the television series).
Whilst some of Gilead's leaders and founders are implied to truly believe in the regime, it is hinted that many of them are hypocrites who use Gilead as a means to gain power for themselves. They do not care for its values and ideals at all, and regularly flout its rules whilst punishing others who do so.
The Early Gilead PeriodEdit
The historical source known as The Handmaid's Tale is described as coming from the "Early Gilead Period."
It appears that Gilead existed on a scale of decades and not centuries. Several characters who were alive during the timeframe of The Handmaid's Tale are described as dying during purges which occurred in the "Middle Gilead Period." This implies that there was also a "Late Gilead Period." Gilead eventually fell from power, and is now studied in universities and schools in North America, where it is heavily implied that a new, secular, democratic government has been restored to power, with the harsh laws and regulations imposed by Gilead being overturned.
As Margaret Atwood has explained in various interviews, the "Sons of Jacob" and the "Republic of Gilead" they created cynically don't actually believe in their own religious propaganda - almost every member of Gilead in a position of power, such as the Commander, is at various points breaking the own rules or expressing that they are simply using this as rhetoric. Atwood didn't conceive of Gilead as a Christian totalitarian regime, but a totalitarian regime rising in the United States which happens to use some empty trappings of religion to justify itself.
Atwood looked at the rise of various totalitarian regimes throughout history and concluded that it always rises around some central trappings of national identity, and that in her estimation, the national character of the United States has always been shaped by religious movements. Similarly, Nazi Germany used trappings of past rhetoric about prior Germanic empires like Charlemagne, or latched onto pre-existing discrimination policies against disempowered groups (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) - but fundamentally this was just a convenient scapegoat for what was at heart a hyper-nationalist junta that wanted to seize power for itself. Atwood tried to imagine what a totalitarian regime would look like if it took over the United States, and as the saying goes, "When fascism comes to America, it will come carrying a cross and draped in the Stars and Stripes."
Atwood also said that Gilead was partially inspired by the Conservative reaction in the 1980s to the Women's Rights movements of the 1970s, during the Reagan years. Particularly, Atwood was reacting to large-scale but baseless propaganda being circulated by hard right-wing religious groups that abortion and contraception access was leading to a "white genocide," and that the birthrate among White Americans was sharply declining - despite the fact that there was no evidence to support this, and that census data proved it to be blatantly incorrect.
In the TV seriesEdit
A few details of Gilead were changed or expanded in the 2017 Hulu TV series - which Atwood herself was involved in producing (she cameos as one of the Aunts in the first episode).
One of the major details that the TV series changed from the start is to drop all of book-Gilead's racial ideology, discriminating against non-whites. In the books, black women are not used as Handmaids but at best used as Marthas, often sent to the Colonies to be worked to death. In the TV show, Moira herself is black and a Handmaid. The TV producers have discussed their reasoning behind this change in several interviews - largely it was to focus on the misogyny of Gilead and because, logically, they believed that Gilead's fertility crisis would require them to not discriminate between the ethnicity of fertile women - they need all the childbearing women they can to maintain the population and fulfill their goals.
The exact geographic extent of Gilead in the novels was never entirely clear, only that the story takes place in New England. Episode 2 confirms that the narrative takes place in and around the greater Boston area. Flashbacks mention specific stops on the Boston subway line; Commander Waterford's house is in the same region, as Offred later remarks to Ofglen that she is from nearby.
Gilead seems to nominally control the contiguous 48 states, but there are numerous pockets of "American" forces still fighting them. In Episode 1, Ofglen mentions to Offred that there are rebel enclaves in the "Blue Hills." It is unclear if by this she meant the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, or the nearer "Blue Hills" of western Massachusetts (given that the series is set in eastern Massachusetts). Upon seeing oranges in stock at the grocery store, both women remark that "the fighting in Florida must be going well". Offred mentions in her inner monologue in Episode 2 that "Guardians of the Faithful and American soldiers still fight with tanks in the remains of Chicago."
Offred mentions that Commander Waterford goes on business trips to Washington, D.C., which may be Gilead's official capital.
The series also confirms that there is still a rump United States government fighting Gilead, with its capital in Anchorage, and with de facto control over only Alaska and Hawaii. The holdout United States government has altered its flag, so that all of the stars are just white outlines, except for two in the centre which are filled in.
In Episode 5, it is mentioned that in the not-too-distant future of Gilead and the flashbacks to right before it took over, climate change has gotten bad enough that weather forecasters predict it won't snow at all that winter in the "Boston area".
Society and PoliticsEdit
- After it is discovered that Ofglen is a lesbian, was married to another woman, and is having a sexual affair with a Martha, they are both captured. Ofglen is spared the noose because she is still fertile, but she is punished with "Redemption" - female genital mutilation where her clitoris is surgically removed so she can't enjoy sex again. This practice wasn't mentioned in the original novel, though it matches the euphemistic terms that Gilead applies to several other brutal practices, i.e. "Salvaging" or public execution by hanging.
- The TV Gilead is still actively oppressing mainstream Christian denominations which refuse to accept their warped hyper-misogynist rhetoric. Catholics are heavily persecuted as in the 1990 film which depicted Catholic nuns being rounded up and forced to become Handmaids if they tested fertile. In Episode 2, Ofglen says that Gilead had already destroyed Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, and dumped all the rubble into the Hudson River.
- Climate change is so bad that absolutely no one, even Gilead's leaders, can deny it. Ambassador Castillo of Mexico mentions that their staple crops aren't adjusting well to climate change, and this problem is encountered all over the world. According to Commander Waterford, Gileadean society has transformed into an "entirely organic" agricultural model - apparently reducing reliance on GMOs to improve crop yields by just using more slave labor in the Colonies. He added that half of Mexico's population is malnourished, and they've had four elections in the past three years. Serena Joy notes that Gilead managed to reduce carbon emissions by 78% in only three years - apparently by dismantling much of consumer industrial society and limiting it to just war production (explaining the almost pre-modern labor standards they're using).
- As in the novel, the "Sons of Jacob" that orchestrated the rise of Gilead didn't actually believe their own religious propaganda, but cynically picked random Bible quotes to justify actions such as sexually enslaving Handmaids. The Jezebel's secret brothel also appears, revealing as in the novel that many of Gilead's leaders hypocritically don't follow their puritanical laws. There is a slowly widening rift among their leadership, however, with hardcore religious members who actually do take their rhetoric seriously, and are disgusted with Commanders like Waterford who break their own rules. It's mentioned that most of the women sexually enslaved at Jezebel's were once educated working professionals: lawyers, CEOs, university professors, etc. Gilead could have just sent them to the Colonies to be worked to death like others who resisted them, but they think it a more ironic punishment to reduce them to prostitution, engaging in various lurid sex acts with men and each other for the gratification of the Commanders.
- Episode 4 expands slightly more on the international situation: The United Nations has imposed a trade embargo on Gilead, apparently for its glaring human rights violations. Commander Waterford thinks they can just wait it out, as he predicts the Euro will collapse if the embargo goes on long enough.
- An Aunt from the Red Center in the Boston suburb of Needham escaped to Canada and gave an interview about the Handmaid program to the Toronto Star.
- In Episode 6, a trade delegation from Mexico is given a tour of the Boston area. Gilead puts on a big show of presenting the Handmaids as volunteers, hiding the systematized rape, executions, mutilations as punishment. Despite Waterford's earlier rosy appraisal that Gilead can afford to wait out the UN trade embargo, it turns out that Gilead's unspecified currency is itself on the brink of collapse in six months if they cannot improve foreign trade. As it turns out, Mexico wants to institute its own Handmaid system due to their own infertility crisis, and part of the "trade" deal is to literally sell Mexico a quota of Handmaids (essentially sex trafficking). The Mexican Ambassador tells Offred that she's from Xipica, a city the size of Boston, and there hasn't been a live childbirth there in six years.
- In Episode 7, focus shifts to June's husband, Luke, who has actually survived and escaped to Canada. A large refugee quarter, dubbed "Little America", has sprouted in Toronto. Luke visits the United States government-in-exile consulate in the city, which is possibly similar to the situation where a state hosts embassies from opposing governments (e.g. the People's Republic of China and Republic of China-Taiwan).
Commander Waterford states in a flashback that there were three coordinated attacks against the United States government when Gilead took over, sequentially: "Congress first, then the White House, then the [Supreme] Court". In the book version, it was one large-scale attack against a joint session of both Houses of Congress being addressed by the President at the time.
In the TV series, Ofglen mentions to Offred that she and her wife had a son named Oliver, who should be five years old by the present time. Combined with the age of Offred's daughter Hannah, this seems to confirm that the coup which created Gilead occurred at most only five years before the main narrative of the TV series.