The Republic of Gilead, sometimes colloquially referred to 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 we know about it told from the perspective of Offred, who has limited knowledge or can be seen as an unreliable narrator. It would seem that Gilead originally began as far-right religious extremist groups in the US, who believed that America needed to be 'saved' from sin and corruption. According to the conference transcript given at the end of the novel, these coalesced into a single conspiracy which referred to itself as "the Sons of Jacob".
Eventually, they concocted an elaborate plan to take over the United States. They assassinated the President and Congress, pinning the blame on Islamist terrorists, and established martial law. In quick succession, the Constitution was suspended, online bank accounts frozen and all employed women fired from their jobs. Offred recalls that the entire coup happened so fast that the widespread emotion among the general population was bewilderment that it was really happening, stunned to see troops systematically clearing women out of businesses and places of employment. There were a few protest matches at first, but the government immediately responded with blunt, naked aggression, deploying battalions who shot to kill and exterminate, not to disperse. After the first protests were responded to with bullets, the population was too terrified to mount any further action..
The new government quickly began hunting down anyone they perceived as being 'unGodly' or a threat, including political activists, members of other religious groups and so on. Soon, the United States of America had ceased to exist and in its stead, the Republic of Gilead was born.
It isn't entirely clear if Gilead exerts control over all of the continental United States - the events of The Handmaid's Tale take place in New England. Areas euphemistically termed "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 considered a death sentence. There are also rebel groups fighting against the regime in some parts of the States; Florida is mentioned as being one such area.
Not much is known about the international relations of Gilead, due to extreme media censorship. The novel mentions in passing that the overthrow of the United States by a totalitarian regime, understandably, resulted in a massive shakeup of the international political scene, with every country affected to greater or lesser degrees. However, delegates from the Middle East are shown visiting Jezebel's, which is mentioned as being frequented by foreign visitors on business, and Offred and Ofglen also encounter a group of Japanese tourists, being escorted around the city by an Eye.
Refugees from Gilead try to flee to Canada or to Europe, which are apparently still free societies which it does not exert influence over. Several "Save the Women" campaigns exist in England for former Handmaids who have managed to escape.
Society and Politics Edit
Little is known of how Gilead's government functions, though given it is named the 'Republic', it can be assumed they have a Senate or similar governing body. In the early years of Gilead, the leaders of Gilead were those who had helped or supported the regime as it came to power. Gilead has a strict class system and hierarchy, with everyone being assigned to a particular class and expected to fulfil certain roles. The high ranking men of Gilead who make decisions in regards to its politics and laws and so on 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, and the Angels serve as soldiers and can become high-ranking if they serve their country well.
Gilead is a patriarchal society, with only men being allowed to access education and hold positions of power and office. Women are regarded as second-class citizens - they cannot hold property or be employed, and must submit to the authority of men. They are not permitted to read or write (with an exception being the Aunts). As such, women are some of lowest ranking members of Gilead. The lowest class of women are probably Econowives, the wives of poor or low-ranking men. Wives are probably the highest ranking, though still 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 laws are influenced by Biblical teachings (or Gilead's interpretation of them). The law is absolute in Gilead. Any rule-breaking or subversion must be reported and will be harshly punished. Criminals are often executed and their bodies displayed; the Eyes also use torture and other brutal interrogation tactics on their prisoners. All citizens must follow Gilead's religious beliefs. No other religion or belief system is tolerated; at the beginning of Gilead, those of different religions were forced to convert on pain of death or imprisonment. Jewish people - known as the 'Sons of Jacob' - were given the choice of converting or leaving for Israel, though it's implied those that chose to leave were actually killed in secret.
Executions are referred to as 'Salvagings' and are held in public. With the execution of women, the condemned are hanged, with Handmaids being given the rope to hang the condemned together, thus sharing in the 'responsibility' of punishing the wicked. Those that aren't executed can be sent to the Colonies, where life is short and brutal. The Colonies are often polluted by rubbish and radioactive waste, and those sent to the Colonies are tasked with cleaning them up, eventually falling ill and dying an often slow, painful death. 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, instead being represented by signs with pictures or symbols to show it's purpose.
Gilead's names for shops, streets and certain concepts or practices often have Biblically inspired names. The name Gilead itself is taken from the Bible, referring to several different locations and generally translating to mean "hill of testimony".
Known Classes Edit
Values and Beliefs Edit
Gilead believes that their 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 strictly follow the laws and teachings of the Bible, or rather Gilead's interpretation of it. To do otherwise means they are living in sin and must either repent, or be eradicated to prevent them from spreading their evil influence to others.
Women are believed to the 'lesser' sex, who should be subjugated to men. Women's main purpose 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 in fact to case, and 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 creation are executed. Adultery or fraternization is punishable by death for all involved. Homosexuality is considered a sin and a crime punishable by death, referred to as 'Gender Treachery'.
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 some warped trappings of Christian religion as propaganda. Some of their most entrenched enemies, however, are actually 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 some 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. Gilead also discriminates against African Americans, whom they refer to in their adopted religious rhetoric as the "Children of Ham" (although this is notably changed in the television series adaption).
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 seek to use Gilead to gain power for themselves and do not care for its values and ideals at all, regularly flouting the 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".
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". By implication, there was also a "Late Gilead Period". It appears that Gilead existed on a scale of decades, but not of centuries. 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 scape-goat 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 1980's to the women's rights movements of the 1970's, during the Reagan administration 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 birth-rate among white Americans was sharply declining - despite the fact that there wasn't a shred of evidence to support this, and 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 Martha servants, 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 rampant infertility would require them to not discriminate between the ethnicity of fertile women - they need all the child-bearing women they can to maintain the population and fulfil their goals.
Other details given in the TV series which expand on the book:
- 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 not killed because she is still fertile, but she is punished with "Redemption" - female genital mutilation, surgically removing her clitoris 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. public execution by hanging is called "Salvaging".
The exact geographic extent of Gilead in the novels was never entirely clear, only that the story takes place in New England. It was somewhat implied that Gilead claimed control over all of the continental United States, but was fighting ongoing rebellions in various regions - that is, as opposed to "Gilead" being a breakaway state centered in the east, but a rival government actually controlling territory in the west, etc. The TV series also generally gives the impression that there are ongoing rebellions in numerous parts of the former United States, but none of them are outright rival states openly controlling territory:
- In episode 1, Ofglen mentions to Offred that there are pockets of rebels in the "Blue Hills". It is unclear if by this she meant the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, or the more local "Blue Hills" of western Massachusetts (given that they are apparently in eastern Massachusetts).
- At the grocery store, on seeing that they have oranges in stock, they remark that "the fighting in Florida must be going well".
- In the second episode, Offred's monologue gives several important details: there actually still is a vestigial "United States" government fighting Gilead, with its capital in Anchorage, Alaska, but it only formally controls two states - apparently just Alaska and Hawaii.
- Gilead seems to nominally control the continental 48 states, but there are numerous pockets of "American" forces still fighting them; also in episode 2, Offred says that "Guardians of the Faithful and American Soldiers still fight with tanks in the remains of Chicago."
- The TV-version is Gilead is still actively oppressing even mainstream Christian denominations which refuse to accept their warped hyper-misogynist rhetoric. Catholics are being actively oppressed - similar to the 1990 movie which depicted Gilead even rounding up Catholic nuns to be Handmaids if they tested fertile. In episode 2, Ofglen says that Gilead blew up St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, and dumped all the rubble into the Hudson River.
- Episode 2 confirms that the narrative takes place in and around the greater Boston area - which was implied in the novel. Flashbacks mention specific stops on the Boston subway line; Commander Fred's house is in the same region, as Offred later remarks to Ofglen that she is from nearby.
- Offred mentions that her Commander is going on business trips to Washington D.C., which is apparently now Gilead's official capital.
- Episode 4 expands slightly more on the international situation: The United Nations has imposed a trade embargo on Gilead, apparently for its human rights violations. Commander Waterford thinks they can just wait it out, as he thinks the Euro currency will collapse if the embargo goes on long enough.
- An Aunt from the red center in Needham (a suburb of Boston) escaped to Canada and gave an interview about the Handmaid program to the Toronto Star.
- Waterford was recently on a on a trade delegation to Mexico.
- In Episode 5, it's 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.
- In Episode 6, a trade delegation from Mexico is given a tour in the Boston area. Gilead puts on a big show of presenting the Handmaids as volunteers and hiding the systematized rape, executions, mutilations as punishment, etc. Despite Waterford's earlier rosy appraisal that Gilead can afford to wait out the UN trade embargo, before the Euro collapses, it turns out that Gilead's currency is itself on the brink of collapse in six months if they can't improve foreign trade. As it turns out, Mexico wants to institute its own Handmaid system due to the infertility crisis, and part of the "trade" deal is to literally sell Mexico a quota of Handmaids (essentially sex trafficking/a modern slave trade). The Mexican envoy says that she's from Xipica, Mexico, a city the size of Boston, and there hasn't been a live childbirth there in six years.
- Climate change is so bad that absolutely no one, even Gilead's leaders, can deny that it's happening. The Mexican envoy mentions that their staple crops aren't adjusting well to climate change, and this problem is encountered all over the world. According to Waterford, half of Mexico's population is malnourished, and they've had four elections in the past three years. Gilead managed to reduce its 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). Gilead has shifted to an "entirely organic" agricultural model - apparently reducing reliance on GMOs to improve crop yields by just using more slave labor in the Colonies.
- Waterford explicitly states in flashback that there were three coordinated attacks against the US government when Gilead took over, sequentially: "Congress first, then the White House, then the [Supreme] Court". In the book version it was one large attack against a joint session of both Houses of Congress being addressed by the President at the time.
- In Episode 7, focus shifts to June's husband, who actually survived and escaped to Canada. A large refugee quarter has sprouted up in Toronto dubbed "Little America". The holdout United States government in exile still has a consulate in the city (possibly similar to the relationship that foreign embassies have for the rival governments of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan). In an earlier episode, Offred said that the United States flag only has two stars on it now - this episode reveals her description was literal. The holdout United States government has altered its flag, so that all of the stars are just white outlines, except for two which are filled in like before.