Page 251. " why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? "

Playboy Bunny
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePlayboy Bunny - Credit: Jacob Appelbaum

In this wryly humorous passage, Atwood highlights the absurdity of the Playboy Bunny outfit. Evenings at Jezebel’s sound remarkably like the parties held at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.


Page 254. " You look like the Whore of Babylon. "

The Whore of Babylon is a symbolic, not actual, figure in the Book of Revelations. The kingdom of Babylon is itself an allegorical one (thought to be based on Pagan Rome) and the Whore, along with the Beast, is its most famous symbol.

And the woman is arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.

Revelation 17:4

Page 258. " Underground Femaleroad. "

The Mayday Underground’s name for the network of safe houses and routes used to help Handmaids escape from Gilead. The name is clearly inspired by the Underground Railroad set up to help black slaves in the Southern states to escape to the free states, Canada, Mexico and beyond, between around 1800 and 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal. Aided by abolitionists, it is estimated that by 1850, over 10,000 slaves escaped via the ‘railroad’.

Page 259. " They got me up as far as Salem. "

The mention of Salem is significant as this is where the Witch Trials took place in 1692, a shameful episode in American history where the religious extremism of the Puritans (like those running the Republic of Gilead) overrode rationality and the need for evidence.

Massachusetts was not a theocracy, but the Puritans were powerful in the community. They considered women to be lustful by nature, hence closer to the devil. Unsurprisingly, more women than men were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft. The majority were unmarried or widowed, and childless. Without heirs, when they were executed their property would revert to the colony. Witch-hunts, therefore, had a pecuniary motive.

Page 262. " Jezebel’s "

The name of the secret brothel is taken from Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of north Israel. Her story – one of political and religious intrigue worthy of a thriller – ended in murder at the hands of her own eunuchs, urged on by her arch-enemy, the fundamentalist prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings 9:30-33, just before she is murdered, Jezebel decks herself out in her most splendid finery, leading to an erroneous two-millennium-old belief that she was a prostitute.

Indeed, her name is cultural shorthand for a wicked and heavily made-up woman, the kind of woman the regime is careful to contain within the walls of the brothel.

Page 274. " We’re quoting from late movies, from the time before. "

The Hollywood of the Hays Code era kept movie dialogue locked in a puritanical straitjacket for over thirty years. This began in 1934 following pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency and national women’s groups, both of which held a huge amount of power at that time (the Great Depression). Prior to this, Hollywood self-regulated, and films from the pre-Code era (before 1933) seem, even today, astonishingly adult and risqué for the time.