“Better never means better for everyone.”— A Commander to the existence of deprived social classes. 
The Republic of Gilead, colloquially referred to as simply Gilead or the "Divine Republic", is the totalitarian, theonomic, and neo-Puritanical regime that takes over most of the continental United States of America in The Handmaid's Tale. The regime can be seen as the overall main antagonist of the novel.
Society and Politics, Class SystemEdit
The novel doesn't detail how Gilead's government functions; Gilead's official name containing the term "Republic" (latin for 'public affair') suggests the country has a Senate or similar governing body with members being appointed by some - presumably pseudo-democratic - electoral process.
Individual civil liberties as formerly granted by the suspended U.S. constitution have been replaced by a system of duties and privileges implemented in a hierarchy of social classes, with everyone being assigned to a particular class and expected to fulfill certain roles. Much of this legislation is influenced and justified by a rigid interpretation of scripture. The name Gilead itself is taken from the Bible, referring to several different locations and individuals and generally translated as "hill of testimony."
In particular, Gilead is a patriarchal society, where only men have access to higher education or the right to keep and bear arms, and only they can hold property, a job, or political positions.
Women are regarded as second-class citizens as they must submit to the authority of men. They are forbidden to read or write. In the novel, Gilead also discriminates against African-Americans, whom they refer to in their religious rhetoric as the "Children of Ham". African-Americans, as well as Asians, were sent to the Gilead National Homelands in North Dakota, a relocation that was in truth a genocide. However, the regime later considers this to be a mistake due to international backlash. The fact that Pearls are accepted from Mexico, a country with a large mestizo population, might indicate that later Gilead relaxes its racial policy.
Some civil rights however are suspended for good, e.g. freedom of speech ("heresy"), freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. The Eyes serve as Gilead's political police force and spies to detect and prosecute noncompliances.
Women are believed to be the "lesser" sex, who should be subject to men. Women's main purpose in this society is bearing and raising children, which is given particular emphasis due to the possible 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.
- Wives are the highest-ranking women.
- Pearl Girls are female missionaries who go abroad to recruit more women for Gilead.
- Pearls are foreign women recruited to Gilead. Later, they are assigned to a different class.
- Econowives are wed to poor or low-ranking men and must fulfill all functions of a Gileadean woman.
- The high-ranking men who govern Gilead are known as Commanders of the Faithful.
- Angels are soldiers that serve on the front lines, as well as medical personnel.
- Guardians are used for routine policing, they serve as bodyguards, security officers and personal drivers to Commanders. They can be promoted to Angels.
- Male Econopeople. Skilled professionals, such as dentists, may mingle with Gilead's elite and have their female children educated as Daughters rather than Econodaughters.
Law & PunishmentEdit
The law is absolute in Gilead. Any rule-breaking or subversion committed in Gilead must be reported and is harshly punished. Criminals are often executed and their bodies displayed on the Wall as a severe warning; the Eyes also use excessive torture and other brutal interrogation tactics on their prisoners.
Abortion and contraception are considered some of the greatest sins. Doctors who performed abortions before Gilead's establishment are executed. Adultery or fraternization between men and women is viewed as "fornication" and is punishable by death for all involved. Homosexuality, referred to as "Gender Treachery," is considered a sin and a crime punishable by death.
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. Other punishments meted out to those who break Gilead's laws include the surgical removal/amputation of body parts e.g. fingers, hands and eyes.
Values and Beliefs Edit
Gilead is a strict, totalitarian regime that bases its laws and customs around only a very literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian Bible. Its leaders believe 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 put to death to prevent them from spreading their evil influence to others.
Modesty and purity in all areas of life are greatly emphazised, particularly for women, who are believed to be more prone to weakness of character and sin. All citizens must follow only Gilead's own official version of Christianity. No other religion or belief system is tolerated; as Gilead rose to power, those of other faiths and of other Christian denominations were rounded up or forced to convert after a brief period of tolerance. Jewish people 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.
Refugees from Gilead attempt escape 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.
Media and InformationEdit
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, like the actual Gileadean sphere of control.
To discourage women from reading and writing, public writings or names of any kind, like shop signs, are removed. Information is instead relayed by signs with pictures or pictograms.
Anything secular media is banned outright and anybody in possession of such items are punished severely, up to and including execution.
Parts of Gilead's economy seems to be centered around slave labor--specifically its food sources (there is much mention of the "Agricultural Colonies" where prisoners are sent to do farm work).
The transformation of the U.S. democracy into the totalitarian dictatorship of Gilead is given by isolated events observed by individuals with limited background knowledge, so the actual political process behind these events remains vague and is left to the reader's estimation.
In "X Soul Scrolls", the narrator, Offred, recalls that after a group of terrorists had assassinated the U.S. President and machine-gunned members of Congress, the army declared a state of emergency, and a new emergency administration announced that "Everything is under control", blaming the attacks on "Islamic fanatics".
Later, when this administration "temporarily" suspended the Constitution, a political activist suspected them to "have been building up to this", while the populace in majority seemed to approve the measures following, like roadblocks and censorships for "security reasons", since you "coundn't be too careful". The closing of pornomats was greeted by "High time somebody did something".
Then, in quick succession, bank accounts of female holders 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 a new paramilitary force systematically cleared women out of places of employment. There were a few protest marches at first, but when protests were quashed by this "new army" as soon as they even started, the population was too terrified to mount any further reaction.
The early Gilead periodEdit
The historical source known as The Handmaid's Tale is described as coming from the "Early Gilead Period."
As Gilead progresses to the time of The Testaments, various changes occur. The Gilead National Homelands Genocide takes place, as ethnic minorities are marched into North Dakota in wintertime into ghost towns with no supplies, many starving to death or marching to Canada. The Pearl Girls are founded, a new category of Aunts that go abroad and convert foreigners to Gilead's religion. The four Founding Aunts, Lydia, Elizabeth, Helena, and Vidala now have a cult-like status among the women of Gilead, as well as Baby Nicole - who has been made into a legendary lost child, highlighting the possibility of betrayal in Gilead.
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.
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 Commanders, is at various points breaking their 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 fascist 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 fascist 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 such as Charlemagne's Carolingian Empire and the pre-World War I German Empire or latched onto pre-existing European discrimination policies against disempowered groups (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, left-wing/far-left Social Democrats and Communists, anti-Nazi Germans 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 Religious Right's 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.
Atwood's vision of Gilead also draws inspiration from the "utopian idealism" present from 20th-century communist regimes such as Pol Pot's Kampuchea (aka Cambodia) and Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania as well as earlier New England Puritanism.
The novel makes sporadic mention that Gilead's military is fighting a protracted insurgency by Baptist groups across the Appalachian Highlands. In her new author's foreword to the 2017 editions of the novel, Margaret Atwood compared this to how the Bolsheviks eradicated the more moderate Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution.
- ↑ Novel, XII Jezebels, Section 32
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Novel, Section 28
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Novel, Section 14
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 Novel, Section 38
- ↑ The Handmaid's Tale (Novel), section 5
- ↑ Novel, Section 3
- ↑ Novel, Section 15
- ↑ Novel, Section 4
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 Novel, Historical Notes
- ↑ 10.0 10.1 Novel, Section 5
- ↑ It will be called Americanism': the US writers who imagined a fascist future. By Sarah Churchwell