To set the tone of The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood opens with three disparate epigraphs, or introductory quotations.
The first, from Genesis 30:1-3, cites the crux of the scriptural love story of Jacob and Rachel. Having promised to work seven years in exchange for marriage to his uncle Laban's daughter Rachel, Jacob is tricked into marrying the elder daughter, Leah, who bears him two sons. In her jealousy and self-abasement, Rachel, Jacob's second and most beloved wife, insists that he bed her handmaid, Bilhah, who also bears two sons. This biblical event forms the justification for twentieth-century Gilead's Handmaid system as well as a prophecy: women who fail to conceive are devalued.
The second epigraph comes near the end of "A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift's caustically satiric essay, published in 1729. Swift s incredibly objective speaker proposes the raising of children for sale as a food and commodity item in order to alleviate the poverty of poor families who produce more infants than they can afford to rear. The controlled, sincere tone of the unnamed proposer of this mad scheme parallels the earnest fanaticism of Atwood's Gilead.
The final epigraph, taken from an Islamic proverb, suggests that there need be no laws against the obvious. Because people were not meant to eat stones, a traveler in the desert would not expect to see a prohibition against such a meal.
Atwood conjoins the three epigraphs by drawing on a controlling metaphor: the images of produce, food, and eating, which create a motif of fulfillment. In Genesis 30, Jacob asks Rachel whether he is to be accused of denying her "the fruit of his womb." Swift's proposal, a cannibalistic economy based on the consumption of young children, supplants "vain, idle, visionary thoughts" in a lame attempt to alleviate social dysfunction. The final epigraph notes that no one seriously considers eating stones. The farfetched juxtaposition of these three citations prefigures the extent of the fantasy in which prestige and/or survival for enslaved women resides in a waning society's obsession with producing a healthy crop of children for its upper echelon.
To assure proper nourishment in potential mothers, the control of food and the denial of cigarettes and alcohol are crucial factors. Thus, during a war-torn era marked by food shortages and rationing, Offred, like a fatted calf, journeys daily to dairy, meat, grain, and produce markets to buy nourishing milk, bread, chicken, strawberries, and radishes; as the family's hope of viable offspring, she lives literally off the fat of the land. On the down side, Offred's habitation resembles a stall in that she is allowed rest and exercise, but has no freedom of movement to divert her from her task of conceiving. Also, like a brood animal, she must produce within a prescribed time limit or be dispatched to toxic clean-up crews in the Colonies or to Jezebel's, a businessmen's brothel.
Sufi a seventh- and eighth-century mystical Arabic sect growing out of Islam. Infused with lyricism and wisdom, Sufism encouraged the faithful to seek God out of love rather than from any desire to gain heaven or avoid hell.