'The Handmaid's Tale': Who Are the People in Gilead?
If a census was taken of the people in Gilead, it would show everybody's roles.
The Handmaid's Tale is a popular Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood's book by the same name that was published in 1985. The setting is a place in the future known as the Republic of Gilead that used to be the United States.
Every person in Gilead has a title, and a function, even babies. People are segregated by categories. They can be easily recognized because every group has its own dress code that represents who the people are, and their social function in the land.
There are four main groups of men in Gilead:
- Commanders of the Faithful
- Guardians of the Faith
Commanders of the Faithful are the top men with an abundance of authority. They make up the ruling class. Those particular men are allowed to marry, and have a household made up of a wife, a handmaid, female servants, and guardians. Many of the men are infertile, because they were exposed to a biological chemical before Gilead was established. Many of the wives are also infertile. Commanders can be easily identified by the black they wear to represent their high rank. When they aren't wearing a jacket, viewers can see that they wear suspenders.
Eyes are the secret police. Their job is to catch those who violate any of the rules of Gilead, no matter how small the act might be. Because they work undercover, no one knows who they are. However, they are all around Gilead.
Angels are soldiers who fight to expand and protect Gilead. They may be permitted to marry if they wish to do so.
Guardians of the Faith are different from soldiers. They don't fight. Instead, they do routine policing and perform insignificant duties. They are considered unsuitable to do anything else. This group is made up of unintelligent men of all ages. Some are disabled. Young guardians may be promoted to angels when they are older. They are easily recognized by their green uniforms.
There are more groups of women than groups of men.
The wives are married to commanders. They are subservient to their husbands, and have little or no voice in the marriage. If the wife is infertile, a handmaid is assigned to have a baby for her and the commander. Commanders' wives always wear teal dresses with matching cloaks to indicate who they are. If a commander dies, his wife becomes a widow, and must dress in a deep purple that looks like it is black.
Daughters are female children of the commander and his wife. The girl could be a biological or adopted child of the ruling class. Daughters must dress in white.
The handmaids, for which the book is named, are fertile women whose main function is to bear children for the commanders and their infertile wives. Handmaids appear to be the largest group in Gilead. Those women have broken the law, which includes lesbianism and adultery. Handmaids live in the commanders' house along with his wife. Those who are not assigned to a commander live in the training centers.
After a handmaid produces a child for a commander, she stays there until the child is weaned. Then she gets a new assignment. Those who fail to give birth after three assignments are sent to work in the colonies.
Handmaids are required to wear long deep red dresses, white caps, and heavy boots. When they go out in public, they must wear a red cloak to match her dress, red gloves, and heavy white bonnets, which are called wings to keep them from seeing around them, and to keep people from seeing their face.
Aunts are trainers of the handmaids. They police the handmaids to make sure they stay in line. If they get out of line, then they are beaten, burned, maimed, or punished in other ways. The aunts have more authority than other women in Gilead, even more than some of the wives. Aunt Lydia is the most prominent aunt. She and other aunts dress in brown to distinguish them from other women.
Marthasare older, infertile women who have domestic skills. They take care of the house while wearing green smocks and aprons.
Econowives are women married to men of lower rank. They perform all the female duties of a household. Their dress is multicolored red, blue, and green to represent their multiple roles.
Illegitimate women are of two types called Unwomen and Jezebels. Unwomen aresterile women, unmarried women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and those who don't fit into any of the other groups. Those women are banished to the colonies to work in deadly pollution.
Jezebels are women who are forced to become prostitutes and entertainers. They are available only to the commanders and their guests. Jezebels can never be handmaids, because they have been sterilized. They are controlled by the aunts, but with more freedom than the handmaids. When Jezebels grow old and their looks fade, they might be killed or sent to work in the colonies.
In the novel and on the television series, even babies are categorized. They are known as Unbabies and Keepers.
Unbabies, also known as Shredders, are infants born deformed, or those that have other kinds of birth defects. Unbabies do not stay in Gilead. It is uncertain what happens to them. Neither the book, nor the television series reveals that information. Pregnant handmaids often fear they will give birth to an unbaby.
Babies who are born without any physical defect are called Keepers. They are required to be turned over to the commander's wife as soon as they are born. During the delivery process, the wife is taken care of in bed as if she is delivering the baby. After all, she was with the handmaid when the child was conceived.