The Logic of Cultivation in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

By Anna Reser & Leila A. McNeill 

Gilead, the dystopian patriarchy of The Handmaid’s Tale, is predicated on Old Testament beliefs about marriage, sex and reproduction, and women. But the ideology of Gilead is as much a product of religious fervor as it is a result of centuries old scientific ideologies of nature and gender. In both Christian theology and Western science, women have always been placed closer to the earth while men have been placed over and separate from feminine nature as her protector, observer, and cultivator. Gilead then is based more on a logic of cultivation than a religious directive. The logic of cultivation that shapes the architecture of Gilead is a synthesis of religious and scientific ideologies, both of which have been wielded to justify and perpetuate systems of domination.

The image of cultivated nature is strongly associated with Serena Joy’s character, and reinforced by flowers and green plants that are used liberally in the set decoration of the Waterford house. In episode 5, Serena takes Offred outside into the garden to propose that they use another man to get Offred pregnant. Among the dead, desiccated plants, Serena admits that the Commander is probably sterile, just like her, just like the garden. But any agency or solidarity that might be shared between Serena and Offred in that moment of candor is undermined by the image of the garden. As she cuts away the dead, functionless parts of the plants she is tending, Serena reminds Offred of what will happen if she never becomes pregnant. Serena proposes that Offred attempt to become pregnant by the Waterford’s driver, Nick. She makes Offred carry the pruned, lifeless stalks as a reminder that infertile, unproductive things have no value in Gilead. Like a plant under the watchful eye of a master gardener, Offred’s “breeding” is managed, coaxed and coerced.

The logic of cultivation is what binds the religious ideologies of Gilead to the technical and scientific realities of 21st century life. It provides a framework for selecting scientific and environmental projects that can coexist successfully with Gilead’s theocratic society; anything that will improve fertility and encourage reproduction is acceptable and encouraged. Environmental conservation, action to reverse climate change, and organic farming are all positions that appear to us to be staples of a progressive platform and at odds with the extreme conservatism of Gilead. But Gilead’s political and religious ideology is built around the importance and sacredness of reproduction. A clean environment promotes health and decreases infant mortality. Organic farming reduces concentrations of pesticides that are believed to be a contributing factor in the fertility crisis. Gilead’s economy is centered around reproduction instead of the functioning of a capitalist free market, and its natural resources have been replaced with fertile women.

In Episode 6, “A Woman’s Place,” the association between the Handmaids and fruit is not just a literary device; it becomes a stand-in for the Handmaids themselves. When negotiating a possible economic trade deal between Gilead and Mexico, the Commanders and Mexican ambassadors discuss the export of oranges, which thrive in the more favorable climate of Gilead. In another scene, Serena refers to the Handmaids as apples, insisting that only the undamaged apples, the ones who had not lost eye or limb to punishment, should be put on display at banquet for the Mexican diplomats. “You don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate, do you?”, she asks Aunt Lydia. At the banquet, Offred learns that the Handmaids themselves are the fruit being negotiated for trade. The Handmaids have become a tradable commodity; they are the “natural resource” that Serena, as the real architect of Gilead, envisioned them to be.

“Blessed be the fruit” is at once a greeting, a prayer, and metonymy. This greeting between the Handmaids is a shortened version of the verse Deuteronomy 28:4, “Blessed be the fruit of the womb,” which indicates not only each other’s hopes to bear children to avoid being sent to The Colonies but also their place in Gilead’s caste system. The Handmaids are diminished entirely to their biological function of reproduction, to their womb and its ability to bear fruit. But the assumed objectivity of “biological” destiny is revealed to be a highly articulated, gendered ideology that is specifically designed to subjugate women. Men are never tested for infertility. “There’s no such thing as a sterile man.” Offred recites this silently in her mind when Serena suggests that Commander Waterford might be infertile. It is a shocking admission—a practically illegal suspicion. The destiny of biology, and the consequences of its imperfections, are reserved exclusively for women.

Among all of the truly shocking and upsetting things that The Handmaid’s Tale portrays, the gendered scientific ideologies of reproduction are depressingly familiar. The history of science is, in part, the history of the negotiation of the gendered boundary between nature and culture. The nearly indelible association of women with nature and that of men with cultivation and domination is a consequence of modern science’s codification of these ideas. Once ratified by the burgeoning scientific profession in the 18th century, the image of feminine nature being subdued and controlled by rational man has influenced the development of Western science at every level. In these gendered concepts of nature, Gilead found the perfect scientific system with which to reinforce and naturalize its religious dogma.

Science and technology in The Handmaid’s Tale are portrayed very selectively. But the ideologies of gendered nature that underpin Gilead’s society are much more visible, encoded in images of gardens, house plants, commodity crops like orange trees, and in the metaphor of the bruised apples. “Blessed be the fruit” is a reminder to the Handmaids that they are both the fruit to be traded in Gilead’s real economy, and the trees that bear fruit for the spiritual and political economy of the new society. The Handmaids are transformed into the image of nature itself, the ultimate erasure of their humanity.

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