Be a Martha!: Marthas in Luke, John, and Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale
By Christy Cobb and Bailey Freeburn.
SPOILER ALERT: This post contains information about the plot of the Hulu show the Handmaid’s Tale, season one and two. It does not contain any information about the newly released season three.
“Don’t be a Martha. Be a Mary.”
Being raised in southern Christian households and churches, both of us have heard this phrase repeated numerous times. Its origin is uncertain, but it is certainly based on an interpretation of the well known story in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) where Jesus criticizes Martha and affirms Mary for choosing the “better part.” Even in the Gospel of John, where the two sisters make a second appearance, Martha is depicted as “serving” (12:2). While feminist biblical scholars have offered interpretations to resist this reading, in popular culture Martha remains a servant. For instance, in the dystopian society of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the women responsible for domestic service are labeled “Marthas.” Yet, Marthas are more than just servants. The fictional world of Gilead takes this tired Lukan stereotype and expands on her characterization, especially in the Hulu adaptation. “Martha” is a domesticized figure in both Luke and Gilead, however, the Marthas of Atwood’s world have roles that reach further than the Commanders’ kitchens. They are active players in the underground resistance. Marthas in Gilead are working to dismantle their oppressive, patriarchal society.
In the novel, the role of the Martha is limited mostly to domestic spaces. There is a Martha in most houses in Gilead; they are responsible for the cooking and cleaning in addition to taking care of any children that are born (primarily to Handmaids). In this way, the Marthas seem to be modeled after the normative interpretation of a “Martha” in Luke and John, primarily as a domestic worker. In Gilead, the Marthas have low status; yet, they also have information. The narrator of the novel observes, “The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted.” This reveals a sense of camaraderie between the Marthas in Gilead; they form a unit and inform each other, listening for important information. There is a hint at a Martha network in the book, which seems to be expanded in the Hulu show. The Marthas are able to procure items, even ones that are forbidden: “It must have been a Martha who got it for her. There’s a network of the Marthas, then, with something in it for them.” While these brief quotations suggest a deeper role for a “Martha,” beyond domestic service, this role is not expanded upon within the novel itself.
The Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale follows this domestic characterization of Marthas but then gradually increases the roles of Marthas in Gilead. Yes, they are portrayed in domestic spaces, yet also, these women are shown throughout the show silently working to spread information, bringing handmaids to safety, and ultimately, defying the harsh reality of Gilead. In this way, we suggest, the Hulu adaptation includes aspects of feminist critical interpretation of Martha in Luke and John alongside the typical interpretation. For example, in Luke, Jesus chastises Martha for her vocalization of her frustration with Mary. Similarly, the Marthas are reprimanded by the Wives and Commanders in ways that mimic the story found in Luke, yet with violence. This mistreatment of Marthas is exacerbated by the fact that most of the Marthas in the Hulu cast are played by women of color, while most of the Handmaids are white. In both examples, it is the action of speaking that gets Marthas “in trouble,” and perhaps, contributes to the development of the negative stereotype. This silence, however, seems to aid in their success when they work together in resistance of Gilead. In the Hulu depiction of the The Handmaid’s Tale, the network of Marthas work quietly to gather information to build a resistance against Gilead. The active roles of serving and questioning played by Martha in John parallel the roles of the Marthas seen in Atwood’s dystopia. Yet, in the television series, the Marthas go even further than Martha in Luke or John. At the end of Season two, the Marthas work together, strategize, and risk their lives in an attempt to guide Offred (June), her infant daughter, and Emily (another Handmaid) to safety in the season finale.
As this clip shows, the second season ends with a strategic escape for Emily, June, and her child, planned and orchestrated by the Marthas. Using the distraction of a fire (most likely started by a Martha herself), the Marthas guide June out of her house and neighborhood. In this way, the show is able to amplify the domesticized and criticized character of Martha and turn her into a group of women who are vital players in the revolution, and whose roles are necessary in delivering other women to safety. Of course, it should be noted that the Marthas attempt to save two handmaids and a child, while they are likely unable to save themselves from the harsh world of Gilead. Again, issues of race and class are problematic as these domestic workers (enslaved in the world of Gilead) work together to free two white handmaids and a child. What is more, the Marthas are very likely to be punished severely for their part in this coup.
In the novel, Margaret Atwood’s thematic use of both characterizations of Martha found in Luke and John can be seen as the foundation for the domesticized group of Marthas found in Gilead. These women are oppressed and criticized in the novel, yet there are glimpses of what this group could do, as they are holders of information. The Hulu show seems to actively extend this role for the Marthas from a group of domestic household servants who possess information to a group of powerful women who work together to actively lead a resistance to rescue at-risk women and children in Gilead. This hypothesizing has already led some viewers to wonder if it will be the Marthas who bring down the entire country of Gilead, as can be seen in this article. Certainly, both of us will be watching to see how the Marthas are presented in Season 3 and if they continue their roles as secret insurgents in Gilead. Perhaps this changes the Christian anecdote from “Don’t be a Martha” to “Be a Martha! Be an agent of the revolution.”
Note: This blog was co-written by professor and student after a seminar taught through the Honors program at Wingate University entitled “The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Fiction, Film, and the Bible.”
Christy Cobb is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wingate University. Cobb recently published her first book: Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and as the co-chair for the Ancient Fiction section of the Society of Biblical Literature.This spring, Cobb taught a seminar for the Honors program at Wingate entitled “The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Fiction, Film, and the Bible” which is where the idea for this blog originated.
Bailey Freeburn is an undergraduate and honors student at Wingate University, double majoring in Religious Studies and Math-Business. Freeburn’s primary research interest is the intersection of gender and class in the New Testament and early Christianity. She was a student in Dr. Christy Cobb’s Honors seminar on The Handmaid’s Tale in the spring, and her background in Religious Studies prompted her interest in the roles of the Marthas throughout the novel and Hulu series.
 For a few examples, see: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “A Feminist Critical Interpretation for Liberation: Martha and Mary: Luke 10:38-42,” Religion and Intellectual Life 3, no. 2 (1986): 21-36; Mary Rose D’Angelo, “(Re)Presentation of Women in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke-Acts,” in Women & Christian Origins, ed. Ross Shepard Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 171-95; and Loveday Alexander, “Sisters in Adversity: Retelling Martha’s Story,” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff, Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings 3 (London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 197-213.
 Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, pg. 11.
 Atwood, Page 227.