“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
If we look at history, society has made many steps of progress (amongst its many step-backs). Women can, and are encouraged to work in many countries, and more people believe in equality among races. As an Asian-American female, I am very fortunate to be living in a society that allows me to have a career and a house of my own, and to live my life doing what I believe in doing. Although I’m always thinking about my future and the things I should be doing, I do not take the time to consider how fortunate I am to have a life like this. Then I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the story forced me to realize that I really should be grateful. In Atwood’s novel, any positive progress in society is stripped away, and women are ranked in the following order: the Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Martha’s, and Econowives.
As Offred, the Handmaid whose story is told in the novel, says:
“We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136).
Offred works for the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy (which isn’t even her real name). Her job is to give birth to a child for the Commander and his family, and the way in which this is done, in the best way I can describe, is weird (I suggest reading the book for actual details).
In many ways, this book reminded me if 1984 by George Orwell, especially when Offred recited lines from the Bible that they were forced to recite, while knowing that some of the lines weren’t real:
“Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Nobody said when” (89).
These rules of this society, as well as the new definition of “relationship” between men and women, felt unbelievable for me. I simply could not imagine that these different sets of rules could replace the rules that exist today, and go on to govern and shape people’s lives. Can people really be brainwashed that easily? And how long would it take for people to be brainwashed into believing new thoughts, and living new lifestyles? The men, such as the Commander, hold so much power in the novel, and they can use women in any way they want, since in a way, women are pliable objects – they can serve as reminders of times in the past when women dressed up in workout clothes, in short dresses, costumes, etc., and they can also serve as creators of offspring. Either way, women are objects of men’s control.
As Offred lives her life in this society, her thoughts and memories are torn between what she knew before, and what she knows now. As she looks at buildings that used to be university buildings, public library, and hotels, she remembers having her own job, waiting for Luke to come to the hotel room, and even chatting with Moira in her college dorm room as Moira smoked her cigarettes. These things that Moira knew from her “past life” are the things that I am familiar with now, and that’s why I simply cannot imagine the new world she is living in. I simply cannot believe that that reality could become an actual reality.
In her new bedroom given at the house of the Commander, Offred finds the following line carved into the floor in the corner of her bedroom, left by the previous Handmaid:
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (51).
Translated, this means, “Ðon’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Atwood, Margaret. The handmaid’s tale. Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2017.