The Handmaid’s Tale is commonly considered to be one of Margaret Atwood’s best novels. In it, readers are exposed to her skill creation of imagery, her ability to craft realistic and terrifying scenes, and her skill with language. The ten quotes on this list represent a small number of the most powerful passages in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now. When I saw that, the evidence left by two people, of love or something like it, desire at least, at least touch, between two people now perhaps old or dead, I covered the bed again and lay down on it.
In these beautiful lines, Offred is describing stains on her bed and the sorrow she feels over this expression of love. She believes that she will never experience that kind of love again, especially not in that bed.
When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.
In this moving quote about the past, Offred is lost in her own thoughts, one of the only places she has any freedom. There, she spends time considering what was and what is. She is well aware that the past isn’t always what it seems to be as time passes and memories of hardships are lighted. She isn’t only thinking about her personal past though, she’s also considering the landmarks around her. What the buildings are now and what they used to be and the things that used to occupy everyone’s time.
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
These lines comes from the end of Chapter 6 when Offred and Ofglen are looking at the Wall, where “traitors” are hung. There, they can see those executed by Gilead. She tries to put aside her horror at the sight and blank out any of her emotions. It is at this point that she recalls what Aunt Lydia told her, that the extraordinary will become ordinary over time. Gilead, like other fictional and real-life totalitarian societies, succeeds when people get used to its practices. As soon as people forget what a different world would be like, Gilead wins.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
The phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” was carved on the inside of Offred’s closet by the previous resident of the room, some other handmaid. These words bring Offred equal parts joy and sorrow. She feels a deep connection to the woman who was there before her but also a sorrow over this woman’s fate and her own. It is translated into “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” a reference to an old Latin joke.
Storytelling and Words
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
In these lines of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers are reminded of the fact that Offred is experiencing the horrors of Gilead in real-time. She is there, in real-time, living the words that readers see on the page. This connects her deeply to the story in a way that is more moving and real than it would be if she was telling the story from a distance. She looks to the future, hoping that sometime, somewhere, things will get better, and “real life” will return. There, she can “pick up where [she] left off”.
I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others. These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself.
Here, offred is thinking about the power of words, their various meanings, and how things change depending on context. This is one example of Offred’s rebellion against Gilead as she relishes words, even though she’s not allowed to read them. She’s reminded of who she used to be before Gilead.
Imprisonment in The Handmaid’s Tale
Now and again we vary the route; there’s nothing against it, as long as we stay within the barriers. A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
These lines in The Handmaid’s Tale are part of Offred’s narration in regards to the freedom, or lack thereof that the Handmaids have as they move through their very specific “maze”. She was inspired to think these words while considering the different ways to and from the shops that OFfred and Ofglen sometimes take. They are allowed to take different routes through the maze, but they aren’t allowed beyond the walls of the city. Their prison is a very specialized one.
There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
These lines are spoken by Aunt Lydia, the woman in charge of reeducating Offred and the other Handmaid’s at the Red Center. Lydia is a believer, she is, by all accounts in The Handmaid’s Tale, 100% committed to the Gilead and its principles. Here, she speaks broadly about freedom but is specifically referring to the freedom that these women no longer have as Handmaids. It’s a perfect example of Orwellian doublethink in which something that is inherently bad is described as being inherently good. She suggests that its a benefit for these women to be free “from” free choice.
The Creation of Gilead
The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy . . . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.
This quote is spoken by the Commander towards the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, in Chapter 32. Here, he is trying to explain to Offred why and how Gilead was founded. He speaks ambiguously as he is trying to hide something, or alternatively, as if he can’t quite put into words what he wants to say. It is perhaps hard, even for him, to justify the steps they have taken. He tries to convince offred that feminism took something away from men—they were no longer the protectors that they wanted to be.
When I’m naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only.
Here, Margaret Atwood is at her best describing through mundane details the complete removal of identity that all Handmaids have gone through. The sheet divides Offred in half. There is her mind and there is her body. In Gilead’s eyes, her body is the main focus with her mind only a secondary annoyance. Her identity as a full person has been compromised.