Power of the Word: Reflections from The Handmaid’s Tale

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are oppressed as men control much of the United States. As the book progresses, we see that men took and maintained control over women in a number of ways including limiting sight, opportunities, economic participation, and the written word.

The impact of the written word is emphasized by these women as it is a means of communication we so often take for granted. We assume we will always be able to write notes, grocery lists, and letters, but it is only when the ability to write is taken from us that we realize how much of a gift it truly was.

On page 52, Atwood describes how Offred discovers a woman’s hidden rebellion:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundum.

This phrase, nolite te bastardes carborundum, is perhaps the most famous line from the novel. There is an interesting story behind its meaning and many people have written about it (or tattooed it on their bodies), but it loosely translates to “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Don’t let the bastards get you down

The meaning of the phrase, however, isn’t really the point. The real message here is the power of the written word, whatever it may be. Just the fact that we can craft these symbols that convey meaning when rearranged that can last for generations is an incredible power.

It is a power that has been revoked from these women.

Offred does not know the meaning of these words, but she doesn’t have to. When she is in danger of breaking down or just needs some reassurance, she recites these words to herself.

Nolite te bastardes carborundum.

Just the fact that someone, anyone, has rebelled against their oppressive society and gotten away with it gives her hope.

I worry that sometimes we forget today just how valuable the written word has. As women, especially, our voices have been kept quiet for so much of our history. There were times when we were not allowed to read, not allowed to participate in politics, not allowed to publish newspapers, not allowed to make our thoughts known.

We have that power now. Our ancestors made sure of that.

But we need to honor their hard work. We need to document our struggles, publish our thoughts, write our history. We need to make use of the gifts from the women who came before us to leave a legacy for the women who will come after us.

So please, start a blog, keep a diary, tell your daughters about your lives. Atwood’s novel is fiction, but it’s closer to reality than we may like to admit.

 

Interested in joining the conversation? Download The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon or borrow it from your local library and jump in with your comments. 

Symbols of Oppression: Reflections from The Handmaid’s Tale

This summer, I am getting back into reading. And reading good books at that.

Right now, I am working on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is about a woman’s disheartening survival in a dystopian anti-feminist society in which men have taken control of much of the United States. The women are socialized to believe that they are submissive and in need of protection as they live their lives in one of only a few roles afforded to them.Handmaids Tale cover

I’m less than 100 pages in so far, but I am already so inspired and captivated by this novel that I just need to share it with someone else. I almost wish I was back in AP Lit just so I can discuss the symbolism and deeper implications of the novel with other readers. But alas, high school is behind me, so here I am writing in a blog for myself and a handful of others to possibly see.

But to keep this conversation going, or rather, to actually make it a conversation, please leave comments with your thoughts. Better yet, read with me and we can turn this into a virtual book club of sorts. I hate making promises about when I’ll post, but I’ll do my best to post throughout my reading as I find things particularly noteworthy.


In the novel, I am so impressed by the many layers of meaning that Atwood packs into just a few lines. On page 28, she writes:

“Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.”

Now, Atwood’s writing style is a bit odd and takes some getting used to for those of us who are grammar purists, but bear with me. These lines are incredible. Near the end, it sounds like words of empowerment; “you must be…impenetrable.” But in context, these words are part of the women’s “brainwashing” process when they attend classes to teach them to be submissive to men.

Submission

There is so much symbolism from the first section of the book that is beautifully encapsulated in these few sentences. For one, the women are called girls, as the main character, Offred, reports. They are called girls supposedly to convey their purity and innocence, but really, it is a linguistic chain. It makes these women, some of whom are in their college years, pliable, submissive, obedient, unthinking, and childlike.

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It makes them less independent and less of a threat.

They believe themselves to be protected by these controlling men, but in reality, they are being controlled. Rather than women with equal faculties (if not freedoms) to men, they are less than and must be cared for because they lack the ability to care for themselves.

With just a few changes in rhetoric, women in this society are socialized to believe they need men to control them.

Sight

The eye and the concept of seeing is another symbol present throughout the novel that is touched upon in this excerpt. Seeing is power. Awareness is power. When we see the world, we begin to understand it. When we understand it, we have the power to change it, or at least act independently within it.

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Understanding enables autonomy. So in Atwood’s society, limiting sight limits understanding which in turn limits autonomy. The women wear veils and the Handmaids wear wings on their hats that act as blinders you would see on a horse. Limited autonomy, like with a horse, means more control.

Seeing, in this world, is portrayed as giving men power over women; it allows them to be “penetrated” and thus less pure and more controlled. But in fact, the opposite is true. Seeing is what could give these women power over the men.

If they could only see, these women would realize the power they have. They would see that the men are no different from them, that they have the numbers and access to these men’s lives to take down the oppressive system, that they have any kind of power at all. They could see all of this, but their society has used a combination of rhetoric and socialization to twist the meaning of sight from one of empowerment to one of vulnerability.

Now

This is a message so influential to women today.

Women are encouraged to not see the inner workings of our society, to not be involved in politics for fear that it is too complicated or too disheartening. But the same fact rings true in Atwood’s society and ours: seeing is power. 

By seeing what is really going on around us, we can be aware, and by being aware, we can understand, and by understanding, we can have autonomy, and when we have autonomy, we can change the world.

Women have power, but we need to keep our eyes open and never let anyone, men or otherwise, shield or obstruct our vision.

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Interested in joining the conversation? Download The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon or borrow it from your local library and jump in with your comments.