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It is a power that has been revoked from these women.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