‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’: On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

By Krystina Osborne

I was delighted to win the PG CWWN’s recent competition honouring the work of Margaret Atwood and I was overjoyed to receive a signed edition of The Handmaid’s Tale as a result of my winning tweet. I was also asked to expand upon my competition entry in the form of a short piece of writing on the novel, and was immediately overcome with the fear that I would not be able to do justice to such an iconic work in a book review. The Handmaid’s Tale, an exploration of the oppression of women in a dystopian future, won the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 and was nominated for the Booker Prize, also receiving numerous other literary accolades. Therefore, I have elected to concentrate on my own personal experiences of the text in an attempt to gesture towards its enduring appeal.

I initially encountered the novel as a teenager, when my friend studied it as part of her A-Level English Literature course. As is sadly often the way with the texts one associates with school, she soon tired of it and I recall her repeatedly lamenting the irony of being forced to read ‘a book about women not being allowed to read’. Intrigued, I asked to borrow the novel and soon became engrossed in the Republic of Gilead, enjoying the darkly comic idiosyncrasies of a society in which the simple enjoyment of a game of a Scrabble is considered to be a transgressive act for a woman. I remember cheering on my favourite character (the rebellious Moira) as she escaped from the ‘Red Center’, feeling crushed when it transpires that she was swiftly captured by the authorities. Such was my affinity with the book as an example of science fiction that I even briefly toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo of the phrase ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ (a pseudo-Latin translation of ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’, the memorable motto which also formed the basis of my competition entry!), only to discover that many an Atwood fan had beaten me to it.

By contrast, upon rereading the novel in preparation for writing this blog post, I was struck by how frighteningly relatable the ostensibly distant world of the Republic of Gilead actually is. My personal favourite Atwood novel is Cat’s Eye, a disturbingly realistic examination of the lasting effects of childhood bullying, but The Handmaid’s Tale is, in many ways, equally realistic. Atwood herself classifies the novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than science fiction, a distinction intended to signify that the events of the novel could conceivably happen; the implementation of an electronic monetary system and attempts to ban pornographic material particularly resonate in modern society. Whilst revisiting the novel, I noted that Atwood’s omission of any detailed physical description of her protagonist enables Offred to serve as an ‘everywoman’, allowing female readers to imagine themselves in her place with alarming ease. Furthermore, Atwood emphasises Offred’s frustration that women are encouraged to perpetuate the ideologies of Gilead by policing each other’s behaviour. The misogynistic division of women results in resentment and envy between the groups, rather than reinforcing values of sisterhood, thus serving as a stark warning to a contemporary society in which women are pushed to routinely judge each other on a daily

Whilst the ending of the novel is ambiguous, the metafictional epilogue reveals that Offred’s narrative was transcribed following the collapse of the Gilead regime, her legacy living on, despite her own uncertain fate. The cultural impact of The Handmaid’s Tale is evident, and it has already been the subject of various film and radio adaptations, a theatre production and an opera. During a recent talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Atwood revealed that she is currently working on a graphic novel version, which will introduce Offred’s story to a different audience. Even my dubious friend was eventually won over by the originality of The Handmaid’s Tale’s plotline. However, whilst the novel displays the undeniable scope of Atwood’s imagination, I argue that its legacy is to serve as a reminder that we must never allow this vision to materialise.

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