Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum: Lessons from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Gautham Shenoy April 14, 2017 8 min

Pray that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ stays fiction. Because a world where women are denied their humanity isn’t worth living in.

Whenever I buy a book, I have this (good?) habit of writing my name and the date on the flyleaf. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the fading scrawl on the yellowing pages in my copy tells me I bought it in February, 2003, and I clearly remember reading it with due alacrity, for I was told by people more well-read and aware than I that it was a must-read, science fiction or otherwise. A dystopian classic that’s spoken of in the same breath as Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but with a predominant feminist theme.

And I was hooked from the first page, and horrified as that bleak and terrifying world revealed itself, page by page.

A world where women are denied their humanity, and their bodies are merely vessels for reproduction. Consent doesn’t come into the picture. A world where selective reading of holy books guides the government, and patriarchy is at the root of all laws.

And that’s just the beginning. It’s a truly harrowing world that Atwood has created.

A world where women are denied their humanity, and their bodies are merely vessels for reproduction. Consent doesn’t come into the picture. A world where selective reading of holy books guides the government, and patriarchy is at the root of all laws… It’s a truly harrowing world that Atwood has created  

Margaret Atwood, the Booker-prize-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale. Left: In a 2013 publicity photo (via the author’s site). Right: With her proof of AMA which she did on the book earlier this year

I finished the book but it stayed with me, at least in its broad contours, as the years rolled by. Events took place in our world that kept taking me back to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. The rise of the Taliban and their restrictions on women. Global warming, rapid climate change and toxic pollution. The Fukushima nuclear disaster. The death of Savita Halappanavar in the Republic of Ireland because she was denied an abortion under Catholic laws. The rise and rise of Islamophobia. The weaponisation of religion and misogyny. The fight for equal rights for women and marches for women’s rights. And more recently, the meteoric rise of conservatism in the West and Americans talking about fleeing to Canada.

That’s why, for a book written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels eerily contemporary; nay, all too real and very ‘today’ (with my memory refreshed by a re-read this week). Perhaps not surprising when you come to know that while writing the book, Atwood made it a rule for herself to only include events that have happened in history and could — very plausibly — happen overnight within the ambit of existing laws and social mores, and for which the technology did not already exist. And this is what happens in the book (no spoilers!)

Covers of three editions of The Handmaid’s Tale

An attack on the US government is conveniently blamed on Muslims and, almost overnight, constitutional rights are abolished. Because, terrorism. Immediately thereafter, women holding jobs is outlawed and the bank accounts of all women are frozen, rendering them penniless and financially dependent (cashless, digital economy anyone?). The elected government of the US is replaced by a theocratic dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead. All of this just when women are on the verge of gaining equal rights. They are denied everything, forbidden even to read and considered inferior, second-class citizens, and given limited roles with absolutely no freedom of choice.

I finished the book but it stayed with me… Events took place in our world that kept taking me back to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale… The fight for equal rights for women and marches for women’s rights. And more recently, the meteoric rise of conservatism in the West and Americans talking about fleeing to Canada  

In this world, ravaged by toxic pollution and because of it, falling birth-rates and increasing sterility, the best that the women of Gilead can hope for — provided they can bear children — is to become part of the household of a man in power and whose only duty is to bear him children, with the copulation a humiliating ceremony which the man’s wife is also apart of.

These women are called Handmaids — from a Biblical reference and precedent — and it is one such Handmaid who is the narrator and whose tale we hear. Stripped of even her name, our narrator is only known to us as Offred (Of Fred, as in the possession of Fred, the Commander whose household she is a part of, like a tool or an appliance, strictly supposed to serve a functional purpose). Through her, we know of the Republic of Gilead, of its policies based on narrow interpretations of the Bible, of its inhuman treatment of minorities, of babies divided into ‘shredders’ and ‘keepers’, of segregation by a strict dress code and clothing.

Also read: A Splendid Revenge: A badass Bengali feminist from 116 years ago, and a land without women

In the years since the book was published, The Handmaid’s Tale has come to be considered as a seminal piece of feminist literature, a classic of dystopian fiction and landmark in SF (irrespective of whether that stands for science fiction or speculative fiction).

In the years since the book was published, The Handmaid’s Tale has come to be considered as a seminal piece of feminist literature, a classic of dystopian fiction and landmark in SF  

Atwood herself, however, doesn’t consider the Republic of Gilead a pure feminist dystopia, as not all men have better or more rights than women, and where women connected to people in power have more power and freedom than men in the lower ranks. Some have argued that Atwood subverts then-prevalent and typical notions of feminism in the book, especially drawing focus to the ‘women hating women’ strain of misogyny, while others have suggested that seen in the light of her other works, a case for the perils of ‘excessive feminism’ could be made.

But then, to turn to Atwood’s own opinion, the observations that inform The Handmaid’s Tale are feminist, but it’s not a book that’s supposed to convey ‘one message to one person’. But one thing all agree is that it is essential reading for feminists of all genders, and for anyone who believes that women’s rights are human rights.

Little wonder that the title of the book has become some kind of a shorthand against governments and regimes that are misogynistic and repressive of women. The book’s title itself, and phrases and quotes culled from it, are seen at women’s rights marches across the western world.

Signs of our times: Protest signs based on The Handmaid’s Tale at women’s marches in Canada and elsewhere. (Via the author’s Facebook page)

Today, The Handmaid’s Tale — along with 1984 — is back on the list of bestsellers in the US and elsewhere because of a renewed interest in dystopian literature — driven in no little part by a sense of unease about the future. While 1984 has gained currency for its depiction of a dystopian totalitarian surveillance state and its ideas of ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’, The Handmaid’s Tale is creating fresh buzz because of its upcoming adaptation as a TV series starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred and Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred.

Apart from shooting a cameo, Atwood serves as the consulting producer for the show, so we can expect the adaptation to be faithful, or at the very least, to the author’s satisfaction.

So now that we’ve had a glimpse into the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, what are the lessons we can take from it, so that it stays fiction? When asked if the novel is a prediction of times to come, Atwood replied that it is in fact anti-prediction, because she hopes that the Republic of Gilead won’t come to pass precisely because The Handmaid’s Tale was written.

Today, The Handmaid’s Tale — along with 1984 — is back on the list of bestsellers in the US and elsewhere because of a renewed interest in dystopian literature — driven in no little part by a sense of unease about the future  

Some of the lessons that seem most significant to me:

1. Never take rights for granted or think they are here for perpetuity — unthreatened and absolute. What’s there today could be gone tomorrow.
2. Never look at bad things happening elsewhere and think “it couldn’t happen here.”
3. Never be ignorant of what’s happening around you. Gather information, share. Read more.
4. Never flag in the fight for women’s rights and equality. Never stop resisting attempts to dilute them.

And most importantly, as the mock-Latin phrase from the book goes,

5. NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM. Never let the bastards grind you down.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what I learnt, in brief — just the top five, so to speak. Read The Handmaid’s Tale, draw your own lessons and share them with us all. And to make it a little easy for you to do so, dear reader, we’re giving away three (yes, three!) copies of The Handmaid’s Tale.

All you have to do is create a mock-Latin message or protest slogan of your own — along the lines of Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum — and tweet it to us (with its meaning in English). Just remember to hashtag it with #NWWonFD. You can submit your entries — yes, multiple entries are allowed — as a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook page by Thursday, April 20, 2017.

On that note, I bid you goodbye until next week. Let us all live long and prosper. Equally.

Lead image: Artwork from the upcoming graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale by the Canadian illustrator Renee Nault