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Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down: What This Phrase Means in Margaret Atwood's Novel The Handmaid's Tale

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“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…Don’t Let the bastards get you down” (Handmaid’s Tale 186-187). This Latin phrase is cherished by main character Offred throughout Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Before discovering the meaning of the phrase, Offred becomes fond of the carving on the floor of it in her bedroom closet because it is one of the few things she able to read since Women are banned from reading. Furthermore, seeing the carving connects her to the previous Handmaid of her household who she often wonders about. After discovering from the Commander its meaning, the phrase becomes a symbol for her resistance to the Republic of Gilead. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” being an appropriate response to a patriarchal society, has also become a symbol to resistance for many women in real life. While writing her 1985 novel, Margaret Atwood based much of the society Offred lives in on real events that had happen or was happening during the time she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the obstacles and injustices Atwood based her fictitious place on are still happening today, hence why many people still identify with the Latin phrase. Women and even men both still face sexual repression. Many women are still denied the medical things that they need. People of the LGBTQ+ community still face persecution, and in some cases, they still face imprisonment or even execution. Additionally, many people still maintain the ideologies that create the Republic of Gilead, located in the United States, in Offred’s reality. Though much progress has been made throughout history, there are many people who still face the injustices explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, and many people often feel regression has happen throughout the word. Because of the repression of sexuality and other sexual mannerism happening throughout the world in the year 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale remains relevant and parallels true evens happening.

Many people may believe people of the modern world could ever agree with the ideology that started the Republic of Gilead, yet there are numerous. Some people believe that the use of birth control and the birth rate lowering is negatively affected society. For example, Jennifer Lahl’s wrote in her article “Surrogacy, the Handmaid’s Tale, and Reproductive Ethics: Egg Donation, Sperm Donation and Surrogacy” about how the trends of birth control, same sex parenting, surrogacy and more have created “problems” in the modern world. Lahl writes, “The overriding theme of the last 5 decades has been a deconstruction of bodily reproduction, which started with the advent of the birth control pill, designed to allow for sex without procreation. Reproductive technology then sought the next logical step: procreation without sex” (242). There are numerous people with these kinds of attitudes towards progressive inventions that help many people, such as surrogacy and birth control. Additionally, there are communities where women are like second-class citizen. In Natasha Purkins’ article on the life of three women in cults or communities where they are extremely repressed, she says, “Hannah Ettinger is the eldest of nine and was expected to help her mother raise her siblings, cook and clean, from a young age, while her father went out to bring home the bacon. Her duty as stated by the Quiverfull community that she was born into, was to provide her husband with children.” These communities, among others, still believe that women are “baby-making machines,” which parallels to the beliefs of the Republic of Gilead. Purkins also reveals that the women in the Quiverfull community are not allowed to leave their homes without permission form their husbands. In the Handmaid’s Tale, women are only allowed to leave their homes under certain circumstances, and they are only allowed to go to certain places.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Offred describes executions of different individuals that she can see on the Wall while walking home from fulfilling her duty of fetching groceries. These dead, hung as a warning for the citizen of Gilead, have symbols around them that explain their crime. One of these crimes that Offred notes is for homosexuality. Offred explains while looking at dead bodies on the Wall, “The two others have purple placards hung around their necks: Gender Treachery. Their bodies still wear the Guardian uniforms. Caught together, they must have been…” (Handmaid’s Tale 43) To many, this punishment of death for homosexuality seems outrageous, but there are many countries that currently still criminalize homosexuality and some punishable by death. As of July of 2017, there are 72 countries where homosexual relationships are outlawed, eight of which homosexuality is punishable by death. Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are included in these eight countries (Duncan). Throughout the world, people in same-sex relationships are still persecuted and sometimes punished.

In the Republic of Gilead, abortion would never be an option for a woman of any social status. All women are forced to reproduced, if fertile. If a man is married to an infertile woman, then they are assigned a Handmaid, who is ritually raped in order to reproduce. If will a Handmaid is unable to produce a healthy child, then she punished by being sent to the Colonies, where she will face a slow and painful death. All babies are carried to term no matter what, and babies born in Gilead are either considered Keepers, healthy babies, or Unbabies/Shredders, babies with something wrong with them. Yet, any use of technologies to discover the condition of any babies while in the womb are no illegal. Throughout the world, there are numerous countries where abortion is outright illegal, and there are many where safe and legal abortions can be hard to come by, including in the United States. The U.S. is one of sixty countries where abortion is legal without restriction to reason, but most states have gestational limits, varying from 20 to 24 weeks (Mackintosh). According to Marge Berer, abortion was illegal in most countries by the end of the nineteenth century (14). Additionally, Berer explains:

At the end of the twentieth century, abortion was legally permitted to save the life of the woman in 98% of the world’s countries. The proportion of countries allowing abortion on other grounds was as follows: to preserve the woman’s physical health (63%); to preserve the woman’s mental health (62%); in case of rape, sexual abuse, or incest (43%); fetal anomaly or impairment (39%); economic or social reasons (33%); and on request (27%) (17).

Even though there has been this change through out the years, there are still millions of women being forced to go through pregnancy and give birth when they do not want to, and there are many who are forced to go through a risky pregnancy instead of receiving a safe abortion.

In preparation for the relation on the Hulu adaptation released in early 2017, Margaret Atwood wrote an article for the New York Times called “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.” Atwood writes about the legacy of her book amongst other areas. Reflecting on the essay, Yohana Desta says in the opening of a Vanity Fair article, “Margaret Atwood is trying to send humanity a warning.” Since she is still greatly involved with her novel, Atwood herself has reflected on the fact the injustices she saw are still happening today. There are many people who face sexual repression and repression in other areas, making The Handmaid’s Tale still an extremely relative novel and topic. Readers of the novel should reflect on what they read and the parallels happening in their own realities. Additionally, these readers should also act against the repressions and injustices they or others are facing, or the Republic of Gilead may be closer than many people would think.

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Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down: What This Phrase Means In Margaret Atwood’s Novel The Handmaid’s Tale. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from
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Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down: What This Phrase Means In Margaret Atwood’s Novel The Handmaid’s Tale. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Jun. 2022].
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