Nolite te bastardes carborondurum: A Maternal Reading of The Handmaid’s Tale


In anticipation of the forthcoming Hulu dramatization, I reread Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian, feminist text, The Handmaid’s Tale.  Well, only sort of. I have a lot less time and a lot more toddler in my life than I did when I first read the book twelve years ago.  This time, I listened to the unabridged audiobook. It is, as it ever was, a sobering, frightening read.  More so in a post-Trump world, where a totalitarian regime that annexes the bodies and identities of women seems more plausible with each 140-character missive sent by the Leader of the Free World.

For those who haven’t read the book, a summary: the story is set in the Republic of Gilead, a reshaped version of America, run completely by Christian fundamentalists who have, amongst other things and sins, separated women into different classes, depending on their age, proximity to power, and ability to bear children in a world awash with and plagued by infertility.  Our not-entirely-reliable narrator is a handmaid, Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’ – the name of the man to whom she has been ‘assigned’). In Gilead, Offred and others like her become the property of high-ranking leaders of the regime, assigned to their homes with the sole purpose of bearing children that these leaders and their wives will raise as their own.  It’s as grim as it sounds, and Offred describes a world devoid of colour, and texture, replete with brutalities, both small and fatal.

Offred spends much of the story in various states of resignation and catatonia: she’s living in a nightmare, but there’s nothing to be done except to keep putting one foot in front of another. [Spoiler alert.] She eventually wakes up, and when she does, the story comes to an abrupt end. When I first read the book, I was furious at this sudden end. Instead of a cathartic, final good-versus-evil battle, there was a closing, and an abrupt shift from Offred’s voice to another voice, from a decidedly happier future further down the line. Without any sense of whether or not Offred was able to enjoy any hints of this future, readers (and listeners) are left empty-handed, to contemplate whether or not our heroine was able to follow the advice she found carved into the floors of her room: Nolite te bastardes carborondorumDon’t let the bastards grind you down.

In my first reading of Offred’s story, and the story of Gilead, I thought I understood these words.  Nolite te bastardes carborondorum. A rallying cry, a call to battle, left in the story for one handmaid from another, and handed, through Offred, to those of us who fight against the patriarchy in all its forms.  And so it was baffling to me that Atwood would leave such a story unfinished, without obvious indication of whether or not the bastards did, in fact, finally grind Offred down.  Furthermore, the ending leaves you wondering who exactly the bastards were. It wasn’t entirely clear that all of the evils that befell Offred and the citizens of Gilead were delivered by a single, clear set of villains. Frustrating, to say the least.

Reading – or, rather, listening – from this new season in which most of my time and identity is devoted to the act of mothering a small child, was illuminating.  When I first read the book, I was in the early throes of my tempestuous, complicated relationship with feminism, and I wasn’t sure at all how I felt about motherhood.  I knew for sure that I did not wish to be reduced to my ability (or lack thereof) to reproduce, and I most certainly was not ready to make any choices of any permanence beyond how I wanted to wear my hair for the next few months.  I’m older, and thanks to motherhood, I have lost both time and hair.  And I’ve gained an entirely new world, all colour, all texture, with very few words, all of which makes for an incredible and almost indescribable experience.  As I navigate motherhood, I find I feel more than I ever have, in both good and bad ways. I write less, which means I have less opportunity to weave together the many strands of this experience. I am more open and vulnerable. I’ve lost some friendships and gained some more. I cry more. I also dance more. And I know more about dinosaurs than an entry-level palaeontologist.  It’s quite the ride.

One of the many, many gifts my son has given me is the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the ideas I was only just being introduced to all those many years ago when I came across The Handmaid’s Tale.   The other night, I was at the tail end of an exhausting day of parenting a sick toddler, who refused to give in to my repeated pleas to submit to my will and just let me clip his nails.  He fought and fought hard. And here I was faced with one of those teachable moments parenting presents one with: I could grab his hands, push through the inevitable screaming and fighting, and clip those nails. Make him submit to my will. Or I could try something else. So, I turned it into a game. One fingernail clipped, and one celebratory splash of water. On you or on mama. It didn’t work, of course, and in the end, we had to bring out the big guns: YouTube videos of dinosaurs.  Ultimately, the nails were clipped, dinosaurs were enjoyed, there were no tears (not then, anyway).  Parenting offers you those choices. You can insist on your way, the more straightforward efficient way or you can follow your toddler through the long and winding route, peppered as it is, with dinosaur videos and splashes of water. And you can probably get your way: you’re the parent, after all. But your way comes with tears and sacrifice. Sometimes, your way has to be the way. My son would leap towards regular emergency room visits otherwise. But, other times, the child’s way is harder (for you), softer (for them), and makes you both happy.  The key is to remain awake enough to make this choice, between these paths.

What does all this have to do with the sorry tale of Gilead? Nolite te bastardes carborondorum.  I see in this, now, a warning. It’s not a battle cry after all, but a word to the wise. In those moments that matter most – after Trump’s inauguration, say – we stand together, united against the very clear bastards. But the true message in Atwood’s book is that we ought to be most afraid the bastards that lie in those moments inbetween. When it’s easier to, like Offred, turn our heads, and go back to sleep. Those are the moments in which you need to stand your ground and make the hard choices.  The constant consciousness that parenting has given me, so that my every move, even those that seem to be about nothing at all – dead fingernail clippings – bear the weight of my son’s future and his relationship to the world, is the consciousness I believe Atwood wants us to carry from the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale into our resistance of the patriarchy.  Offred’s narrative is peppered with flashbacks in which she remembers all of the small infarctions, or, micro-aggressions, that she and others ignored and let slide. All the while, they slid into Gilead and into a hellish future.  Their freedoms were eroded – ground down – to nothing.

This is not to say only parents carry this consciousness. It is just to say that parenthood has brought me closer to my own particular consciousness. And that has been its greatest gift.  Offred spends a lot of time lamenting her lack of courage and political conviction. She constantly compares herself to her friend Moira, who rails violently against and resists the structures of Gilead, with some success.  But I see myself in Offred: I have chosen a well-trodden path, one that involves many of the sacrifices those who’ve gone before me fought to avoid. And yet I feel that without motherhood, without this consciousness, and this world of colour and texture, I couldn’t be awake enough, conscious enough of the infarctions that pave the road to Gilead.

When Offred eventually wakes up in Gilead, we don’t know what her fate is. But [spoiler alert] the book ends with notes from a fictional symposium on Gileadan studies that reveals that the bastards did not, in fact, win. Gilead is of the past, and we know that Offred’s waking up had some hand in that.

Nolite te bastardes carborondorum. 

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