Important Quotes From 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Key Passages from Margaret Atwood's Feminist Dystopian Novel

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"The Handmaid's Tale" is a best-selling feminist novel by Margaret Atwood set in a dystopian future. In it, war and pollution have made pregnancy and childbirth increasingly difficult, and women are enslaved as prostitutes or "virginal" concubines ("handmaiden") in an effort to repopulate and control the population.

Atwood's beautiful, haunting prose in "The Handmaid's Tale" is told from the first-person perspective of a woman called Offred (or "Of Fred," her master). The story follows Offred through her third service as a handmaiden and also offers flashbacks to her life before the Revolution that led to this new American society founded on religious fanaticism.

Read on to discover quotes from "The Handmaid's Tale" and learn more about the not-too-distant-or-improbable future outlined in Margaret Atwood's famed novel.

Freedom and Hope

Offred carries with her a certain quiet optimism that her daughter—who was taken from her when she tried to flee to Canada with her husband at the start of the revolution—is still alive, though this hope is diminished by the harsh conditions she lives under as a handmaiden, as described in Chapter Five:

"There is more than one kind of freedom...Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

In Chapter Five, Offred also speaks of her daughter, saying, "She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved." Here, Offred reveals that her hope hinges upon the fact that her daughter has still not turned up on the wall where the ruling class hangs sinners near where Offred is held.

Still, this optimism and hope is nothing in the face of the reality Offred finds herself in, and she admits in Chapter Seven that she's pretending the reader can hear her, "But it's no good because I know you can't."

Other quotes also express the desire for freedom.

"Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman." (Chapter 22)

The Other Handmaidens

Offred seems to have contempt for her fellow handmaidens, perhaps for their complacency or their simplistic view of the world: "They are very interested in how other households are run; such bits of petty gossip give them an opportunity for pride or discontent."

Still, Offred shares similarities with all other handmaidens in that they "were the people who were not in the papers," the ones who "lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print," which Offred said gave them more freedom.

Brainwashing and Indoctrination

All of them also undergo an indoctrination, a brainwashing ritual at the Academy where they train to be handmaidens. In Chapter 13, Offred describes a scene where the handmaidens are all seated in a circle around a woman confessing to being raped—"Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison," Atwood writes.

The woman training them, Aunt Lydia, also encourages all the handmaidens that though the new concepts introduced in their schooling may seem strange at first, they will eventually become mundane, but if not, the handmaidens would be punished for stepping out of line. One such instance is described in Chapter Eight:

"She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she has been taken at her word." 

Offred feels a pressure to fulfill these new standards despite herself, and in Chapter 13 says of her shortcomings, "I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own."

In Chapter 30, Offred says of her oppressors, "That was one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself." Ultimately in Chapter 32, she realizes an important lesson when her master, Fred, tells her, "Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse for some." 

Control and Submission

As you might expect, control and submission are major themes in "The Handmaids Tale," as these quotes show.

"I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely." (Chapter 12)
"Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing." (Chapter 23)
"The trouble is I can't be, with him, any different than I usually am with him. Usually, I am inert. Surely there must be something for us, other than this futility and bathos." (Chapter 39)
"It makes me feel more in control as if there is a choice, a decision that could be made one way or the other." (Chapter 41)
"Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you've let me off, I'll obliterate myself, if that is what you really want; I'll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I'll give up Nick, I'll forget about the others, I'll stop complaining. I'll accept my lot. I'll sacrifice. I'll repent. I'll abdicate. I'll renounce." (Chapter 45)
"Don't let the bastards grind you down. I repeat this to myself but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don't let there be air; or Don't be. I suppose you could say that." (Chapter 46)

Other Notable Quotes

Other quotes cover a range of topics, from childbearing to bodily functions.

"Give come children, or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear fruit upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." (Chapter 15)
"There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently." (Chapter 25)
"Agreed to it right away, really she didn't care, anything with two legs and a good you-know-what was fine with her. They aren't squeamish, they don't have the same feelings we do." (Chapter 33)
"And Adam was not deceived, but the women being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing." (Chapter 34)
"There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say." (Chapter 39)
The crimes of others are a secret language among us. Through them, we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all. This is not a popular announcement." (Chapter 42)
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Lombardi, Esther. "Important Quotes From 'The Handmaid's Tale'." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Lombardi, Esther. (2021, July 29). Important Quotes From 'The Handmaid's Tale'. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "Important Quotes From 'The Handmaid's Tale'." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).