"The Handmaid's Tale" Quotes

Key Passages from Margaret Atwood's Feminist Dystopian Novel

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood set in a feminist dystopian future in which 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 Red," 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.

"Blessed be the fruit," Atwood writes in Chapter Four, an indoctrination for the handmaidens who have to go through intense training for their servitude before being assigned to a master whose child she will bear.

Read on to discover more quotes from this famous 1986 novel and learn more about the not-too-distant-or-improbable future of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," which is now also a television series airing exclusively on Hulu.

Quotes About Hope In Dystopia

The character of 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; in Chapter 5, Atwood describes this condition of the handmaidens:

"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."

Of her daughter, Offred says, also in Chapter 5, "She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved." Here, the character reveals 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, and she admits in Chapter 7 that she's pretending the reader can hear her, "But it's no good, because I know you can't."

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 shared 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.

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 like one woman Offred describes in Chapter 8:

"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," and ultimately in Chapter 32, she realizes an important lesson when her master Red tells her, "Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse for some." 

Various Other Quotes

  • "I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely."—Chapter 12
  • "Give me 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
  • "Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman."—Chapter 22
  • "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 can 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
  • "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 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
  • 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
  • "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
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Lombardi, Esther. ""The Handmaid's Tale" Quotes." ThoughtCo, Jul. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-handmaids-tale-quotes-740006. Lombardi, Esther. (2017, July 19). "The Handmaid's Tale" Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-handmaids-tale-quotes-740006 Lombardi, Esther. ""The Handmaid's Tale" Quotes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-handmaids-tale-quotes-740006 (accessed January 22, 2018).