The Handmaid’s Tale

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Rebellion Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Rebellion Theme Icon

Every major character in the story engages in some kind of disobedience against Gilead’s laws. Moira rebels most boldly, disguising herself and managing to escape from the Handmaids’ imprisonment, though her daring escape proves futile, and she ends up at Jezebel’s, resigned to her fate. Ofglen’s rebellion is more community-minded, since she works as part of an organized resistance, although her careful plotting also ends badly. More unexpected are the small-scale rebellions from the Commander and the Commander’s Wife.

The Commander seems to have every advantage, being a man, powerful in the new regime, and wealthy. Gilead should be his ideal society, especially since the book suggests that he had a role in designing it. Yet he desires a deeper emotional connection, and cares enough about Offred’s well-being to break the law and consort with her beyond his duties. The Commander’s Wife also tries to get around the strictures of Gilead, setting Offred up with Nick in an illegal attempt to make a family.

These rebellious acts, coming from Gilead’s privileged group, add complexity to their characters and to the dystopia as a whole. No one in the book is purely evil, and no one is so different from real-world humans to fully embrace the lack of independence in Gilead. Whether large or small, attempting to destroy the Gileadean government or merely to make one’s personal circumstances more tolerable, each character commits rebellious acts, highlighting both the unlivable horror of Gileadean society, and the unsteadiness of its foundations.

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Rebellion Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale related to the theme of Rebellion.
Chapter 1 Quotes

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Red
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel opens with Offred recalling the time she spent inside a building that was formerly used as a school, which the reader later learns is the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center, or the "Red Center." Offred has described the gymnasium, imagining the activities that took place there before the school was turned into the Red Center––activities that invoke the lively, happy, and carefree mood of youth. She says that the atmosphere now is one of "yearning," although it's not clear what for.

This abstract longing is explained by the fact that people of Offred's age and older were alive before the United States became the Republic of Gilead, and thus remember what the world was like before; however, their memories are vague, and their nostalgia for the past turns into a desire for an unknown future. The word "insatiability"––meaning a hunger or desire that cannot be satisfied––indicates the shame associated with desire in the world of the novel. Indeed, "insatiable" is often used in a sexual context, and Offred's words thus evoke disgust and condemnation of women's sexuality––a phenomenon that exists in our modern world, yet is vastly exaggerated in Gilead. In this context, the women's "insatiable" desire is simply for a world in which they are free and equal.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Eye
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Having recalled the time she spent sleeping in the gymnasium of the Red Center, Offred has moved on to describe a second room, which we later learn is her bedroom in the Commander's house. She has detailed the sparse furnishings and the plastered-over light socket in the ceiling, which reminds her of an eye socket. Offred notes that the rug looks like "folk art," reflective of a cultural preference for artifacts that are handmade by women. She observes that this reflects "a return to traditional values" and the principle "waste not want not." Offred's statement that she is not being wasted highlights the way in which women are used like tools or instruments in Gilead, treated as objects with no value beyond their designated function, which, for Offred, is her fertility. 

Once again, Offred invokes the moral disdain for desire, and particularly desire felt by women. She expresses the view that because she is "not being wasted," it is strange or illogical that she should "want." This reveals that Offred has internalized the idea that women are more like objects than people, and that it is abnormal or morally wrong for women to experience the most basic human emotions, including desire. Her use of a well-known saying highlights how deeply embedded this idea is within the culture of Gilead. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Nolite te bastardes carborandorum.

Related Characters: The Previous Handmaid (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has returned to the memory of looking around the bedroom when she first arrived at the Commander's house. She recalls looking inside a cupboard, and describes seeing hooks and wondering why no one has removed them. In the darkest corner of the cupboard, someone has scratched the phrase "Nolite te bastardes carborandorum," Latin for "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Offred suspects the words are written in Latin, but as she doesn't know the language she cannot confirm if this is true, or figure out what they mean. However, the message pleases her, if only because it is a secret piece of communication that has not been discovered or erased. 

Later in the novel, we find out that the words were written by the previous Handmaid, who hanged herself. At first this fact seems incredibly bleak, as it suggests the previous Handmaid was not able to follow her own advice, and could not bear to live imprisoned in the Commander's house. On the other hand, there is also a note of hope within the secret message. Perhaps the previous Handmaid committed suicide not as a way of giving up, but as a final act of defiance against the "bastards" who attempted to control her. Meanwhile, her words give courage to Offred even though Offred can't understand them, showing the power of hope and solidarity. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has gone to the doctor for her monthly checkup, and the doctor has offered to have sex with her in order to help her get pregnant, an illegal offence for which they could both be killed. Although Offred refuses, she is left terrified by the incident––not because she has done anything wrong, but because she is frightened by "the choice" presented before her. This passage shows that in the tightly controlled world of Gilead, Offred has begun to lose faith in herself. After all, before she became a Handmaid, Offred attempted to escape from Gilead with her daughter and Luke, an act requiring enormous courage. However, in her present isolated condition, Offred is much more timid and passive, implying that resistance only becomes possible through solidarity and love. 

At the same time, Offred's fear also emphasizes just how precarious and impossible a situation she is in. She reassures herself that "all is safe," however in reality she is not safe, no matter how submissively she obeys the rules. In fact, if she is not eventually able to get pregnant, she will be exiled or put to death anyway, an outcome that would actually mean it would have been safer to have had forbidden sex with the doctor. Given these unknowable factors, it is hardly surprising that Offred is so overwhelmed and terrified by the decision of whether or not to sleep with him.

Chapter 19 Quotes

A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get.

Related Characters: Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has been taken to Janine's house, where Janine is giving birth. As they wait to find out if the baby is healthy, Offred experiences a flashback to the Red Center, where Aunt Lydia taught her and the other Handmaids about the causes of infertility, including the history of sexual contraception. Offred resentfully recalls Aunt Lydia's statement that "a thing is valued... only if it is rare and hard to get." Aunt Lydia is referring to women's sexual availability, and once again, it is clear that in Gilead women are considered to be no more than "things." Aunt Lydia's concern over value is similarly degrading, by implying that women are not just objects but commodities whose value is conditional, rather than inherent. 

Although Aunt Lydia's words seem strikingly harsh in the context of the novel, in reality she echoes much of the kind of language used to promote abstinence among unmarried young people in the real world. Even at the most basic level, many young women are encouraged to play "hard to get" or otherwise not agree to sex too early or enthusiastically. By drawing this parallel with our contemporary world, Atwood once again emphasizes that the contemporary U.S. may not be as far from Gilead as we think. 

Chapter 46 Quotes

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Eye
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

The Eye van has arrived at the Commander's house to take Offred away, and Offred is terrified, wishing that she had killed herself while she had the chance. However, Nick has told her that the people in the van are actually members of the Resistance posing as Eyes; this is somewhat supported by the fact that they refuse to tell the Commander and Serena Joy why they are arresting Offred (although this is not conclusive). The final sentence of Offred's narrative describes her getting in the van, unsure if she is stepping into darkness or light. "Darkness" in this passage symbolizes suffering, death, and the meaninglessness of Offred's life if she is indeed killed by the state. "Light" is hope, morality, and the possibility of escape from Gilead, or even the end of the regime altogether.

This final sentence leaves the reader unsure of Offred's fate; given everything else that has happened in the novel, it seems almost equally likely that Offred will die or be saved. This ambiguity is connected to the novel's ambivalent presentation of human nature. Every major character in the narrative has the capacity to act in a cruel and selfish way, while also possessing at least some redeeming features. Offred's unknown destiny thus emphasizes the fact that people's behavior is difficult to predict, and the fate of the world is thus equally hard to determine.