What Does "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" Mean? The Latin Phrase In 'Handmaid's Tale' Is Good To Remember
There's not much hope in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred knows that she just has to learn how to survive to get through what is happening to her and the other Handmaids, and a message left in her room inspires her. What does nolite te bastardes carborundorum mean in The Handmaid’s Tale?
Offred doesn’t have much to do when she’s not with the Commander or doing the daily shopping, especially when she gets locked in her room for weeks for failing to get pregnant. So she’s analyzed every detail of her sparse, tiny bedroom. She looks at the embroidery of her pillow, her bedspread, the curtains, the windows, etc. She eventually notices a Latin phrase subtly scratched near the floor. It says nolite te bastardes carborundorum, and since Offred doesn’t speak Latin, she doesn’t know what it says. Later Offred, bolstered by her nightly Scrabble interactions with the Commander, gets the courage up to ask him if he can translate it for her, and he does. He laughs first, because it’s sort of a bastardized version of a phrase, but it translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
For the Commander, he thinks that this is just a funny turn of phrase or a joke, but for Offred, it means more. It’s a demand that she keep pressing on, especially since things aren’t going that well for her right now. She hasn’t gotten pregnant by the Commander yet, and Handmaids who don’t get pregnant quickly are usually passed to the next man or sent to the Colonies to clean up putrid, toxic sludge until they die from nuclear exposure. Offred’s best pal Ofglen (aka Emily) is taken away because she had a forbidden romantic relationship with one of the Marthas (the maids of Gilead). Ofglen, a Handmaid and still valuable, is forcibly circumcised, while her lover is hanged from a crane. Offred is also questioned by the Eyes — they want to know what she knew about Ofglen, and Aunt Lydia shocks her with a cattle prod and beats her to confess. So yeah, Offred and the other Handmaid's lives aren't exactly rainbows and unicorns right now.
And still, she has to press on. As Offred says in her voiceover, she intends to survive, and she intends to do whatever she can to come out of the other side of this totalitarian structure of Gilead. Offred once told Oflgen that she wasn’t really a fighter, didn’t know what she could do in terms of the resistance, and Ofglen said that no one knows until they actually have to do it. This Latin phrase could be the thing that keeps Offred moving — she didn’t know what she had in her until now, and she will not let these bastards grind her down.