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8 Margaret Atwood Quotes for When the Bastards Grind You Down

The accomplished author reflects on dystopia, gender, and the eternal possibility of giraffes.


Now that The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 has premiered on Hulu, we've got Margaret Atwood on the brain. The prolific Canadian author—who identifies as a writer of speculative fiction, rather than sci-fi—excites and often scares us with her dystopian worlds, some of which feel eerily prophetic. Here are eight Atwood quotes that inspire and move us. 

“If I waited for perfection … I would never write a word.”    

The International Business Times included this on a list of “15 Quotes About Writing A Book from Famous Authors To Inspire You” during National Novel Writing Month November 2016. Some other quotes on the list: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” from Toni Morrison, and “Go spit in the face of our inevitable obsolescence and finish your @#$%ng novel,” from John Green. See the full list here.   

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“After everything that's happened, how can the world still be so beautiful? Because it is.” —Oryx and Crake 

Margaret Atwood quotes The Year of the Flood
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  • Margaret Atwood at Canada's Word in the Street festival to promote her 2009 book The Year of the Flood.

    Photo Credit: Peter Pelisek/Flickr (CC)

This quote comes from Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, the first book in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world. It refers to the tenderness that the character Snowman feels for the natural world, even after the apocalypse.  

The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2003. Oryx and Crake was followed by The Year of the Flood in 2009, and MaddAddam in 2013.   

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“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance: you have to work at it.” —The Handmaid's Tale    

Margaret Atwood quotes The Handmaid's Tale Offred
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  • Elisabeth Moss as Offred in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.

    Photo Credit: Hulu

The passivity of “ignorance” versus the activity of “ignoring” is highlighted in this passage from The Handmaid’s Tale. Protagonist Offred reflects that the women living in the dystopian Republic of Gilead choose to ignore the reality of their miserable lives. They choose passivity, they choose not to rebel, rather than to risk what might happen if they fought against their circumstances.   

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“When things are really dismal, you can laugh, or you can cave in completely.”

This is from a question and answer with Atwood in the hardcover edition of Oryx and Crake. Atwood is asked about the “wordplays” and “moments of deadpan humor” in her otherwise very serious novel. The above quote is part of her answer; read her full response here.

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“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”  

Margaret Atwood quotes The Handmaid's Tale
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  • Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in The Handmaid's Tale.

    Photo Credit: Hulu

This Handmaid quote seems like it could be the premise of the book—as well as the root cause of many issues relating to gender today. It's a depressing fact, to be sure, but we're grateful that Atwood's literary masterpieces continue to speak this truth, and show women persevering in the face of overwhelming danger. 

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“A word after a word after a word is power.”

This comes from a verse in Atwood’s poem, “Spelling,” in which she reflects on the difficulties women have historically experienced in reconciling the relationship between “mother” and “writer.” The poem then moves on to discuss how women have had their childbearing rights denied, controlled, and otherwise manipulated throughout history. Read the full poem here .     

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“[Humans] have hope built in. If our ancestors had not had that component, they would not have bothered getting up in the morning. You are always going to have hope that today there will be a giraffe, where yesterday there wasn’t one.”

Atwood made this observation during a discussion with The New Yorker. She was addressing her decision to contribute her manuscript Scribbler Moon to the Future Library, a Norwegian project compiling a sort of literary time capsule—the books involved in the project won't be read until 2114. Asked about the apparent paradox of writing speculative fiction about imminent apocalypse, while at the same time contributing to a project based on the assumption that our species will be extant—and reading!—in 2114, Atwood said she believes hope is an essential part of life. That belief is reflected in even the bleakest of her dystopian novels. 

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” —The Handmaid’s Tale 

Margaret Atwood quotes The Handmaid's Tale
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  • Samira Wiley as Moira in The Handmaid's Tale.

    Photo Credit: Hulu

This is quintessential Atwood, a jokey yet utterly profound–given the context–Latin phrase that translates as ''don't let the bastards grind you down." Protagonist Offred finds the phrase carved into the floor of her closet, presumably by the woman who lived there before she did. The Commander translates it for Offred during one of their illicit meetings.       

Featured photo via Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com; body images of Atwood via Peter Pelisk / Flickr (CC)

This article was originally published on April 25, 2017.