“Blessed Be The Fruit”: Handmaid’s Tale Sayings & Quotes — And What They All Mean
Understand the meaning behind sayings from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale — published in 1986, and its sequel The Testaments, published over 30 years later — have won numerous awards. The first was a groundbreaking novel that painted a dystopian world, alarmingly seeming to be just a few chilling steps from our current reality. But The Handmaid’s Tale sayings might not be so familiar.
From Gilead, to biblical ties, slave labour, and a society gone off the rails, Atwood has created a world that is truly frightening.
And in 2017, Hulu adapted the novel into a series, which has become a respected adaptation of the novel.
Over multiple seasons, viewers have experienced the horrors of a totalitarian society as seen through the eyes of June, a handmaid (played by Elizabeth Moss). Though the series spirals off in directions not included in the classic novel, author Margaret Atwood did work closely with creator Bruce Miller to produce a series that would be binge-watched both by hardcore Atwood fans as well as those who had never even heard of the novel.
It is especially the latter that might have trouble keeping all the terminology straight. The Handmaid’s Tale sayings can be confusing, but they are nearly always heavy in meaning. In order to experience the full power of Atwood’s scathing indictment of an ultra-conservative society gone wrong, you need a crash course in Handmaid language.
What is a handmaid?
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First off, handmaids are fertile women who are to serve the newly founded nation of Gilead by bearing healthy babies in an otherwise dwindling and increasingly infertile population. They’re also women who did “questionable” things, according to Gilead’s ultra-conservative ethics code: get divorced, be in a relationship with someone who had previously been divorced, be in a same-sex relationship (see Gender Traitor), have an abortion, etc.
In the new republic, they are seen as property, as reflected in their names. Upon assignment as a handmaid, they are no longer called by their first names but rather by the prefix “of” and their new commander’s first name. June, for example, becomes Offred when she is assigned as Fred’s handmaid. Handmaids are assigned to infertile couples.
Marthas, Aunts, Eyes, Wives? Understanding Key Roles in The Handmaid’s Tale
Imagine a world where pollution and nuclear destruction have left many women infertile. An underground movement by the name of “Sons of Jacob” is stirring. They believe that reverting to traditional values will recast the human race in God’s favor and fix all their problems. They devise a coup to overthrow the United States Government and create Gilead.
The name Gilead, like many terms and sayings in The Handmaid’s Tale, is a biblical reference. In the Bible, Gilead is a fertile, plentiful region in Palestine. The Sons of Jacob (also a biblical reference to the 12 sons of Jacob who would lead the 12 tribes of Israel) want to create a utopian country free of the pollution and toxins that have ruined the rest of the world.
The leaders of the Sons of Jacob are called Commanders. After their successful coup, they are now the leading political party in Gilead (the former United States). They are the ones who devised the new social and economic structures in Gilead. They hold immense power.
Wives and Econowives
Wives are the straightforward appellation of Commanders’ wives. If these women are unable to bear children, their household is assigned a handmaid. The reference here is to the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel. Rachel was unable to bear children, so she tells her husband to impregnate her handmaid Bilhah.
Genesis 30:1-3, the King James Version, reads, “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”
Those who have seen the show will immediately think of “The Ceremony”, that awkward monthly event where a Commander tries to impregnate his handmaid, who is lying on his wife’s lap.
In the Bible story, Bilhah bears two sons, but it is Rachel who names them and takes them as her own.
Econowives are women married to men who rank lower than Commanders, such as Guardians (Gilead’s police force).
Marthas are infertile women who serve as maids. The biblical reference here is to Mary’s sister Martha who, when Jesus came to their house, was more interested in serving him food than in listening to his teachings. In the television series, the Martha viewers get to know the best is played by Amanda Brugel.
Aunts train and discipline the handmaids and oversee births. They are infertile or older women. They are also the only women in Gilead allowed to read or write. The most famous one, of course, is Aunt Lydia.
The Rachel and Leah Center, also known as the Red Center, is where handmaids are trained. This is, again, a reference to Jacob’s two wives, Rachel and Leah. Leah was able to have children, but Rachel was not.
One of the most disturbing events in The Handmaid’s Tale is the brutal execution called “particicution” — a portmanteau from the words “participation’ and “execution.” These cruel particicutions are when handmaids are given free rein to carry out a death sentence on an unruly handmaid, for example, by stoning or mass beating.
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The Eyes are spies and enforcers who seem to know everything that’s happening in Gilead. They’re rarely seen, except when they drive around in their ominous black cars. The Eyes are the secret police who detect rebellious activity and make sure it’s punished.
“Under His eye” is a phrase you’ll often hear in The Handmaid’s Tale. Used in place of goodbye, its most positive allusion is to the fact that God is watching, while its more ominous allusion is to the fact that the Eyes are watching.
Unwomen and Gender Traitors
Unwomen are those who are old, sick, or who have committed a crime, such as engaging in same-sex activity. These last ones are also known as Gender Traitors. Unwomen are sent to work in the polluted, toxic Colonies—the badlands of Gilead. There, with the exposure to toxins and hard labor, as well as lack of medical care, they will die.
What does “blessed be the fruit” mean? Understanding Key Phrases and Greetings in The Handmaid’s Tale
If you read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re going to see or hear a lot of the word ‘blessed’. From blessed day to blessed evening, all residents of Gilead are taught to recognize the hand of God in everything. The founders of Gilead believed that they would indeed be infinitely blessed thanks to their return to traditional values. Here are some more of The Handmaid’s Tale sayings and their meanings.
Praise be: This is what to say when you’re thankful for something, be it the rain or the birth of a child.
Blessed be the fruit: This greeting comes from the phrase “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb” from the book of Luke in the New Testament. It is meant to stress what is most important in Gilead society and to encourage fertility. Its rejoinder, ‘May the Lord open’, is in support of fertility.
We’ve been sent good weather: The epitome of small talk, this phrase is simply meant to underline the banal existence of a handmaid. Handmaids have one purpose only in Gilead, and it is not to have original ideas or controversial conversations.
Inspiring Quotes From The Handmaid’s Tale
There are so many great, power-to-the-women one-liners from both the book and the show. You’re just going to have to read it and watch it and keep a list of your own! Here are some favorites:
“It’s their own fault. They should’ve never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“Now, I’m awake to the world.”
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”
“I am not your justification for existence.”
“Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.”
Now that you’re well versed in The Handmaid’s Tale sayings, go watch the show or read the book! And stay tuned for a spin-off based on The Testaments!
Atwood is known for saying that there is no event in any of her books that does not have a precedent in human history. So expect more chilling and close-to-home moments to come.
17 Margaret Atwood Quotes to Inspire the Writer in You