‘The Testaments’: Margaret Atwood’s Sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Brings Gilead to Our Times
In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood published a novel that arguably set the benchmark for feminist fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale. Written in the decade following Roe v. Wade just as women began establishing themselves in the workplace, the book served as a warning about the fragility of progress, reminding that while we’d taken two steps forward, there was always a very real possibility that we could be dragged twenty steps back. Newton’s Third Law—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Now in the age of Trump—when women’s rights are under attack by the pussy-grabber-in-chief and his reactionary cohorts—the novel has spawned a television series that has become a massive hit. Even more recently, Atwood has provided a sequel.
In The Testaments, we see the religiously oppressive realm of Gilead some ten years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, when its society has become more established. The dystopia has reared the first generation of native-born daughters since its inception, and we’re given a glimpse into what it is like to be raised under such circumstances.
…The Testaments takes the story of its predecessor and shapes it to our current predicament.
I’m going to avoid digging too deeply into the plot lest I spoil its surprises, but I would like to spoon out a few examples of how The Testaments takes the story of its predecessor and shapes it to our current predicament.
The Handmaid’s Tale was released during a time when the grasp of Gilead’s misogynic repression was tenuous—The Testaments comes to us when the regime is in full swing.
The most glaring parallel between The Testaments and today involves the treatment of women.
In Atwood’s Gilead, women have been firmly demoted to second class citizens. They aren’t allowed to control money, they possess no agency, and in the cases of the Handmaids, they are raped and used for little more than baby-incubators. The punishment for a woman’s transgression ranges from solitary confinement to forced amputation to death.
While we certainly haven’t spiraled that low, it’s not for lack of trying.
Trump has appointed two Supreme Court justices who seek to repeal Roe v. Wade, and many states have enacted laws that essentially ban abortion and end protections for clinics that provide a range of essential healthcare services to women. In Texas, lawmakers attempted (and, thankfully, failed) to pass a law that would have made it possible for women and doctors to receive the death penalty in cases of abortion. Meanwhile, Georgia’s HB 481 not only effectively bans abortion within the state, but punishes women for seeking an abortion elsewhere (up to 10 years for “conspiracy to commit murder”). Under this law you can be punished for merely driving a woman over the border for an abortion, because then you’re in on the conspiracy too. Woman who oppose these new polices say they place ownership of their bodies in the hands of the state.
Men of their ilk watch The Handmaid’s Tale (because you know they most certainly wouldn’t read the book) and become puzzled by its grim tone.
At the same time, the administration has successfully rolled back a wide-range of anti-discrimination regulations that were implemented to protect women and other historically vulnerable groups. This has made it easier for women to be fired, restricts women’s access to ownership opportunities, allows healthcare providers to deny women medical treatment on “moral” grounds, and blocks women’s access to information about reproductive healthcare options.
And let’s not forget the general undercurrent of misogynistic rhetoric that runs through the administration. Trump’s abhorrent comments toward women are so well-publicized that there’s no point in repeating them here. And Mike Pence—a fundamentalist zealot who foams at the mouth and begins speaking in tongues every time he passes by a Planned Parenthood—won’t even share a meal with a women unless his wife (who he creepily calls “Mother”) is there to supervise.
Men of their ilk watch The Handmaid’s Tale (because you know they most certainly wouldn’t read the book) and become puzzled by its grim tone. For them, Gilead is desirable, not dystopian.
Climate Change Denial
In The Handmaid’s Tale it was made clear that some kind of environmental disaster had occurred, and by the time the events of The Testaments roll around, things haven’t gotten any better.
One character describes “the floods, the fires, the tornadoes, the hurricanes, the droughts, the water shortages” and so forth that have stricken the land. “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you,” she concludes.
Then we’re shown an anti-Gilead protest in Canada where one sign reads “GILEAD, CLIMATE SCIENCE DE-LIAR! GILEAD WANTS US TO FRY!”
This is in addition to a range of anti-intellectual, anti-science stances that correspond to our own administration. In Gilead, it is common knowledge that women possess inferior brains. Books and media are at best censored, and at worst banned and destroyed. And any news that doesn’t agree with the fundamentalist party-line is “fake.” It’s a Steven Miller wet dream.
The parallels don’t stop there. The decidedly alt-right Gilead is terrified of declining birth rates, which is straight out of the talking points of our actual alt-right. There’s mention of an opioid crisis. And the international community is trying to figure out how to handle an explosion of refugees—although the refugees of Atwood’s world are trying to escape what was once the United States.
A Call to Revolution
One major difference between The Handmaid’s Tale and its progeny involves the nature of the plot and tone. The first book was a foreboding examination of how things could go bad. The Testaments has a much more imperative, driving narrative. The former is a dystopian drama—the latter is almost a spy thriller.
In other words, if The Handmaid’s Tale was a warning, The Testaments is a call to revolution. It’s telling us that we have to get these swine out of power by any means necessary.
It’s the story of a few brave souls who are doing their part to fix what has gone so horribly wrong. “I am a great proponent of better. In the absence of best,” says one.
This, I think, is a sentiment with which many in our nonfiction present agree. They’re looking at the hoard of Democrats shambling toward the nomination, and they’re realizing that even if their horse doesn’t take the ribbon, they’ll accept anyone who can send the current nag-in-chief to the glue factory.
As The Testaments admonishes, “We must continue to remind ourselves of the wrong turnings taken in the past so we do not repeat them.”