An image that has cropped up repeatedly in contemporary feminist protests is that of groups of women in red robes, accessorised with white headdresses, shaped so as to hide the face away. These “handmaids” protesting the systemic removal of reproductive and other rights of women have taken inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian narrative located in a totalitarian theocracy that has seen the collapse of democratic structures and the establishment of a distinctly patriarchal order, which has (re)turned women into the property of men.
That book was published in 1985 and brought to a large audience, thanks to an author-sanctioned televised series, in 2017. The popularity of the novel, however, cannot be attributed solely to the web platform and a consequent looking back, as it were, from the series to the written word. The book posits a post-democratic world.
The growing rise of right wing political ideology, in the US and elsewhere, and successive attempts at changing policy so as to further marginalise minorities fit in only too well with Atwood’s vision of what totalitarian regimes look like, creating an instant connection with all those attempting to have their voices heard. Hailed as a prophet of our times for what has been called prescience by readers and critics alike, Atwood has finally given the world and its red-robed sisters a sequel that builds on the discomfort she has already made her readers sit with ever so long.
Everything is political
The launch of The Testaments has been one big worldwide party. The author did a reading at Waterstones, London, and rang a bell at midnight (or, as she in her blisteringly honest style pointed out, a minute past midnight) to declare sales open. Neil Gaiman, as well as Jeanette Winterson (the author of Frankissstein), and Elif Shafak – both of whom are competing for this year’s Man Booker Prize alongside Atwood – have all been active, enthusiastic publicists.
There have been midnight launches in multiple cities, countdowns, long queues, and women dressed up in the now instantly recognised Handmaid Red. Closer home, pre-orders, tweets and instastories have been claiming much social media space. Rarely has a literary novel, replete with social and political critique, generated such a buzz. The reason perhaps, lies in that wonderful aphorism of our times: everything is political.
The events of The Testaments unfold some 15 years after what has been called the “cliffhanger end” of The Handmaid’s Tale. Having been born in 1939, at the very onset of the second world war, Atwood has spoken often enough of being a “war child”, born in totalitarianism, and therefore interested in narratives of how such political structures function and what growing up inside them is like. That difficult territory is exactly what the text sets out to explore.
A triad of voices
Handmaid’s Gilead showed us women stripped of rights, power, economic ability, even names, identified either by the roles they performed, or by the men they belonged to. Its protagonist, Offred (Of-Fred), doesn’t have a name, only a patronymic. She isn’t allowed to read or write and, as the epilogue tells us, her story comes to the reader as a series of cassette tapes, recorded while she is in hiding from Gileadean authorities. She is a womb, rented out to high ranking military men whose wives have been unable to conceive.
The sequel performs its first act of redressal and subversion by opening with a holograph by the authoritarian and hateful Aunt Lydia of Offred’s world. “Writing can be dangerous”, she says. Aunt Lydia writes in secret and, in an inversion of the reader’s expectations, writes her rebellion. There are two other narrative voices in the book – both young girls, both born to the eponymous handmaid of the first book.
The first, Agnes, is forcibly taken away from her biological mother and “adopted” by a rich, childless couple. The Gilead of Agnes is a place eerily similar to repressive, patriarchal cultures everywhere, across ages. Girls must cover themselves at all times, lest they inspire uncontrollable urges in men. Girls must never speak unless spoken to. Girls must smile. A lot. Girls must never question men. Girls must silently bear abuse- physical, mental, sexual. Girls are good only for embroidering flowers and removing bloodstains from cloth, as the Aunts tell Agnes:
“That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence. Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.”
Women must train to be mothers, if born to privilege, or be reduced to nameless workers or surrogates and victims of rape, if not. Or, like Aunt Lydia, become facilitators of “good mothers” by taking to the path of religious teaching. There is freedom to and freedom from, as Atwood cautions us. The third narrative voice, also conveyed as a testimonial, belongs to the child born to Offred in Gilead and spirited away into free Canada, growing up in a “regular” world, plagued not by totalitarianism, but only the regular concerns of violence and terrorism.
Gilead must collapse
The Handmaid’s Tale has already told us that Gilead must collapse. The Testaments shows us how. In this, it holds out hope to all marginalised, silenced identities everywhere. In conversations about relinquishing control over “her” story as the televised narrative of Handmaid’s Tale progresses beyond the original novel, Atwood has said over and over again how her only stipulation is that “nothing goes in for which there is not a precedent.”
The same thinking informs her understanding of history. In writing Gilead, she writes the quintessential authoritarian regime that tolerates no dissent. She sees this as a pattern in history. Inequity is similarly a pattern in socio-cultural history. All politically conscious readers, name-called and worse for their liberal politics, are sure to find resonance in her pithy explanation of how silencing works:
“Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”
And yet, because history might not repeat itself, “but it rhymes”, we know that all Gileads must eventually implode. That promise is what makes Atwood’s work quite so important.
The Testaments will probably not acquire the same iconic stature as The Handmaid’s Tale. It lacks the claustrophobia and spiralling tension that pull the reader into Offred’s world of rapidly shifting reality. It lacks the bloodshed and the bodies on the wall.
It does, however, expose the complacency that “settling in” or “settling for” create. It tells us that Bluebeard is not just a fairy tale; that exploitation is real, and that the privileged always want more. It connects the dots between power structures of religion and politics, laying bare their complicity and hypocrisies. It functions like a parable, just as Handmaid’s has functioned like a prophecy. It is a subversive, fiercely feminist text, as full of (easter) eggs and oranges, as it is of wit and sharp social commentary. There. Be cautioned before you venture forth.
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood, Chatto & Windus.