Margaret Atwood, author of the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, has announced plans to release a sequel, The Testaments, in September 2019. Narrated from the perspective of three different women, it will be set 15 years after the close of the original. Like many, I can’t wait to read it. At the same time, there are interesting questions to ask about where it might sit as a cultural and political offering.
From a publishing perspective, it’s the perfect time to release a follow-up. The original might be over 30 years old, but never has it been more talked about, thanks not least to the recent TV adaptation and the backlash politics of Donald Trump. From red dresses worn on pro-choice marches to jokes about Melania Trump’s Christmas trees, bits and pieces from Atwood’s story have taken on a life of their own. This is a good thing – it’s how brilliant literature should work – but one wonders at the prospect of Atwood reining it all back in to present a vision of the same concentration and impact.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is in many ways quite distinct from The Handmaid’s Tale that occupies our current cultural consciousness. For instance, one wouldn’t need to have read the novel, nor even have watched the TV show, to know what is meant by everything going “a bit Handmaid’s Tale” in Trump’s US. References to Gilead can frequently be spotted in feminist protests against the administration’s regressive stance on reproductive rights. Atwood’s fictional state has come to represent contemporary conservatism, misogyny and religious fundamentalism. “We are being turned into handmaids” is useful political shorthand, a way of saying “we see what you are doing to us – and we’ve always known you might.” It’s an effective way to make a point, but not without its risks.
The sight of handmaid dresses in pro-choice demonstrations has always made me a little uneasy. To call it appropriation might be going too far – literature is there to be consumed, transformed, bent and twisted out of shape as we see fit – but it seems to me that the specific focus on abortion represents a narrowing of vision. An enormous imaginative landscape has been reduced to one moment, one place, one class. At the same time, abortion access remains a vitally important issue for women of all races and classes. Can fictional characters be trusted with it? Now that feminists have pinned their colours to The Handmaid’s Tale mast, what if the sequel betrays them?
Current reception of The Handmaid’s Tale tends to simplify the novel’s relationship with feminism. It’s perhaps inevitable, especially during times of extreme political polarisation, that any parallels drawn between Gilead and our own world will lack nuance. In claiming The Handmaid’s Tale as a prescient sideswipe against Trump and the far-right, we tend to miss the novel’s own ambivalence towards the feminism of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Offred’s extremist, porn-burning mother, and Offred’s own longing for lipstick, moisturiser, glossy magazines and seductive clothing, hint at a mistrust of radical critiques of the porn industry and femininity as a social construct. While not quite saying “be careful what you wish for”, the novel presents certain alternatives to patriarchy as paths which, should we attempt to go down them, could lead in the opposite direction entirely. That the novel manages to be in dialogue with feminism even while depicting the worst patriarchal excesses is one of its great strengths. Without ever denying what misogyny is and does, it is buzzing with ideas rather than offering directives.
When Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she did so without the weight of expectations that now falls on The Testaments. The original novel wasn’t perceived to owe anything to anyone. Today, however, The Handmaid’s Tale as political artefact – with book, TV series and red dress all standing for resistance to Trumpian politics – is something in which many women feel deeply invested. If we convince ourselves that the 1985 novel predicted what would happen to us now, what do we expect from a novel written today, set 15 years after the original story? Are we to treat it as another prediction? Do we have the necessary distance to approach it as a work of art in its own right?
Atwood has never been afraid of disappointing feminists eager to claim her as one of their own. “It seems I am a Bad Feminist,” she wrote in a 2017 piece, in which she suggested that the “#metoo moment” risked promoting “vigilante justice”. While I found the enfant terrible tone of the piece slightly irritating, I imagine it it must be far more irritating to be Margaret Atwood, literary genius, constantly at risk of letting down the sisterhood by failing to fulfil promises you never made.
Writing in the New York Times, Atwood addresses the question of whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist novel head-on:
If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings – with all the variety of character and behavior that implies – and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.
It’s a response that frustrated many (what feminist has ever embraced the former definition?). Atwood appears to confuse structural analysis with fundamental beliefs about women’s status as moral agents, which seems strange given the depth of analysis her work offers. I’m not sure, however, if there is any satisfactory answer Atwood could have given. The answer is the book itself.
The slipperiness of Atwood’s feminism gives me hope that The Testaments will be every bit as rich and complex as its predecessor, unwilling to play to any red dress gallery. At the same time the perfection of The Handmaid’s Tale as a novel in its own right – and its fundamental difference from The Handmaid’s Tale as cultural product – make me nervous. I’m still recovering from Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy failing to live up to the brilliance of the first book, Oryx and Crake, which could easily have stood alone.
I am hoping that the Gilead of 15 years’ time will not be over-thought, weighed down with knowing cross-references and tentative satire. I am hoping the characters will have space to breathe.
I’m also hoping that, in another 30 years’ time, women’s liberation will have progressed so far that no one ever comes close to suggesting that things have gone “a bit Testaments”.