“Margaret Atwood’s new novel is being greeted as the long-awaited feminist dystopia, and I am afraid that for some time it will be viewed as a test of the imaginative power of feminist paranoia,” the writer and critic Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in 1986, soon after the publication of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
To Ehrenreich, The Handmaid’s Tale was “a thoroughly feminist nightmare,” though not perhaps in the ways that it’s popularly considered today. “We are warned,” she wrote, “not only about the theocratic ambitions of the religious right, but about a repressive tendency in feminism itself. Only on the surface is Gilead a fortress of patriarchy, Old Testament style. It is also, in a thoroughly sinister and distorted way, the utopia of cultural feminism.” This is what made The Handmaid’s Tale, in her mind, a “fantasy of regression that is almost as seductive, in a perverse way, as it is repellent.”
I have found myself thinking of that seductive appeal in recent weeks, in light of the breathless excitement generated by The Testaments, Atwood’s just-released sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that takes place 15 years after the first novel ends. Today, The Handmaid’s Tale is more often described as “chillingly prophetic,” ostensibly made all the more prescient after the election of Donald Trump; it didn’t help matters that Hulu’s popular adaptation of Atwood’s novel, which was planned when everyone thought Hillary Clinton would breeze to victory, instead landed during a presidency where women’s bodily autonomy has been under increasing attack. “We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” proclaimed a headline in the New Yorker. “Few writers have been so close to the pulse of this past tumultuous year than Margaret Atwood,” wrote Slate in 2017, adding, “The worlds Atwood describes are uncomfortably close to our own, and they seem to be drawing closer.” Yet somehow, despite the brutality of the world depicted by The Handmaid’s Tale, we can’t seem to get enough: According to Amazon, The Handmaid’s Tale was the most-read novel of 2017, and the audience for Hulu’s adaptation, which will have a fourth season, is only growing.
The Handmaid’s Tale jumped from the page and screen into the real world as the costume of the handmaid became a symbol of women’s political protest. In March of 2017, (overwhelmingly white) women in Texas donned red robes and white bonnets to protest yet another anti-abortion bill being taken up by the state legislature, where they sat in the balcony, mute. That action inspired a group of women in Missouri, six weeks later, to don their own costumes, and a political meme was born. (Few perhaps now remember that it was Hulu, in a neat marketing trick, who first dressed up women in handmaid costumes and had them stroll the streets of Austin, in advance of the premiere of the television show.) “The easiest way we try to explain it is that the handmaids represent a future where women are nothing more than their reproductive capacity,” explained Heather Busby, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, who was inspired after seeing Hulu’s stunt to then deploy the costume as a protest. “Unfortunately, with the laws that are being passed, that future is not so unrealistic and not so distant.”
But if the handmaid protesters have couched their protest as a warning, it seems to me that part of the appeal of The Handmaid’s Tale—and the odd, sticky allure of imagining oneself as a handmaid—comes not from its dystopian powers of prophecy, but from how, as the feminist critic Sophie Lewis has written, echoing Ehrenreich, it “functions as a kind of utopia,” one where the pesky differences that divide feminists today are not just flattened but simply do not exist, and where everything can be blamed on religious fundamentalists with guns. In this fucked-up utopia, Lewis writes, “feminist solidarity would automatically flourish in the worst of all possible worlds” and “the vast majority of women [are] finally seeing the light and counting themselves as feminists because society has started systematically treating them all—not just black women—like chattel.”
This is the sort of wishful thinking that has animated much of the organizing loosely captured under the umbrella of the women’s movement spurred by the election of Trump. The historic Women’s March in 2017, for all of the signs that lauded intersectionality, was represented by the pussy hat, a symbol that proclaimed we’re all the same and asserted, as the critic Andrea Long Chu put it, “the promise of a universal category of womanhood.” The controversy over the universality of the pussy hat as symbol, as well as the implosion of the Women’s March organization in the years following, was due in part to the seeming impossibility of a broad, unwieldy coalition of women, broadly united by a general understanding that women were under attack, seamlessly and frictionlessly moving in unison.
Atwood, for her part, approves. “I think using the handmaids’ costume as a protest mechanism is brilliant,” she told the New York Times in a recent interview. “You can’t be thrown out, you’re not making a disturbance, and you’re not saying anything, but you’re very visible.” She added, “Everybody knows what you mean.”
Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale recently, I was struck by how odd it is for Atwood’s creation to become a symbol of women’s protest—Offred, or June as the television adaptation named her, of the novel is remarkably passive, less interested in joining the Mayday resistance than in clinging to whatever small pleasures she can grab onto in her meager, narrowed existence, only escaping Gilead’s clutches at the end through the intervention of Nick, the driver of the family she serves and her lover. Or at least, we assume she escapes; Offred’s story is ultimately a surviving fragment. We learn some of the rest of Offred’s story in Seasons 2 and 3 of Hulu’s adaptation; in Atwood’s just-released The Testaments, Offred is almost an afterthought, only appearing in the flesh towards the end of the book.
Spoilers for The Testaments ahead.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is written, as one could surmise from the title, as a testimony, the story of three women bearing witness to life under Gilead. But if The Handmaid’s Tale was the story of one handmaid, then The Testaments is about another group of women, the Aunts. (It is up to the reader to imagine the interior lives of other women in the caste system that Atwood has created—the Econowives, the Marthas, the Jezebels, the Unwomen, the Wives.) In particular, it’s the story of Aunt Lydia, who plays a key role in The Handmaid’s Tale as a main tormentor to Offred and the other handmaids as they’re being trained for their roles and whose story is finally revealed in The Testaments.
Pre-Gilead, Aunt Lydia was a judge, and, to escape certain death, she agrees to become a collaborator with the Sons of Jacob and the nascent Gilead regime. (“I put it on. What else should I have done?” she asks when she’s given her brown robe.) We learn how she carved out a separate space ruled by women in the early months and years, and how she accumulated her own form of power in that space, through the gathering of secrets and a ruthless deployment of the power afforded her. And we learn of her regrets. “If only I’d looked around me, taken in the wider view. If only I’d packed up early enough, as some did, and left the country—the country that I still foolishly thought was the same as the country to which I had for so many years belonged,” she says early in the book. But, she adds, “Such regrets are of no practical use. I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices.”
We learn how Aunt Lydia, for years, has been secretly collaborating with the Mayday resistance, largely based in Canada, in an effort to bring down Gilead. After a particularly harrowing series of abuses she’s forced to endure early on, she thinks to herself, “I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.” She is not, however, a character worthy of full sympathy. The choices she has made have been too drastic, too wrapped up in her own survival, for that—in short, she’s eaten so much shit that the smell all but emanates off of her. Still, she appeals to the readers of her testimony: “Try not to think too badly of me, or no more badly than I think of myself.”
As a novel, The Testaments is an eminently readable—dare I say, entertaining—story of how one woman became, and I’m sorry to use this term, complicit in a regime that diminishes her. The ending is satisfying in a way that novels like the Hunger Games trilogy scratch our itch for resolution—we learn how Aunt Lydia’s machinations eventually reveal the inner workings of Gilead’s elite, which ultimately helps end the regime. But as a story meant as an allegory for our current moment, it operates on the level of pure fantasy. “Imagine: a world where exposing the misdeeds of a regime could unravel it!” Michelle Goldberg wrote wryly in the New York Times. Imagine, too, Ivanka as Aunt Lydia, an idea equally as fantastical as that of a whistleblower taking down Donald Trump. Even the idea that Melania was secretly sympathetic to her husband’s loudest detractors, in need of the intervention from the so-called resistance, was short-lived.
Atwood has said that her interest in writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale stemmed in large part from a desire to explore how totalitarian regimes end, as well as her sense, as she put it to an audience in London, that, “instead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it, especially in the United States.” She began writing the novel around the time of Trump’s election. “Totalitarian systems don’t last, it is my fervent belief,” she told the Times. “Some of them have lasted longer than others. When they come apart, what is it that causes them to fall apart?”
But Atwood’s latest novel has few lessons for us on that question. Atwood is often called a “prophet” for her vision of a society wracked by environmental collapse and extreme misogyny, but reading The Handmaid’s Tale and now The Testaments, I felt little of that shiver of recognition. “We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue,” Mary McCarthy wrote in a critical review of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986, adding, “It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing” from Atwood’s vision.
Far from a prophetic warning of a possible, plausible future, I find myself more inclined to consider Atwood’s novels of Gilead as the ultimate in wish-fulfillment—that totalitarian regimes can crumble so easily; that collaborators are secretly part of the resistance, chafing under the yoke. It is the pleasure of that idea that in part animates all those women who dress as handmaids as protest today, that drives much of the enjoyment of people who continue to tune in season after season of the television show (we don’t watch something, after all, because it’s a handbook for protest).
At the inaugural Women’s March protests in 2017, some carried signs that read “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.” We’d forgotten that Atwood’s novels were always fiction.