by margaret atwood
talese, 432 pages, $28.95
Novels are not slogans,” Margaret Atwood said in 1986 of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). “If I wanted to say just one thing I would hire a billboard.”
In the thirty-three years since, she seems to have changed her mind. Handmaid contained few maxims, but its newly published sequel, The Testaments, is an exercise in sloganeering. Its overriding objective is to illuminate the “eerie parallels” between Handmaid’s fictional Gilead and Trump’s America.
The Handmaid’s Tale, narrated by handmaid Offred, conjured a “Falwellian coup d’état,” a dystopian future in which a fertility crisis leads religious fundamentalists to power in the United States. In Gilead, their theocratic state, abortion and gay marriage are outlawed, and the few fertile women, called “handmaids,” are ritually raped to repopulate the land (by copulating with married “Commanders” on their wives’ knees, à la Genesis 30:3).
Costume-clad Kavanaugh protesters and Trump hysteria have turned Handmaid into a simplistic parable of women v. the patriarchy, but Atwood was right. Like all good novels, Handmaid said many things. It illustrated how the divisions among women can be just as profound as those between women and men. And it indicted sexual liberation’s failings as well as theocracy’s.
In Testaments, this subtlety is lost. Its women are one-dimensional heroines, its men cartoonish monsters. Victorian literature presented the ideal of the long-suffering, self-sacrificing, and irreproachable woman, an “angel in the house” who redeemed her family. Atwood’s women are required to do even more—they must redeem all of society.
Aunt Lydia—leader of the “Aunts” who train and guard handmaids—teams up with Agnes Jemima (raised in Gilead) and Daisy (raised in free Canada) to face off against malicious men. Their adversaries include Commander Judd, who kills his child brides when he tires of them, and Dr. Grove, an incestuous serial pedophile. Atwood seems to have forgotten that it was the moments of humanity mixed with depravity (Exhibit A: Commander Fred, Offred’s master) that made Handmaid’s evildoers formidable, memorable, realistic.
In Handmaid, Atwood depicted how women, too, can be complex villains. The taser-bearing Aunts were true believers in Gilead’s puritanical religion, complicit with the patriarchy and self-appointed traitors to their own sex. And none was more devout than Aunt Lydia, who recited Scripture and spouted platitudes like lines from a perverse liturgy: “The Republic of Gilead knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.”
In Testaments, we learn that Aunt Lydia was not, in fact, evil. She was simply trying to survive: “I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous.” Never mind that she gleefully scourged girls with steel cables (“for our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential”) and hosted “Particicutions” in which handmaids beat enemies of the state to death. Lydia, it turns out, is a heroine who has been organizing Gilead’s downfall behind the scenes. The book ends with praise for her “invaluable services.” She is a saint who hides her memoirs within a copy of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
By absolving her cruelest female character, Atwood ruins one of her most interesting creations. The implicit suggestion is that authoritarian men are responsible for all evil; women lack culpability, perhaps even agency. Atwood gestures at separations of race, class, and religion, and at individuality, but these qualities are always superseded by gender. It’s a morality tale that obscures more than it reveals. If life could truly be explained as “women v. patriarchy,” then there would be no TERFS; no trans women; no women excluded from the Women’s March.
It’s forgotten now, but Atwood depicted two dystopias in The Handmaid’s Tale. The second is that of the United States immediately prior to its transformation into Gilead, the “time before.” At the book’s end, a scholar describes the crisis that led to Gilead’s rise:
Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed. . . . Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic . . . ? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents . . . toxic-waste disposal sites . . . and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.
In short, the world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale was caused by liberalism run amok: sexual liberation, a dominating contraceptive mindset, unbridled capitalism, pollution, rampant abortion, sterile gay sex. Many hail Atwood as a “prophet of dystopia” for predicting Trumpism and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but her more profound prophecy is her description of the pre-Gilead era, with its uncanny parallels to our own time. When the theocrats take over, Offred has mixed feelings: “The Pornomarts were shut . . . and there were no longer any Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Dle Buggies circling the Square. But I wasn’t sad to see them go.”
Elsewhere, Offred and Commander Fred converse: “The problem wasn’t only with the women,” he says. “The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore.” “What about all the Pornycorners?” she asks. “It was all over the place, they even had it motorized.”
I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even.
Sounds like 2019. Sex is in a recession; millennials prefer masturbation to marriage; porn deadens emotion. Aunt Lydia’s apt description: “We were a society dying of too much choice.”
When she wrote Handmaid decades ago, Atwood at least hinted at how liberalism and the sexual revolution had burdened women. Offred’s mother, for instance, was a pornography-burning activist in the mold of Andrea Dworkin. (In 1988, Atwood herself wrote an essay titled “Pornography,” in which she bemoaned porn’s deplorable effects on women and relationships and argued that “we as a society are going to have to make some informed and responsible decisions about how to deal with it.”) No similar figure appears in Atwood’s sequel.
The chief failure of The Testaments is its failure to reckon with the dystopia that Atwood once had the imagination to see latent in our hyper-liberal regime and its dreams of unlimited choice. As one character pontificates in the sequel’s epilogue: “We must continue to remind ourselves of the wrong turnings taken in the past so we do not repeat them.” But what about our wrong turnings toward “too much choice”? Testaments ignores what led to Gilead.
The Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale realized that boundless liberty had costs; the Atwood of The Testaments has forgotten this. As Lydia says in Testaments, “‘People like a scapegoat.’” She’s referring to the way Commanders tend to blame women, but the line is more aptly applied to Atwood’s motivations. In Testaments, she has simplified her best characters and shortchanged her prose to make a patriarchal bogeyman the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
Ramona Tausz is associate editor of First Things.