Who are you, my reader? And when are you? Perhaps, tomorrow, perhaps 50 years from now, perhaps never.” In Margaret Atwood’s new novel, its most vital character is aware of the possibility that the testimony she is writing, at the pain of death, could mean nothing without the presence of a reader. That it would be as a tree falling in a silent forest, unacknowledged, unheard. But since 1985, when The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, readers have hearkened to the book’s most striking warning — that every society carries within itself, like an unfertilised egg journeying to the womb, the possibility of dystopia.
“Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already,” wrote
Atwood about the Gilead she had imagined in The Handmaid’s Tale. “The deep foundation of the United States — so went my thinking was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England — with its marked bias against women — which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”
In Gilead (formed by the violent overthrow of American liberal democracy), women are brutally segregated and stripped of all right to money, property and movement; a pariah class of women lose their names and social standing, and are forced to undergo ritualised rape to reproduce for the rest of the community. The backsliding of history and democracy across the world, and the strengthening of religious nationalism, has meant that reading Atwood’s dystopia today is a way of making sense of events that might midwife such worlds. Sometimes, it helps us spot them in the headlines. For instance, Alabama’s near-total ban on abortion became law earlier this year.
The Testaments, which has just won the 2019 ManBooker Prize with Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, was written, says Atwood, to answer a more hopeful question: how does Gilead fall? The answers come through three testimonies — of a young woman growing up in Gilead; another young girl who lives across the international border in Canada; and of Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of Gilead, who created the ideological apparatus (and the corny hymns) that keeps women in their place.
This diversity of voices gives it a different texture from the breath-pinching claustrophobia of the first novel. Like its protagonist Offred, whose vision is compulsively constrained by the wings framing her face, the reader of The Handmaid’s Tale experiences an ominous world through silence and suggestion, but does not see its whole design. In the tantalising end of her account, Offred doesn’t know what lies in store for her — she steps “into the darkness within; or else, the light”.
In The Testaments, Atwood reveals the machinery of Gilead, the nuts and bolts of its systematised oppression, and the ugliness where it is coming apart. It also answers the question that many of us are asking of history: how do totalitarian regimes seize power? “In the vanished country of mine, things had been on a downward spiral for years. The floods, the fires, the tornadoes, the droughts… People became frightened. Then they became angry,” writes Lydia of the series of events which made Gilead possible. Why do people not rise up in revolt? “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance; you have to work at it.” How does the unthinkable become the usual? “The reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead and elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere,” writes one of the girls.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia was a cartoon figure of pure ruthlessness, terrifying and one-note. The Testaments opens with her writing a holograph in a secret chamber, in the Forbidden World Literature section of a library, away from the prying eyes of security cameras (she knows where they are, because she has placed them there). The Aunts, bureaucrats of the regime, are the only women allowed to read and write; and the only women with a modicum of power. Hers is a message to an unknown world, but also a reckoning of not just the sins of Gilead, but of what brought her here. Before she became Gilead’s ace apparatchik, Aunt Lydia was a judge, a believer in “life, liberty and democracy”, someone who had made it the hardscrabble way. When Gilead shuts her life down, she chooses betrayal and survival. “What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you.”
Aunt Lydia’s testimony slyly asks the question of the reader: what would you have done? But more importantly, for all purposes, this ironic, scheming, twisted survivor, who gobbles down an egg sandwich after witnessing a murder, remains the hero of this tale. This is Atwood’s steely-eyed pragmatism at work. It asks us to contemplate the moral murkiness of all human decisions; it tells us that spotless idealism might not survive to fight another day.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, undoubtedly, the superior work of the two — The Testaments, by its very structure, exchanges an expansive, plot-driven narrative to the former’s brooding, punch-in-the-gut brilliance. But you can only read these books as prophecy up to a point. For one, as Atwood has pointed out before, no cruelty in this dystopia rivals civilisation’s capacity for injustice. The reproductive slavery of women, their devaluation by patriarchy, continues in many parts of the world, complicated by race, class and ethnicity.
As dystopias go, moreover, Gilead could be outpaced by reality. It appears to be a throwback to an autarkic time, its waters unroiled by social media’s algorithms of hate; its totalitarianism a plain, doughty one, without extra trimmings of democracy, nationalism and mob violence.
Do not come to Atwood then for a map out of the mess you are in. Come, instead, to realise how human courage breaks and then resurrects; how resistance follows oppression; how a regime of fear infects love and friendship; and how hope might survive if humans act. Somewhere, in a cupboard in dystopia, is a message scribbled for all of us. We have the choice to read and bring it to life: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”