A writer in search of dystopian inspiration never has far to look. The most trenchant visions of our future are works of proximity. Consider Octavia Butler, whose 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines an America divided by gated neighborhoods, a right-wing president who brings back company towns and a version of slavery, and the rich preying violently on the poor and young. Or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, set in an American Southwest ravaged by drought and poverty, both exacerbated by climate change. While cities suffer blackouts and migrants experience violent exploitation at the hands of other Americans, corporations squabble over water rights. These heightened scenarios feel like possibilities, not fantasies.
So, too, does the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. We remember Gilead, the religious dictatorship at the center of the novel because it feels familiar and alien at once. No denomination or church had embraced the reproductive slavery suffered by Atwood’s titular handmaid, Offred, but we recognized something real in Atwood’s novel. Gilead’s violent Christian fundamentalism is the same force that blows up real-life abortion clinics. Atwood took the virulent hatred of women that feeds the Christian right and imagined the world it would build if it won. The right circumstances, orchestrated by the right people, can reduce any woman to her womb. It has happened before, under chattel slavery. Perhaps it could happen again.
Thirty-four years after Atwood first published Offred’s story, the handmaid is a celebrity and her iconic red cloak is a sexy Halloween costume. Thanks to the combined powers of Etsy and an Emmy-winning television adaptation of the novel, handmaids are everywhere. They’re at abortion rights demonstrations, on T-shirts, and even on birthday cards, which must be intended for someone the giver hates. Now in its fourth season, Hulu’s show scraps Atwood’s original, ambiguous ending in which Offred steps into the back of a van headed toward an uncertain future, in favor of keeping her alive. The show tries to justify its hostility to subtlety by turning the character into a badass. Offred survives everything, even her stupidity. She schemes, with uneven success; her failures get innocents killed, while Offred rolls merrily along, shunted from plot point to plot point.
While the show’s inventions help sell merch, it has also created all sorts of quandaries for the novelist. Atwood has given the Hulu show her approval. She even appeared, briefly, in a scene in the first season. But by expanding her world, the show seemed to limit her options as an author. How could Atwood write her own sequel when Hulu did it first? Could it ever feel like anything but fan service?
When she announced that she would return to Gilead in a new book called The Testaments, the news inspired a mixed response. While The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable novel and Atwood is one of the best writers of fiction alive, the commodification of Offred meant that news of a sequel felt a bit like a marketing ploy. For The Testaments to succeed on its own storytelling merits, it would have to settle a question: Would its most legible influences be real-world politics or a television show?
From the novel’s outset, The Testaments has had certain odds in its favor. Chief among them is Atwood herself. Events, too, encouraged a reexamination of Gilead. With the election of Donald Trump, America’s Christian right is in power. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court denoted clearly for everyone the limitations of speaking up. Pit a woman against a powerful man with a godly persona, and the woman loses. Kavanaugh is in place to help shape the future of reproductive rights, but it is still too dangerous for his accuser Christine Blasey Ford to return to her own home. Conservative Christian officials at the Department of Homeland Security monitored the menstrual cycles of detained immigrant girls at the southwestern border, blocked pregnant minors’ access to abortions, and took them to anti-abortion pregnancy crisis centers against their will. Other, even more violent forms of fanaticism capture headlines. ISIS is somewhat diminished, but its female accomplices have inspired new moral dilemmas as some petition to return to their home countries. The international refugee crisis persists, exacerbated by right-wing governments that appeal to religion as the source of their nationalism. All rich material for a writer known for her visions of theocratic excess.
In some places, The Testaments is a product of its political moment. Atwood briefly takes us back in time to Gilead’s birth, as the republic’s agents shepherd into a stadium women past their childbearing years. These women are of no immediate use to Gilead, but the state gives them a choice. They can collaborate with the regime and midwife this new world into life. Or they can die, shot by women who embraced Gilead. The scene directly recalls ISIS executions, and it’s not the last time Atwood invokes the caliphate or the refugee crisis it helped create. The stadium scene is part of a new backstory for Aunt Lydia, who’s familiar to readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and fans of Hulu’s adaptation. Before Gilead, we learn, she was a judge, a liberal professional on the run from her working-class roots. (This is a departure from the series, which portrays her as an embittered former teacher.) To maintain some measure of authority, Lydia first picked up a rifle and decided to live.
That’s the Lydia we already know. But she is no longer such a clear analogue for women who betray other women. In The Testaments, Atwood retcons Lydia and makes her into a resistance hero. The result feels like liberal wish fulfillment. To Offred, Lydia might look like a traitor, but in secret, she has been working to bring down the regime. If Lydia’s deeds are immoral, it’s only because Gilead forced her hand; if she is complicit in tyranny, it’s only because she’s trying to survive. Lydia is sufficient unto herself, so intelligent and manipulative that she can orchestrate the downfall of the regime while working almost entirely in isolation. Or so Atwood would have her readers suspend their disbelief and buy that Lydia is the one who knocks Gilead down and changes the course of this fictional history.
The Testaments, of course, is a novel, not a handbook for aspiring activists. Neither was The Handmaid’s Tale, despite its obvious political import. Characters like Lydia might be composites of real people, but their actions illuminate only so much about our present; they certainly can’t predict the future. Lydia is even less insightful now that Atwood has reconceived her. She isn’t quite a role model, but by the end, she is somewhat admirable, a fitting resistance figure for the legions of well-educated Democrats who never anticipated the rise of authoritarian figures. This doesn’t mean that the novel is a total loss: Through Lydia, Atwood allows us tantalizing glimpses of everyday life in Gilead.
Aunts go to the Schlafly Cafe to drink milk and mint tea and to plot—the perfect tribute to Phyllis Schlafly, who avoided the constraints of homemaking and motherhood by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s more interesting, though, to watch Gilead’s youngest citizens reckon with the society their elders bequeathed them. A life of celibate ministry as an Aunt is the only alternative to marriage that many of these daughters possess; it’s never clear whether that option is also available to the less fortunate young women who inhabit Gilead. (The poor are hardly mentioned, in fact, and usually only as objects of pity or as useful servants, viewed always from a place of relative comfort and privilege.) In other subplots, a man valuable to the regime molests his daughter, a commander’s young wives keep dying in mysterious circumstances, and teenage girls get married to men twice or even three times their age. This is Lydia’s Gilead.
And inevitably it is Offred’s, too. Atwood can’t escape Offred any more than we can. In The Testaments, the only other two viewpoints Atwood provides belong to the famous handmaid’s daughters, Agnes and Daisy. Atwood doesn’t even change Daisy’s old Gileadean name from its television version. To the public, she’s still Baby Nicole, who was spirited away by the resistance to safety across the border. Agnes, meanwhile, becomes an Aunt to escape an arranged marriage. Offred is alive, hidden away by the Gilead resistance, and so are her husband and Nick, the father of her second child. The optimism of such a vision makes Gilead look more incompetent than menacing, and it undermines Atwood’s earlier work. Gilead is a surveillance state, as Atwood describes it in The Handmaid’s Tale. Informers are omnipresent. Surveillance is the whip that keeps the heathen masses in line. So it’s startling to learn in The Testaments that the republic is relatively myopic, at least when it comes to Offred and her progeny.
As a believable tale of tyranny and rebellion, The Testaments falls far short of the mark Atwood established. She tells us her world is bigger than Offred but shows us so little of it that, as a meaningful political allegory, the sequel suffers. Some readers may feel comforted to learn that Offred’s family prospers for generations to come. But it’s just too slick. The subtext is not subtle, and it’s not particularly deep. Instead, it resembles familiar superhero tales. A few extraordinary people can save the world.
The Testaments is a work not of proximity but of fantasy. Atwood knows the real world is a horror. The border, for example, is a looming presence in The Testaments, even more than in The Handmaid’s Tale. Crossings are dangerous, whether by refugees from Gilead or spies from Canada by land or sea. Not only do migrants risk imprisonment or death, but borderland infractions could also reignite a barely settled war in the region. It’s a sharp way to update Gilead for new readers.
But the dangers that many face on the border don’t apply to Offred or her family. They cross the border in secret and in disguise, but they cross and survive. To escape Gilead, Offred’s daughters rely on smugglers before escaping at sea in a dodgy inflatable raft. The method is a clear reference to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, but it loses its heft and power because there is never a doubt that they will make it to the safety of Canada and finish the work their mother started so many years ago. Lydia, we learn, collected blackmail on the regime’s leaders for decades. In Canada, Offred’s daughters publish the regime’s tawdry secrets, and Gilead devolves into chaos.
For Gilead, this is a suitable end: Its greedy fundamentalist leaders are ousted for their vices. But Atwood softens the power of her finale by using Offred’s lineage to carry it out. In reality, liberation isn’t a generational saga but the product of collective might. The daughters are as secure as the mother, insulated by the whims of fans and entertainment executives. If Atwood had embedded us in the lives of econowives, the regime’s working-class women, or the Marthas, its servants, maybe it would be easier to believe in the revolution that comes. Instead, she entrenches us in Gilead’s most privileged, among the very people for whom the border has always been more inconvenience than menace.
Maybe that makes for better television. Maybe viewers don’t want to watch a character they love die at sea, somewhere between freedom and home. Maybe some readers find it easier to root for revolutionaries they might have met at Harvard. But we don’t remember The Handmaid’s Tale because it was palatable. We remember it because it told us something uncomfortable about ourselves and the tragedies contained in our futures. “The footsteps approach, one boot after another,” Lydia muses toward the end. “Between one breath and the next, the knock will come.” We should all be afraid, for someone else if not ourselves. But Atwood never lets us worry for long.