Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Imagination

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Imagination

Who Gets to Save the World?

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian imagination. 


What possesses writers to revisit their previously published material? Walt Whitman famously composed Leaves of Grass for much of his life, adding, cutting, renaming, and regrouping poems across nine editions from 1855 to 1892. In 1925, Virginia Woolf gave the titular Mrs. Dalloway—a flat, conservative minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out—a radical interiority. And late last year, Margaret Atwood delivered a sequel to her best-known novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts life in the authoritarian Christian Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), a place where the female intellect is violently repressed and fertile women, such as the narrator, Offred, are separated from their families and forced to bear children for the barren elite. The novel introduces her in the throes of daily life, denied even the right to read, and ends with her in the back of a van, in the hands of either the secret police or the underground liberation movement. (She doesn’t know for sure which.) There is a historical coda, but Offred’s fate is not disclosed—an appropriate ending for a novel in which isolation and uncertainty are the dominant conditions.

Now, more than three decades after refusing closure, Atwood seeks resolution, returning to the landscape of her iconic dystopia in The Testaments. There are obvious commercial reasons for this. Widely assigned in high schools and universities for years, The Handmaid’s Tale is now a hit TV series with nearly ubiquitous imagery and nomenclature. Liberal activists and pundits invoke Gilead as a warning for the real world, and the signature Handmaid’s uniform—​a formless red gown with a winged white bonnet—has been used at women’s marches and abortion ban protests throughout the world. The discourse surrounding the book is far more literal than the novel itself, with many commentators going so far as to declare Atwood a prophet and Donald Trump’s America Gilead.

Atwood used to dismiss the notion that her fiction was “secretly telling the truth,” but The Testaments suggests she’s changed her mind. “Dear Readers,” she writes in a promotional letter. “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” In exposing those inner workings, The Testaments offers a tour of the power structures that Offred, in her confinement, can’t see. Yet its vision of those structures, provocative though it is, flattens both her fiction and our shared reality, doubling down on the original novel’s least compelling arguments while abandoning its most interesting speculations.

The Testaments revisits the form of The Handmaid’s Tale as well as its setting. Both novels style themselves as primary sources written by women, and both end with a male historian describing those sources from the perspective of a restored liberal democratic order. Whereas Offred’s isolated account describes the early days of Gilead, The Testaments offers a rotating cast of three narrators chronicling its end. The first is Gilead’s chief female enforcer, Aunt Lydia, a notorious figure in The Handmaid’s Tale who turns out to despise the regime. Approaching the end of her life, she writes her tell-all account in secret. The others are new characters, teenagers speaking from somewhere beyond Gilead’s reach: Agnes, the daughter of a Sons of Jacob commander, and Daisy, who lives in Atwood’s native Canada. Neither has memories of a pre-Gilead world.

We understand immediately that each of these narrators offers an important perspective on Gilead’s decline and fall. Lydia takes us inside its halls of power, describing its structures and ideologies in the ominous (and clichéd) tone of an all-knowing sorceress: “Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently.” Agnes and Daisy, for their part, are introduced as innocents with radical potential. Agnes is a dutiful child who generally accepts Gilead’s anti-feminist orthodoxy. Of her dad’s off-limits study, she remarks, “What my father was doing in there was said to be very important—the important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts, according to Aunt Vidala, who taught us Religion.” Even so, she’s prone to asking the right questions, opening up space for a new set of answers. Daisy, meanwhile, grows up in a free society outside the borders of the Christian Republic. Hanging around her parents’ secondhand shop, she absorbs the bygone idealism of anti-fascism and has questions of her own about her parents’ secretive behavior.

Soon enough, a bomb explodes, killing Daisy’s parents and setting off a convenient series of plot twists that eventually brings our three malcontents together. Daisy’s parents turn out to have been operatives in the Mayday resistance, supporting the “Underground Femaleroad” that spirits refugees to Canada. Their deaths, the work of Gilead’s Gestapo, the Eyes, send Daisy into hiding. Harbored by Mayday, she learns the truth of her existence: Her parents were not her biological parents, nor is Daisy her real name. She is, in fact, the famous “Baby Nicole,” the child smuggled out of Gilead as an infant, whom TV viewers will recognize as Offred’s daughter.

The assassination of Daisy’s parents has implications for Lydia as well. Though she never explicitly admits it, it’s clear to the reader that she is Mayday’s source in Gilead, preparing a cache of confidential documents that will expose Gilead’s crimes to the world. The only acceptable messenger for these documents—a messenger whom both Gilead and the resistance want to keep alive—is none other than Baby Nicole. With her lines of communication broken, Lydia has to protect herself from suspicion while reworking her plot.

Agnes, meanwhile, has lost her innocence. Shortly after her mother dies, she learns via schoolyard gossip that her real mother was a “slut” who tried to take her to Canada but was arrested and impressed into service as a Handmaid—a giant wink to the reader that she, too, is a daughter of Offred. After she’s molested by the family dentist and betrothed to the aged Commander of the Eyes, Agnes takes the only out that isn’t suicide: She can train as an Aunt, joining Lydia in the inner sanctum at Ardua Hall.

Now our three narrators are poised to meet as the novel moves toward its great act of feminist heroism. A refugee named Jade arrives with missionaries from Canada, and Lydia asks the young Aunt Victoria to oversee her reeducation. But Jade is Daisy in disguise, and Aunt Victoria is Agnes, both newly enlightened with the knowledge they were previously denied. Lydia has reunited the daughters of Offred at last, with an eye toward sending them together on a mission to save the world.

Formal symmetries aside, Atwood’s method in The Testaments departs significantly from her approach in The Handmaid’s Tale. The original novel is a portrait of confinement, following Offred’s delimited gaze as she sits around waiting to get pregnant: “There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for—the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing.” Heroic action is the norm in dystopian fiction, but Atwood consistently defies this expectation. When another Handmaid invites Offred to join the resistance, she is hopeful but demurs. Her passivity calls our attention to the effects of surveillance on the subject and to the insidious endurance of gender roles in our own society. It is also, somewhat surprisingly, an argument for the mind as a space for resistance. “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.” Denied action, we’re reduced to thought, yet it’s in thought that we retain our autonomy. This is the Handmaid’s paradox.

The Testaments, by contrast, is all heroic action. This is, in part, because Atwood has widened her purview to three non-Handmaid narrators. But it’s also because she’s grown less interested in speculation. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood offered a future spun with liberty from our past. “The deep foundation of the United States,” she argues in her introduction to a 2012 edition, 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.” Following this notion, Handmaid imagines a modern society governed by strict gender roles, state surveillance, and other historical methods of social control. If there is fun to be had in reading the original, it is in the discovery of this grim alternate world and its bricolage of strange yet familiar mores.

All this The Testaments takes for granted. What’s new is so on the nose—Lydia hangs out in the “Forbidden World Literature” section of the library and takes her tea in the Schlafly Café—that nothing competes with the plot for our attention. Whereas Handmaid is interested in the minds of Offred and the women and men who surround her, in The Testaments we are presented with one-sided characters. The women of Gilead are either innocent or conniving, and the men are all cartoonish sadists, literal wife killers, and child rapists. The problem goes beyond flat writing. In The Testaments, Atwood is no longer speculating about a possible future so much as commenting on what she believes to be an inescapable present, one in which men are simpleton oppressors whom women can either enable or resist. Yes, Atwood seems to be telling us, it could happen here; in fact, it’s happening under Trump, just as she predicted it would. And without great feats of courage, we will never drive the bastards out.

Over the course of six decades—her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone, appeared in 1961 and her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969—Atwood has made a name for herself as an iconoclastic thinker and writer. She has alternately been embraced by feminists and castigated as anti-feminist, often for the very same gestures. Her novels and stories have sampled from every conceivable genre, from psychological realism (The Edible Woman) and folklore (Bluebeard’s Egg) to the speculative modes of dystopian fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale), historical fiction (The Blind Assassin), and science fiction (the MaddAddam trilogy). Yet no matter the genre or cultural moment, Atwood remains interested in the strictures of gender and cultural myths. Skepticism, generally of rigid belief systems and particularly of Christianity, permeates her work, with imprisonment and environmental degradation also appearing as regular themes. Her best novels playfully refuse answers, especially when it comes to the behavior and motivations of “bad” women, like the shape-​shifting man-eater in The Robber Bride and the alleged murderess in Alias Grace. We never get the satisfaction of learning the “truth” about either, having to content ourselves with the inevitability of their lies.

The same might once have been argued about Aunt Lydia. Denied any sympathetic contextualization in The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s a reminder that all patriarchal systems require the willing collaboration of women. But in The Testaments, we get her backstory, which disappointingly serves to rehabilitate her. It turns out that Lydia is not a true believer in Gilead’s orthodoxy, nor is she anti-feminist. She’s just a regular, brilliant coward, determined to get revenge and recover her honor.

Before the advent of Gilead, Lydia was a professed “mulish underclass child” and “brainy overachiever” who put herself through school to become a women’s rights lawyer and family court judge. Recounting the period after the Sons of Jacob took power, she describes how she and her female colleagues were rounded up, thrown into vans, and herded into an old stadium, where they were deprived of toilets, barely fed, and forced to watch group executions by firing squad. After a period of torture, she breaks and joins the all-female team charged with crafting Gilead’s sphere for women: “Did I hate the structure we were concocting? On some level, yes: it was a betrayal of everything we’d been taught in our former lives, and of all that we’d achieved. Was I proud of what we managed to accomplish, despite the limitations? Also, on some level, yes. Things are never simple.” She spends much of the new novel installing hidden cameras and microphones, manipulating dimwitted Commanders and Aunts, and offering ironic, wistful commentary in a manner that all but begs the reader to admire her.

Lydia is not the only character to get a revision in The Testaments. Offred does, too, via her daughters. Agnes and Daisy both begin life as ordinary, sheltered girls, not unlike their mom in Handmaid, but by the end of the novel, they’ve undertaken a dangerous mission to bring Gilead’s criminals to justice. It’s almost as though Atwood discovered she prefers the TV series’ version of Offred to her own—or thinks her readers do. Either way, the role model has overtaken the pensive prisoner; action has conquered rumination.

The educated woman—the hardworking, “brainy overachiever” confronted with a sexist culture—is Atwood’s favorite protagonist. We meet this educated woman first as the newly engaged market researcher in The Edible Woman. She appears again, in far more extreme circumstances, to narrate the Gilead novels: Offred, Lydia, Agnes, and Daisy are four variations on the theme. The centering of these perspectives compels us to consider how women who thought they were free (often because of class privilege and their willingness to play by the rules) are themselves vulnerable to the violence of misogyny. Perhaps, the Gilead novels suggest, educated women are even more vulnerable. Having defied gender norms all their lives, they’re the women men most want to control.

Atwood’s revised Lydia certainly sees it this way. Brutalized by the Sons of Jacob for daring to advance the cause of women, she corrects her error under the new regime, acting as a flatterer, caregiver, and servant to the powerful male Commanders. It’s the perfect setup for an examination of female misogyny (and an earlier Atwood novel might have gone there), but The Testaments is more interested in celebrating Lydia’s ingenious long con. A woman in power is ultimately good for all women, the novel argues, however reactionary her methods.

Literal readings of Atwood have already given her novels pride of place in the opposition to Trump. “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!” reads a popular protest sign. “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual!” reads another. These are signs that cry out not for richer fiction but for better instruction manuals, which The Testaments is all too eager to provide. Bring an aging leader together with a couple of feisty teens; use the enemy’s own logic to expose the truth of their crimes. If only it were so simple. The Testaments, in the end, is too much a fantasy to offer us much guidance in the age of Trump and too literal to offer space for solace and speculation.

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