Blessed be the fruit: Margaret Atwood, author of the famed dystopian novel-turned-hit-TV-show, The Handmaid’s Tale, will give fans their much-asked-for sequel, after declining to do so for decades.
The Testaments, due in September 2019, is thanks, really, to President Trump.
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book,” Atwood said. “Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”
A stretch? Not according to an author with a book to sell. As Atwood told ABC News after Trump’s election: “We’re not living in Gilead yet, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on.”
And sell it will: Publisher Nan A. Talese is reportedly planning a first printing of 500,000 copies, plus the current Hulu television adaptation of the original novel is bound to boost sales.
Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of a society where women are stripped of their rights and their bank accounts, oppressed by the beastly men who run it to get whatever it is they want, is still selling wildly.
Upon first reading, many moons ago, it seemed like an interesting allegory about how far people can take religious legalism: The United States had become Gilead, a monotheocracy that, as the book jacket describes it, “has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word.” Mass infertility puts a premium on women who can still carry a child, and such handmaids are assigned to influential men and branded as such (Fred’s handmaid is “Offred”).
But upon second reading, the feminist message starts to beat one over the head a smidge, even though Atwood herself has denied that the book is meant to be either feminist or anti-religious. Nevertheless, many have taken it to be one or both. And even more so in an Ofdonald America.
The red robes and white bonnets the handmaids are forced to wear in Gilead have made appearances on women in the 21st century as costumes to protest the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and by abortion rights activists marching in Washington and around the globe.
In fact, in response to a grab-’em-by-the-you-know-what Trump, women have risen up, which sort of undermines the hysteria. This year, more women than ever were elected to Congress: Roughly 100 women won their House races and at least 13 women won seats in the Senate. Those numbers also feature a record number of women of color and nonincumbent women, CBS News reported. And there are organizations, like She Should Run, that are committed to supporting women in their runs for government office.
So it’s unclear what the inspiration is for a Handmaid’s-style sequel — unless, of course, Atwood wants to base the book in, say, Saudi Arabia, where even adult women are forced into a guardianship that prevents them from making major decisions on their own and where women are still forced to cover up in public.
In an April speech, in which she accepted an award at Variety magazine’s Power of Women ceremony, Atwood said she hoped the women’s resistance that she highlighted throughout The Handmaid’s Tale would be actualized in our world today.
“The repressive regime of The Handmaid’s Tale did not last — there was a resistance,” Atwood said in her speech. “It was ultimately successful because people did retain, in their hearts, the idea of what a free and fair society — a society rooted in truth and justice — ought to be like. Let us hope that this part of my fictional future does come true.”
Not only does this dilute the oppression in Handmaid’s, it threatens to flatten the original book and its literary legacy.
The risk of a sequel inspired by current events is that it will take away from what made The Handmaid’s Tale a classic: its theoretical nature and, thus, timelessness. Part of the power of dystopian-future literature, to those living in the nondystopian present, is a sort of mental checklist of warning signs. Rooting the story in the present allows it to be coopted by naive fans and dismissed by political opponents who can’t see past the parallels to today’s news. We’ll see how Atwood pulls it off.
Art is often political, and we should never hope for or expect that to change. But that doesn’t mean there’s value in retroactively turning literature into “Orange Man Bad.”