By Margaret Atwood
The most chilling — and timely — lines in “The Handmaid’s Tale” occur near the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Offred and her shopping partner Ofglen are walking past the Wall — a landmark that once belonged to a famous university in Cambridge, Mass., and is now used by the rulers of Gilead to display the corpses of people executed as traitors. As she looks at six new bodies hanging there, Offred remembers the unnerving words of their warden and teacher Aunt Lydia: “Ordinary,” she said, is “what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
Nothing changes instantaneously, Offred observes: “In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” How did the United States of America become the totalitarian state of Gilead — a place where women are treated as “two-legged wombs”; where nonwhite residents and unbelievers (that is, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, anyone who does not embrace the fundamentalist extremism of Gilead) are resettled, exiled or disappeared; where the leadership deliberately uses gender, race and class to divide the country? It started before ordinary citizens like herself were paying attention, Offred remembers: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
In “The Testaments,” Atwood’s compelling sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” — which takes place a decade and a half later — Offred makes only the briefest of appearances, speaking a scant three sentences. But she has attained almost mythic status in Gilead, where she’s been declared a terrorist and enemy of the state: The regime has already made at least two assassination attempts on her life, and it’s turned Baby Nicole, the daughter Offred (in the TV series adaptation) had smuggled across the border to Canada, into a poster girl martyr.
The main story line in “The Testaments” is a kind of spy thriller about a mole inside Gilead, who is working with the Mayday resistance to help bring down the evil empire. It’s a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise — but contrived in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance. And Atwood’s sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic.
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That story unfolds through three overlapping narratives. One is told by Nicole, now a young woman of 16 living in Canada under another name. One is told by Agnes Jemima, Offred’s older daughter (known as Hannah in the TV series), who, at the age of 5, was snatched away from Offred as she and her husband, Luke, were attempting to flee to Canada, and who has since grown up in Gilead with foster parents. And one is told by Aunt Lydia, the implacable enforcer, who has imposed Gilead’s draconian rules on the Handmaids with vengeful relish.
The Hulu TV adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has awkwardly tried to make Aunt Lydia more than a cartoonish villain by sketching in her back story, suggesting that loneliness and shame in her own life fueled her cruelty. In “The Testaments,” Atwood makes a more convincing case for Lydia’s complexity: She has made Lydia (like Offred, Offred’s daughters and so many characters in the author’s earlier novels like “Surfacing” and “Cat’s Eye”) a survivor, someone who’s done what she thinks is necessary to avoid death or further loss. To save herself in the early days of Gilead, Lydia became a collaborator with the regime, and she rises within the leadership by playing coldblooded, hardball politics. Her involvement in a Mayday resistance plot to undermine Gilead has as much to do with deadly rivalries within the regime’s elite as it does with her own disillusionment over growing corruption and hypocrisy in the theocracy.
This is only one of myriad differences between Atwood’s fleet-footed sequel and the television adaptation. Under the guidance of the showrunner Bruce Miller, the TV series did a brilliant job in Season 1 of translating the novel to the screen, but in generating new story lines for Seasons 2 and 3, the show’s writers have subjected Offred (played by the gifted Elisabeth Moss) to a wearisome “Groundhog Day” loop of tribulations, including several failed escape attempts, repetitious, soap-opera confrontations with Serena and Aunt Lydia and more and more preposterous situations calling for bad-ass heroics.
In the interests of heightening the depravity of the Gilead regime, the TV writers have told an increasingly grisly story, which dwells, at gruesome length, on sadistic tortures inflicted upon the Handmaids: In addition to the ritualized rapes described in the novel, there are finger amputations, Taser assaults, an excised eyeball, hands scorched on hot stoves, muzzles and metal rings used to keep the women’s mouths clamped shut — the sort of abominations more likely to be found in the misogynistic horror porn that Offred’s activist mother wanted to burn, than in a feminist allegory.
In both “The Handmaid’s Tale” (the novel) and “The Testaments,” Atwood wisely focuses less on the viciousness of the Gilead regime (though there is one harrowing and effective sequence about its use of emotional manipulation to win over early converts to its cause), and more on how temperament and past experiences shape individual characters’ very different responses to these dire circumstances.
Atwood understands that the fascist crimes of Gilead speak for themselves — they do not need to be italicized, just as their relevance to our own times does not need to be put in boldface. Many American readers and viewers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are already heavily invested in the story of Gilead because we’ve come to identify with the Handmaids’ hopes that the nightmare will end and the United States — with its democratic norms and constitutional guarantees — will soon be restored. We identify because the events in Atwood’s novel — which not so long ago felt like something that could only happen in the distant past or in distant parts of the globe — now feel frighteningly real. Because news segments on television in 2019 are filled with images of children being torn from their parents’ arms, a president using racist language to sow fear and hatred and reports of accelerating climate change jeopardizing life as we know it on the planet. This also explains why the scenes in “The Handmaid’s Tale” that feel most haunting today are the flashbacks in which Offred remembers her former life in America, when she and her friends took for granted the rights and freedoms they enjoyed, when people reassured one another that whatever emergency measures taken by the new government (in the name of protecting against Islamic terrorism) were temporary and that normalcy would soon return.
Enduring dystopian novels look backward and forward at the same time. Orwell’s “1984” was at once a savage satire of the Soviet Union under Stalin — from its rewriting of history to its cult of personality to its use of torture and propaganda — and a shrewd anatomy of totalitarianism that foretold the rise of the surveillance state and the fire hose of falsehood spewed forth daily by Putin’s Kremlin and Trump’s White House in attempts to redefine reality. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” reflected its author’s worries in the 1930s that individual freedom was threatened by both communism and assembly-line capitalism, and it anticipated a technology-driven future in which people would be narcotized and distracted to death by trivia and entertainment.
Atwood, who began “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the Orwellian year of 1984, decided that she would include nothing in the novel “that had not already happened” somewhere, some time in history, or any technology “not already available.” She extrapolated some of the trends she saw in the 1970s and early ’80s, like the rising fundamentalist movement in America. She imagined what she called “the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England — with its marked bias against women” — reasserting itself during a period of social chaos. And she drew upon historical horrors like the Nazis’ Lebensborn program and public executions in countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia to delineate the malign machinery of the Gilead regime.
Atwood’s creation of Gilead, like her creation of the futuristic wasteland that serves as a backdrop to “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood,” was informed by her wide-ranging reading in dystopian literature and related genres, lending these novels a faintly postmodernist density and gloss. The stories of Nicole and Agnes in “The Testaments” similarly reflect Atwood’s easy familiarity with Victorian literature, which she studied in graduate school at Harvard in the 1960s.
The sisters’ quests to discover their family roots, for instance, mirror the efforts made by so many of the orphans in 19th-century literature, like Dickens’s Pip and Oliver Twist. Much the way that Offred struggled in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to come to terms with the expectations of her radical feminist mother, in “The Testaments” Nicole and Agnes find their search for self-definition tied up in questions about their real mother’s identity. Nicole is shocked to learn that the life she’s been leading in Canada — as Daisy, the daughter of owners of a used-clothing store — is “a forgery.” Agnes realizes that much of what she grew up believing about Gilead has been a lie — that the regime’s corrupt leaders have been rewriting the Bible in a Big Brother-like endeavor to market and justify their dictatorial rule.
If Agnes comes across as willfully naïve in the opening sections of “The Testaments,” Atwood appears to be making the point that Agnes begins as a very ordinary girl. Ordinary in the way that Offred was ordinary in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a smart, resourceful young woman, more concerned, initially, with the travails of daily life than with politics or the larger world. Atwood’s Offred was not a rebel like her friend Moira and not an ideologue like her mother. In fact, she asserted that she didn’t want to be “the incarnation” of her feminist mother’s ideas, didn’t want to have to “vindicate her life for her.”
Perhaps because some fans had complained that Atwood’s Offred was too passive, the TV writers have been transforming her, in Seasons 2 and 3, into a ferocious (and at times ruthless) warrior queen, willing to compromise her own morals if it furthers her ends; a committed member of the resistance whose quest has evolved from getting her own daughter back, to trying to evacuate dozens of children to Canada.
But while this makes for a more dramatic heroine who can grow and change over multiple seasons of TV, it’s worth remembering that the very ordinariness of Atwood’s Offred gave readers an immediate understanding of how Gilead’s totalitarian rule affected regular people’s lives. The same holds true of Agnes’s account in “The Testaments,” which is less an exposé of the hellscape that is Gilead than a young girl’s chronicle of her family life and education there, and the unexpected turn of events that lead her to play a pivotal role in determining the regime’s fate.
In a 2017 essay, Atwood described writing Offred’s story in the tradition of “the literature of witness” — referring to those accounts left by people bearing witness to the calamities of history they’ve experienced firsthand: wars, atrocities, disasters, social upheavals, hinge moments in civilization. It’s a genre that includes the diary of Anne Frank, the writings of Primo Levi, the choral histories assembled by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich from intensive interviews with Russians, remembering their daily lives during World War II, the Chernobyl accident or the Afghanistan war. Agency and strength, Atwood seems to be suggesting, do not require a heroine with the visionary gifts of Joan of Arc, or the ninja skills of a Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander — there are other ways of defying tyranny, participating in the resistance or helping ensure the truth of the historical record.
[ Read Atwood’s essay “What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.” ]
The very act of writing or recording one’s experiences, Atwood argues, is “an act of hope.” Like messages placed in bottles tossed into the sea, witness testimonies count on someone, somewhere, being there to read their words — even if it’s the pompous, myopic Gileadean scholars who narrate the satirical epilogues to both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments.”
As Atwood no doubt knows, one of the definitions given by Bible dictionaries for “Gilead” is “hill of testimony.” And in testifying to what they have witnessed, Offred, Nicole, Agnes and, yes, Lydia are leaving behind accounts that will challenge official Gileadean narratives, and in doing so, they are standing up to the regime’s determination to silence women by telling their own stories in their own voices.
Michiko Kakutani is the author of “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” released in paperback last month. Follow her on Twitter: @michikokakutani
By Margaret Atwood
419 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $28.95.
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