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Atwood's new novel warns of the dangers of totalitarianism

Sertan Sanderson
September 11, 2019

Margaret Atwood's new novel, "The Testaments," takes readers back to the horrors of Gilead. But 34 years after "The Handmaid's Tale" was first published, is that world more fact than fiction today?

Image: DW/S. Sanderson

It was the literary event of the year: On Tuesday, the elaborate midnight launch of Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale at Waterstones' flagship book shop in London competed for attention with the British capital's nightlife.

While party goers there in the West End were busy hopping from bars to night clubs, the queue outside the famous bookstore in Piccadilly Circus began stretching around the corner, with several actors hired by the event organizers trudging among the crowd while dressed in eerie handmaid uniforms, as popularized in recent years by the namesake TV series.

Read more: Getting ready for Margaret Atwood's new novel, 'The Testaments'

Each one of the fans was visibly thirsting to get their hands on The Testaments; some had waited more than three decades to find out what happened to the characters in Atwood's fictive totalitarian state of Gilead.

And then she arrived — the "queen of dystopia" herself, Margaret Atwood. Surrounded by cheers, excitement and elaborate decorations, the author was hardly able to enter the bookstore among the crowd, as she set out to read from the book in public for the first time. 

Slippery slope to totalitarianism

At almost 80 years old, Margaret Atwood's personality fills a room without much fanfare — in the way that any successful writer who has published over 50 books  — poetry, novels, non-fiction, children's books and even a graphic novel — in as many years in more than 40 languages might be expected to. But rarely had she been put in the spotlight in such a theatrical manner as during this launch; the event rather resembled a festival than a book launch, with fans celebrating the Canadian author like a rock star. Having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this month and rumors of a Nobel Prize for Literature periodically resurfacing, this sense of anticipation is hardly any wonder.

Read more: Atwood, Rushdie on Booker Prize shortlist

With her gregarious nature and her gleeful sense of humor, Margaret Atwood can only be described as larger than life despite her petite frame, which borders on fragile. She comes across as a sage and a feisty little old lady at the same time. Yet her presence quietly commands respect as if she was a survivor of Gilead herself — and in many ways she is.

Book launch The Testaments
Handmaid outfits have become symbols of the contemporary women's rights movementImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Not everyone appreciated her vision of a dark and hopeless future for women when The Handmaid's Tale first was published in 1985. Some critics thought it was too far-fetched, while others at the time, Atwood says, reacted by simply asking, "How much time do we have?" until Gilead is no longer just fiction. And even now in 2019, the Canadian author believes that judging by the state of women's rights in the US and elsewhere, it might just be a slippery slope for societies to descent into Gilead's brand of totalitarianism:

"If you look at the legislative moves made by a number of different states within the United States, you can see that some of them are almost there," Atwood told reporters at a press conference at the British Library in London, referring to laws restricting abortion. "If (governments) were fair and equitable, and government really was by consent of the governed, only potentially pregnant women would be able to vote on these matters."

Fact or fiction?

Indeed, with the ongoing public debate on reproductive rights in the US, the sequel couldn't be any more timely. Atwood said at the launch of her book that societies throughout the world resemble Gilead more so now than they did 34 years ago, when she published The Handmaid's Tale:

"As time moved on, instead of moving further away from Gilead we started moving more towards it," Atwood told reporters.

"In 1985, people were already saying these kinds of things. (Politicians) were talking about what they would like to do in the United States if they had the power. And now they do have the power."

Three narrators, three perspectives

But despite the seemingly fading line between fact and fiction, there are some decisive differences between The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments.

Set 15 years after the end of the story in The Handmaid's Tale, the new novel is told from the perspectives of three separate characters, who each have a different kind of outlook and appreciation on the events that took place in the brutal world of Gilead and why. Atwood says she wanted to examine how different women might react to living under such oppression.

"The Testaments" takes place 15 years after the end of "The Handmaid's Tale"Image: Chatto & Windus

The characters she introduces as narrative voices include a teenager who had defected from Gilead to Canada, a young woman who grew up knowing nothing but the oppressive world of Gilead (and therefore took much of her role for granted), and a character that avid fans of The Handmaid's Tale will already be familiar with: Aunt Lydia.

The voice they won't encounter is that of Offred, the hapless heroine from The Handmaid's Tale. However, Offred does still play a role in the new book — if only indirectly. Atwood says she is aware that the departure from Offred's narrative vocie might be a disappointment for some fans, but nonetheless she stands by her decision to approach the totalitarian world of Gilead from new angles:

"The audience is comprised of a number of different individuals and (…) they will have different opinions. So, sure, there is always the danger of letting down the audience but it's a danger I have faced before," she said in reference to the mixed reviews she received when The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1984.

From the Berlin Wall to 9/11

When Atwood penned The Handmaid's Tale, she was living in West Berlin, the enclave that was surrounded by Communist East Germany and the Berlin Wall. Atwood says that the divided city led her to wonder what a totalitarian state in the context of North America would look like. And thus she invented the violent patriarchy of Gilead, while making sure that her narrative would be based on existing and historical cases of oppression against women.

"There's a precedent in real life for everything in the book. I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn't already done," Atwood said in an interview with People magazine.

When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, threats of dictatorial rule in the West seemed to disappear: "And then in the 90s, everyone went shopping. (...) Globalization would solve everything. And then they said 'here comes the internet, hooray hooray' — and here we are," Atwood told reporters in London during the book launch before adding, "And then 9/11 happens. And that changes the chessboard. (…) We since became much more fearful, inward-looking and vulnerable. And that's when I started thinking about (returning to) Gilead."

London Book launch THE TESTAMENTS
Atwood says that the world today resembles her fictive realm of Gilead more closely now than it did 34 years agoImage: DW/S. Sanderson

A dystopia for a modern age

As The Testaments is now published all these years later, another wall, along the US-Mexican border, is being built. Isolationism, protectionism and populism are gaining ground in the West. The hopeful post-Cold War outlook appears to be all but a history lesson.

"Is The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments a dystopian world? Let us hope so," Atwood said during her book launch, sounding more despondent than ever before about the future. That change of tone can also be felt in Atwood's new writing; while The Handmaid's Tale carried an anticipation of overcoming the horrors of theocracy and totalitarianism, The Testaments focuses more on the coping mechanisms that different people might have to develop to carry on living under such subjugation.

In fact, this sentiment is already reflected in the opening lines of the book, yet it also carries a spark of hope for righteousness and redemption within it. When you read the first sentence of The Testaments, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that Margaret Atwood's first literary love — and discipline — was poetry:

"Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.

Already I am petrified."

Film still The Handmaid's Tale
"The Handmaid's Tale" was adapted into a TV series starring Elisabeth MossImage: Hulu

The Testaments is published by Chatto & Windus, part of Penguin Random House's "Vintage" division. It has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which Margaret Atwood won for the first time in 2000.