The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments: Margaret Atwood’s Cautionary Story for Women Across the Ages

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The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments: Margaret Atwood’s Cautionary Story for Women Across the Ages

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

O

rdinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
– The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood has frequently referred to George Orwell as her hero. She read his Nineteen Eighty-Four when it was first published in 1949, at the age of 10. Perhaps this precociousness was only natural in a girl – born as World War II was beginning – who would grow up in a world as dystopian as anything Orwell could imagine. In 1985, a year after Orwell envisioned a minutely surveilled totalitarian British regime, Atwood released The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel, about a not-so-distant future where reproduction is a scarce resource and women’s bodies are taken over by an oppressive state, would quickly take its place alongside Orwell’s works as one of the greatest cautionary tales of all time. 

Offred – formerly June, now named for the man she serves, a Commander – is a prized fertile woman who, like the other Handmaids, is placed in a wealthy household to bear children. They are uniformed and regimented, treated as reproductive systems inconveniently couched inside bodies. The Wives, meanwhile, are either barren or are considered to be, since male infertility is never discussed. Older women are either Aunts who train the Handmaids, Marthas who serve as domestic help, or shipped off to the Colonies where they presumably deal with radioactive waste. Then there are the Econowives who are given to poorer men, and must play all these roles themselves. In her diary, Offred reminisces about the old days when women’s lives and choices were their own. 

Offred – formerly June, now named for the man she serves, a Commander – is a prized fertile woman who, like the other Handmaids, is placed in a wealthy household to bear children.

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With the release of The Testaments, the sequel set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood delves more deeply into the minds of various kinds of women in Gilead, which appears to be based on the US and Canada. The lines between countries are blurred as wars rage on, fuelled by the same religious fervour that is used to justify the government’s control over citizens. In Gilead, where radiation and chemicals have led to a shrinking population, women are only as valuable as their wombs.

Now, 34 years on from when Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, our population problems have gone in a different direction entirely. Despite this, the idea of women’s worth not as individuals or people, but as incubators of new life, is as relevant as ever. Atwood would have seen the hard-won passage of Roe v Wade, the ruling that enshrined women’s right to abortion into American law, in 1973. Today, these rights are being systematically rolled back by evangelical movements, especially after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. So when that same year, The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a web series starring Elisabeth Moss, it became an overnight sensation. Nor was the series’ success limited to the US; as right-wing authoritarians have come to power from Brazil to the Philippines to here in India, viewers all over the world have found familiarity in Gilead. 

Does it say more about the genius of Atwood or the predictable nature of humanity that The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate as much as it did in 1985, without betraying a hint of anachronism or naivete? She would probably choose the latter. Unlike Orwell’s Thought Police, whose very name makes them feel like an overt doublespeak for our cynical times, Atwood still rings true. Even in the novel’s prologue, she emphasises the fact that every indignity and horror that seems impossible in The Handmaid’s Tale has a real historical precedent. In a sense, Atwood is hardly writing fiction at all, but telling a specific set of truths about propaganda and power, and most of all, about the ephemeral boundaries of normalcy.

This is how The Handmaid’s Tale explores so many themes through the lens of the ever-contested autonomy of women.

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This is how The Handmaid’s Tale explores so many themes through the lens of the ever-contested autonomy of women. At its core, it’s a primer in individual resistance, the battle between the indomitable spirit and the grinding wheels of subjugation. As Aunt Lydia tells Offred and the other Handmaids-in-training, anything can become ordinary; any outrage becomes acceptable once you lose the will to fight back. 

Still, Offred can only survive by refusing to fight. Committing to the reality of Gilead, Atwood’s epilogue reveals that Offred’s tale is not a straightforward diary account. It is a series of secretly recorded cassette tapes that are now being played at an academic conference, held in a post-Gilead future that we would recognise as “normal.” The academics gathered are looking back, examining the true events that precipitated such a dark time in their society. 

And so, smudging the lines between fiction and reality, Atwood poses the ultimate question of The Handmaid’s Tale: How will our own times, and our resistance, be documented and judged by those who look back? Will historians be able find excuses for our silence in the face of injustice, or our complacency as our “normal” grows increasingly bizarre? And what are the costs of being on the right side of history? 

As with the fate of Offred, there are no pat answers to be found in The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe they will come in The Testaments. But then, it’s not like Atwood to spoon-feed us her opinions like an Aunt would. She’s already done her job by making sure we’re asking all the right questions. 

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