With the release of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is our reality drawing closer to the work of fiction than we care to admit?
First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s speculative, feminist fiction The Handmaid’s Tale took the literary world by storm. Atwood imagines a future wherein authoritarianism reigns and women are dehumanised through ritualised rape and reproductive slavery. Following the election of the Trump administration in 2016, The Handmaid’s Tale found itself once again soaring to the top of literary charts. It seems that, although inspired by the politics of the 80s, the novel has the unique ability to always feel "of the moment". Many women’s rights activists have inverted the oppressive nature of the red cloak and white bonnet that the handmaidens are forced to wear as a symbol of their servitude, using it as a motif for pro-choice movements across the world.
Though concerning, it is not surprising that a work of fiction which imagines a world in which women are denied autonomy over their bodies resonates so profoundly in 2019. The prescient nature of The Handmaid’s Tale is why, after years of swearing against it, Margaret Atwood has revived the Republic of Gilead in her sequel The Testaments.
It seemed as though a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was an impossibility, until now. Believing herself incapable of writing a continuation of Offred’s story, The Testaments instead takes place 15 years after the end of its predecessor through the eyes of three very different narrators, each with their own accounts of the impact of Gilead. Many are curious as to why Atwood waited until now to write this version of a sequel. It seems she simply felt it was time. In an interview with National Public Radio, she said: “For a while we thought we were moving away from The Handmaid’s Tale. And then we turned around and started going back toward it, ominously close in many parts of the world.”
So, are there parallels to our reality? Atwood thinks that you’d have to have “your head in a bucket of sand” to even suggest otherwise. Many, including the author herself, have highlighted that countless parallels can be drawn within the United States in particular.
It is no secret that the president of the United States has a distinct lack of respect for women. His urge to “grab her by the pussy” and the number of allegations of sexual misconduct against him are well-known to the majority. Alongside a general lack of respect for women, it also appears that he does not wish them full autonomy over their bodies: his vice president is completely anti-abortion, and he himself claims to be against abortion in most cases. Indeed, since the Trump administration was instated, attitudes toward abortion rights have become more hostile across the country.
Recently, though originally blocked by federal courts, the Trump administration has enforced a Title X gag rule. The Title X program provides affordable reproductive health care for citizens from a low-income background who otherwise would be unable to receive appropriate services. This “gag rule” bans health clinics in the program from being able to perform abortions or direct their patients to other safe and legal ways of accessing an abortion. As a result, in eight states, Planned Parenthood and other healthcare services have been forced out of the programme, losing considerable funding in the process. This move is a clear violation and undermining of bodily autonomy and demonstrates the Trump administration as one which does not view women as worthy candidates for self-governance. With this in mind, it is understandable that Atwood believes her fictional Republic of Gilead has “moved closer to reality".
As Atwood notes, Gilead is ominously recognisable across the globe. Indeed, this lack of respect towards women and their autonomy is not unique to the US. When asked in an interview with Channel 4 where in the world felt closest to Gilead, Atwood noted that “there is such a wide choice”. There are some countries which have retained unequal laws towards women for centuries, with very little progress being made. For example, only recently have women been granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Other countries claim to be progressive yet still have a restrictive or hostile nature towards reproductive rights; around 70% of Italian doctors refuse to perform abortions and German gynaecologists are at risk of prosecution if they publish details of their methods of abortions. It seems absurd to think that in an age praised for its progress, we have such a long way to go before women are universally regarded as worthy of equality and self-governance.
However, though it is frustrating that we are still wrestling with such dehumanising attitudes towards women, progress is possible. Regimes can be undone. Atwood, though conscious that a book alone does not change the world, seeks to empower and spark hope to all who encounter The Testaments. And in times like these, we need all the hope we can get.