Dystopia comes calling home
- Margaret Atwood’s new novel, ‘The Testaments’, offers a dire reality check the world needs
- The sequel to the best-selling ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the novel was released on 10 September to much fanfare
It’s hard to recall any literary fiction title in recent memory that has sparked as much public interest as Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. On 10 September, as the novel was released globally, legions of fans flocked to book stores, hungry to lay their hands on a copy.
Inspired by the popular TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood’s 1985 novel, of which The Testaments is the sequel), women dressed as “handmaids" were in attendance at the London launch. That the book is already on the Man Booker Prize shortlist before it was officially published may have fuelled the public’s enthusiasm. The last time people were this excited by a book was probably a new George R.R. Martin novel or a fresh instalment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
The inordinate craze is also because The Testaments is being pitched as a fable for our times. If The Handmaid’s Tale was a dire warning against succumbing to totalitarianism, its sequel is a clarion call to defeat oppressive regimes. While Atwood is too sophisticated to insinuate any obvious parallels, the world she creates is plagued by the dangers that beset our post-truth societies: misogyny, religious intolerance, xenophobia, the closing of borders and the erecting of walls. As she said in an interview with the BBC, The Testaments is “a lot closer to reality" than its predecessor.
Set roughly 15 years from the moment The Handmaid’s Tale ended, it unfolds mostly in Gilead, a dystopian double of the US, with some detours into Canada. Such is the tyranny of the theonomy that controls Gilead (its rulers proclaim it to be “God’s kingdom on earth") that the country has “an alarmingly high emigration rate".
Women suffer a life of indignity, stripped of every right, with no access to money. They have no autonomy over their bodies. Classified according to their worth, they assume specific roles.
The Aunts, unmarried and chaste, are the custodians of female morality; the Wives are attached to the Commanders and elite professionals; the Econowives are wedded to the working classes; the Marthas are domestic helps; and the Handmaids are fertile women, tasked with providing progeny to a mostly barren population. In the pecking order, the Handmaids are treated the worst, used as scapegoats for crimes and abused as “sluts".
The contours of this system are familiar to readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and to those who have seen the television series. Extreme as these classifications may appear, these are not mere figments of the writer’s imagination. In many societies around the world, women are still not treated any better.
The administrative philosophy of Gilead also resonates widely with our contemporary realities. Gilead was conceived by Atwood while she was travelling in Europe in the 1980s, especially in Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her encounter with police states gave substance to the dystopia which, over the years, has come perilously close to reflecting the times through which we are passing.
Fake news is pervasive across the world now. In Gilead, too, lies are all pervasive. But lying is not only a means to an end; it is a fine art. The need to perpetuate untruths is integral to Gilead’s statecraft, as is the imperative to close all access to news from beyond its boundaries. The intellectual insulation of Gilead is superior to that of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, since its women are destined to remain unlettered.
Only the Aunts are allowed any education, though they can’t read anything they wish. From Jane Eyre to Anna Karenina, Tess Of The d’Urbervilles to Paradise Lost, the list of proscribed books is long. Even parts of the Bible are censored, as are children’s books from an earlier era. It is part of the duty of the Supplicants—young girls training to become Aunts—to cover up figures in picture books in suitably modest attires. The debates over rewriting history to suit political agendas has never stopped.
In spite of the gravitas of its themes, the pace of The Testaments never lets up. Its plot is more sharply focused than The Handmaid’s Tale, probably because the scene has already been laid out in the latter. Narrated by three voices, the story connects several dots to the past. Those who are familiar with the original would be better able to appreciate these linkages, though The Testaments can also be read as a stand-alone work.
The testament of Aunt Lydia, the supreme leader of all the women of Gilead, is the pivot on which the other testimonies, by Witness 369A and Witness 369B respectively, are balanced. Identified as Agnes Jemima and Daisy, the two witnesses discover they share a bond potent enough to shake the foundations of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, attempts to overthrow the regime were systematically thwarted. In contrast, The Testaments is optimistic about the possibility of ending the misrule of the Sons of Jacob, the leaders of Gilead.
Yet, while The Testaments chronicles the destruction of a reign of terror, it does not set up easy binaries. Aunt Lydia, a figure of sheer evil in The Handmaid’s Tale, is much transformed. No less cruel and formidable, she is given a chance to recount her life story—describing her metamorphosis from a well-heeled judge to a dispenser of wild justice.
Improbable though it may sound, Atwood manages to elicit a flickering of sympathy for Aunt Lydia, even as it is impossible to ignore her monstrosities. But could there be any moral compass in a world where the idea of justice is so warped that it fails to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty? “Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader," Aunt Lydia tells us at a chilling moment. “Listeners are inclined to believe neither."
A discomfort with fixed ideologies and the intolerance of absolutes are at the heart of Atwood’s fiction, which resists being labelled as unqualifiedly “feminist". “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel?" she asked in a New York Times article in 2017. “If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no." When the #MeToo movement was at its peak, Atwood expressed her reservations about the way in which it was unfolding. Power, she repeatedly proves, is a double-edged sword: If it empowers one, it disempowers others.
In the figure of Aunt Lydia, Atwood gives us a uniquely complex character who defies easy templates. When asked to kill her fellow captives to prove her fealty to the regime, Aunt Lydia obeys. She even gobbles up an egg sandwich after witnessing a public execution of other women. But without this exterior of steel, she would never have had the last laugh.
FIRST PUBLISHED13.09.2019 | 02:34 PM IST