Yesterday’s news that Margaret Atwood would be writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, her venerated 1985 feminist dystopian novel, was met with a chorus of excitement online—unsurprising, given how Atwood’s best-known work has become an uncannily prescient rubric for life in America under Donald Trump and the right-wing GOP (so much so that people found Handmaid’s resonances in Melania Trump’s White House Christmas decorations this year). But what will we really get out of reviving the Handmaid’s story?
I came to The Handmaid’s Tale relatively late—I only read it after it was announced that it would be made into a Hulu adaptation—but the novel knocked me off my feet. Reading Atwood’s work soon after Trump was elected—in the wake of his announcement that he would be trying to defund Planned Parenthood and had designs to overturn Roe v. Wade—felt horribly surreal.
The way the novel’s setting reflects the worst aspects of society (and our fears about where it could take us) is exemplary of dystopian fiction. It is cathartic, even satisfying, to see a hyperbolic version of our world, to air out the worst of our problems while reassuring ourselves that at least we don’t have it as bad as the characters (yet); it explains why women, especially, have used The Handmaid’s Tale as a kind of visual and cultural language for calling out the Trump administration’s draconian, sexist policies. Protesting in front of the White House in red Handmaid robes and bonnets is to say, “We know what you’re trying to accomplish,” even if, on the outside, it still looks like democracy.
But it’s actually the book’s departure from our current circumstances and its more nebulous, unresolved plot points that make The Handmaid’s Tale radical, not gleefully picking out quotes from Serena Joy that sound like they could have come from Mother Pence.
(Attention: The Handmaid’s Tale spoilers to follow. Proceed with caution.) The Handmaid’s Tale’s most revolutionary element is the novel’s ending, in which Offred makes the ultimate leap of faith in attempting to escape Gilead. Will she be taken to freedom or does an alternative to the oppressive regime even exist anymore? We never find out; but once Offred’s voice is gone, a final chapter explains how we have come to read her diary in the first place. Far into the future, academics who have discovered Offred’s cassette tapes from the “Gilead Period” are presenting their research at a conference, in a time that has seemingly become more egalitarian.
This metafictional framing, a pioneering device when it was first published, pushes The Handmaid’s Tale beyond the bounds of dystopia. Instead, it opens up the possibility of something new, something better, something that we might even consider to be utopian—or, at least, what science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson recently described as “anti-anti-utopian.” Offred’s choice to enter into the unknown rather than stay in the nightmare of what she does know leads us, narratively, to the future. Though that word has become somewhat toothless, co-opted by marketing language, its utopian aspirations are what make The Handmaid’s Tale empowering, and possibly revolutionary. They are what give it a feminist ideology, as opposed to merely shades of feminism or feminist aesthetics.
Which is why I was instantly wary when Atwood announced that her Handmaid’s sequel, The Testaments, would be set 15 years after the events of the first novel, and that “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings” was her inspiration. “The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in,” she said. With all due respect to Atwood, and at risk of damning a work before we’ve seen it, one has to wonder what, exactly, we are getting out of more Gilead? There is an indulgence here that feels slippery; the drive for more and more content, which has already caused the Handmaid’s universe to expand beyond the novel with the second season of the TV show (which saw Offred tragically thrown right back into her abusive confines; freedom, it seems, makes for very boring episodes), threatens to eclipse the utility of the work, if it hasn’t already.
Not that all dystopian fiction has to serve a political purpose or even, frankly, do serious intellectual work—but we’re living in an age where pop culture consumption has largely replaced political engagement. We process the news via Handmaid’s and Harry Potter comparisons. Not only are these texts comprised of very specific worldviews; their very successful authors are now very comfortable, even in our current dystopia. The Testaments will be sold (likely to astronomical profit, at least for the book world) as a political project, however implicitly. It should not be forgotten that the original Handmaid’s Tale came out more than 30 years ago and still rings true, so what makes us think revisiting Gilead again will deliver us anything other than more of the same? (Naomi Alderman’s disturbing, exhilarating The Power on the other hand, as a successor to The Handmaid’s Tale’s legacy, is a valuable “sequel.”)
Dystopia allows us to examine what ails us, but it also sows distance between ourselves and our problems. The very real obstacles we face in the here and now are so huge, they require mass collective action—the threat of climate change presents the most urgent need to think big and to think radically. So much of that collective action will be about letting go of our comforts. The Handmaid’s Tale should be one of them.