A World Too Close to Home
Penguin Random House, September 2019, 432 pp 9780385543781, $28.95
Margaret Atwood famously refuses to include anything that hasn’t happened in our world in her works of fiction. Her stories challenge the standard labels of “science fiction,” “fantasy” and “dystopian novel.” The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) and The Testaments contain common literary themes—family, hypocrisy and forgiveness—but also leave us with racing hearts and twisted stomachs as we hold a mirror up to our own nation and our own lives.
Why now? Nearly 30 years after THT, and in the shadow of the success of a television series sharing THT‘s name, The Testaments was published. It’s impossible to miss the parallels between this book and our current times. The Testaments is a story of the rise and fall of a patriarchal, racist, violent theocracy. It fills in gaps of information left by THT‘s narrator; knowledge she was not privy to or omitted. In The Testaments, which takes place 15 years after the events in THT, the reader learns how such a society could rise and fall from the characters who played a central role in shaping its norms.
The Testaments gives the reader three primary narrators: Aunt Lydia/the Ardua Hall Holograph, Agnes/Aunt Victoria and Daisy. We learn that Aunt Lydia did not choose to create and enforce the roles of the handmaids in Gilead, and that she covertly contributes to the appropriately named Mayday, the international resistance efforts to end the theocracy. She uses her position of power to seek justice, bringing down the system from within. Aunt Lydia is the bridge between the origin story of Gilead and the tale of its downfall. The testimony of Witness 369A, who we learn is a young woman from Gilead named Agnes, gives us the story of a young woman raised in relative privilege whose decision to become an aunt opens different doors for her. Witness 369B is a younger woman, Daisy, who was raised in Canada by her revolutionary adoptive parents and becomes involved in Mayday.
In the past few years, we have heard a lot about a “post-Roe world.” In this world, abortion is illegal in much of the country, with access only in states that actively protected the right to terminate a pregnancy. In this world, doctors would be imprisoned for performing abortions, likely alongside the people who sought access to them. It is a world of forced pregnancy, systematic rape and violent state response to resistance. As a board member and a cofounder of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, my community has seen a glimpse of this world. There are only three abortion clinics to serve almost one million women of reproductive age in the state (the statistics do not include transmen and nonbinary individuals who may need abortion services). Abortion is frequently targeted in the state legislature, and the state consistently ranks at the top of “Most ‘Pro-Life’ State” rankings, and at the bottom of nearly every ranking of social determinants of health. The Testaments, a documentation of the rise and fall of the dystopian Gilead, demonstrates how this fiction can become reality.
In general, men themselves are secondary characters within the patriarchal world established in The Testaments. While the all-male commanders hold the formal power, it is their collaboration with powerful women that maintains the oppressive systems. The wives’ silence and the aunts’ indoctrination mirrors the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump in 2016. In Louisiana, we see this pattern. Only one woman— the late Kathleen Babineaux Blanco— has served as the state’s governor, among a sea of white men. This includes our current Democratic governor, who signed into law a ban on abortion past six weeks. Blanco signed Louisiana’s “trigger law” into effect in 2006, ensuring that if the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, abortion will instantly be illegal in Louisiana. The state currently has a record number of women state legislators: six senators and 20 representatives. This is out of 144 seats, a measly 18 percent of the legislature. Women legislators in Louisiana frequently sponsor some of the most harmful legislation, however, building their careers and reputations on causing harm to other women. Women have authored legislation requiring genital checks for school-aged athletes thought to be trans and requirements that doctors who perform outpatient abortion care have medically unnecessary admitting privileges at area hospitals before delivering services. There are women Democrats in Louisiana who have a 100 percent rating from Louisiana Right to Life. If they are secretly Mayday operatives in the vein of Aunt Lydia, they are hiding it very well.
We can only hope that in our world there are those truly working within these systems to bring them down. Instead, we often see only hypocrisy from those in power. The theme of hypocrisy in The Testaments runs as deep as the violent patriarchal traditions enforced by Gilead. “Unauthorized” sexual abuse by commanders (as opposed to the socially mandated rape of handmaidens) is rampant but silenced. The façade occasionally slips, and commanders reveal their doubts about the society’s sustainability. There are other examples, well-documented in secret Gilead files and as gossip whose spread carries a high consequence.
Atwood also includes the equally compelling story of multiple forms of resistance by characters from diverse backgrounds (as if she knew what a balm it would be for the contemporary reader), in addition to effective character development. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Atwood stated, “I’m not a prophet… Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.” By giving voice and motivation to her characters, documenting their development and political awakening and highlighting their stances against injustice and oppression, Atwood has transported us to a world with frightening parallels to our own, and given us models for fighting back.