Margaret Atwood talks to CBC's Shelagh Rogers about The Handmaid's Tale sequel, The Testaments
This interview originally aired on Sept. 7, 2019.
Shelagh Rogers has had the opportunity to speak with celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood on numerous occasions. This time around, it's about the much-anticipated sequel to the classic 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, a story that is back in circulation as an award-winning television series.
Called The Testaments, the new novel is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale and includes the "explosive testaments" of three women. It promises to answer readers' questions on the inner workings of Gilead, the oppressive dystopia where Offred, the novel's original narrator, was stripped of her freedoms and forced to be a handmaid for powerful men.
Off and on over the years. In the two U.S. elections previous to 2016, The Handmaid's Tale became a sort of meme that people were referencing as the "wise" U.S. Republicans gave their political utterances. People were saying, "Here comes The Handmaid's Tale!"
That sentiment, however, didn't come in the two Obama elections. People thought it wasn't going to come because they thought Hillary Clinton would have gotten elected — and that would have been the asteroid missing the Earth again. But this time things were different.
They've been getting even more different since that time, as we've been noticing with the recent [abortion ban] legislation put in the state of Alabama. I didn't think too much about Gilead in the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall had come down and everybody went shopping and said things like, "The end of history."
But I started thinking about it again after 9/11. Because at that moment, things pivoted. We got a lot more conservative.
Reading The Testaments, it's unsettling to think that this puritanical world — where women are crushed and suppressed by the state — actually feels more familiar than it did in 1985 when The Handmaid's Tale was published. How do you suggest readers process that feeling?
I can't tell readers how to process their feelings. Every reader is an individual person. But if they're worried about the way things are going, first of all, vote next time. And second, read Madeleine Albright's book called Fascism: A Warning. And third, support mainstream media, because you can sue them; they can be held accountable if they tell great big fat whopping lies.
I can't tell readers how to process their feelings. Every reader is an individual person. But if they're worried about the way things are going, first of all, vote next time.
For someone who might not have read The Handmaid's Tale — or seen the TV show — this is a fundamentalist world. It's a throwback to Puritan society but set in contemporary times. How are women and men categorized by the state?
It's a hierarchy. Some people have said it's a feminist dystopia and that all women are treated horribly and all men are treated well. That's not true. The people at the top of Gilead get the goodies, as people at the tops of hierarchies do, and then there's a descending order.
So at the very bottom are the econofamilies with the economen and the econowives. The econowives have to do all of the functions including the housework plus having the children, etc. But up at the top, of course, are the wives of the Commanders and they're doing better than the men at the bottom.
It is, in that respect, a hierarchy rather than a two-sided arrangement in which all the women do badly. That is why Serena Joy, the wife of Commander Fred, has a lot of decisions to make.
Within that society, to keep women in their place, you would have people from within that group who were given more power than the others within that group. You have a cadre of Aunts who are allowed to read, and they are in charge of keeping the other women in line.
You wrote an article in the New York Times about The Handmaid's Tale in the era of Trump. You said the book wasn't a prediction but rather it was an anti-prediction.
The Handmaid's Tale is the kind of thing you write in the hopes that it will not happen. So if you actually want people to fall into a deep dark hole ahead on the road, you don't say anything about it. You just let them proceed along. If you think they might [fall in], you say, "Look out for the big deep dark hole."
The Handmaid's Tale is the kind of thing you write in the hopes that it will not happen.
Of the three women that you have narrating the book, Aunt Lydia is the person who has lived through the revolution that brought about Gilead, and she was also in The Handmaid's Tale. She has become as powerful as any woman can possibly be in Gilead, and she even says she's become swollen with power. How has she created her power? How has she amassed it?
The Aunts in this society are the record keepers. And you'd have to have record-keepers in such a society because with all of these young women marrying older men you'd have to keep track of the bloodline to make sure you weren't marrying somebody to their child.
So they've got all the records. The other women don't because they can't read. The Aunts therefore know a lot of secrets. So Aunt Lydia has got the dirt, and she's also got the records. She knows who is who in this society.
Aunt Lydia was a former judge and one of the architects of the laws of Gilead. The Aunts is this nunlike order that she runs. They are the ones who indoctrinate young women into these laws, and purity is the greatest value a girl can have, a woman can have. What are young women taught about purity?
All you have to do is dial back maybe 100 years or so in Western society and you get the same list of stuff. Or read Hamlet; it's the same kind of thing. Before being married, a girl ought to be a virgin. In fact, if not, that's the end of her. This was just something that went on and still goes on in the rest of the world.
Some of the messages that the young girls and women receive about their abilities and biological destiny had a very strong whiff of the cultural messages passed on to women, certainly of my age. I remember this as 'cultural telegraphing' — be cheerful, be a good girl, turn your frown upside down — that sort of thing. What about you? Did you receive that kind of energy?
I didn't really get that kind of energy. I grew up in the woods with some pretty peculiar parents for those days. My mom was a tomboy and my dad was a biologist. They never told me what I couldn't do because I was a girl. They sometimes said, "You can't do that because you're not old enough." But that's an entirely different message. So if you grow up with a speed-skating, canoeing, good-at-archery, horse-riding mother, you don't actually think of yourself as a frail Petunia.
The two other narrators of the story are two young women, one of whom grew up in Gilead and her name is Agnes. And when Agnes is betrothed she's sent to Rubies Premarital Preparatory. What do they learn at Rubies?
Good table manners. How to comport yourself. Flower arranging. As you'll recall from The Handmaid's Tale, Serena Joy was very big on knitting, and I'm not against these things. I learned knitting at such a young age.
Let's talk about Daisy, who's the third narrator. She grows up in Canada and we learn that she has a connection to Gilead — and I'm not going to spoil that — but she's giving witness testimony. What does Daisy's story mean to the whole novel?
It's kind of hard to talk about this without giving away the plot. But let us say that you have two girls, one of whom grew up inside Gilead and one of whom grew up outside Gilead. And then they meet. Their meeting is very consequential for Gilead. We know from The Handmaid's Tale that Gilead ultimately collapsed. That's why we have it as the subject of historical study 200-plus years later. But we weren't told how it collapsed.
These kinds of regimes generally collapse in the following ways: corruption and betrayal from within, attacked from without or both, or other generations come along who don't have the burning ideological fervour of the founders, and they morph into other ways of being and behaving. We know that Gilead collapses but we were just not told how. The Testaments explores how.
We know that Gilead collapses, but we were just not told how. The Testaments explores how.
One of the first things that Daisy has to experience when she arrives in Gilead from Canada is a Particicution, a group dismemberment that the regime has condemned.
It is done by the handmaids themselves. It's one of their few moments of joyful holiday release, tearing another human being apart. When you've been suppressed too long it can be quite a high. Think French Revolution and the Princesse de Lamballe, whose head appeared on a pike outside the window of Marie Antoinette. What happened to the rest of her body? I don't think we've ever been told.
Your fans asked you for more after The Handmaid's Tale. Is this your last word on Gilead in terms of writing about it?
Shelagh, never say never! It's like saying you're going to have a farewell tour, then you're going to have another farewell tour after that. We are now at the, "I'm ready for my close-up" moment. Is it the end of Sunset Boulevard?
Wait and see!
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.