Margaret Atwood joint winner of Booker Prize

Uncanny: She is “sorry to have been so right” when writing The Handmaid’s Tale over 30 years ago. © Tim Walker

Is Margaret Atwood a prophet? She seems to have foretold #MeToo, seen the climate crisis coming and predicted the rise of Trump. Yet she insists she sees only the present, not the future.

A red dress and a white bonnet. A simple image, but one that is now instantly recognisable across the world as a symbol of the fight against misogyny and oppression.

Thirty-fours years since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel — is more relevant than ever.

And, last night, the sequel The Testaments was joint winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, the leading literary award in the English speaking world.

(The other winner was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. “I am the first black woman to win this prize,” she proclaimed last night.)

The Testaments is set 15 years after events of The Handmaid’s Tale and returns to the harrowing world of Gilead, a despotic theocracy where fertile women are sexually enslaved to produce offspring for higher-status couples.

Babies are prised from their mothers’ arms moments after birth. All women are forbidden from reading.

Much of The Testaments is told though the eyes of two young women, one trapped under Gilead’s authoritarian rule; the other fighting against it from Canada.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, “it was viewed as being far-fetched”, Atwood said recently. But it isn’t anymore.

Since the book was adapted for TV in 2017, the #MeToo movement has highlighted widespread sexual abuse at the very top of society.

Abortion bans in more than a dozen US states threaten to roll back decades of progress on reproductive rights.

In Alabama, which passed the USA’s strictest abortion ban this year, the pregnant victim of a shooting was charged with the manslaughter of her own child earlier this year.

Prosecutors said she had endangered the foetus’s life by initiating an argument with her shooter. “Gilead, here we come,” wrote activists.

Across the USA, protesters wear the handmaids’ crimson robes as a symbol of resistance to Donald Trump’s America.

Their signs read: “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again” — a play on Trump’s notorious election slogan.

It’s not just 21st-century misogyny Atwood has anticipated, but also the climate crisis.

Her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake depicts Earth after an environmental apocalypse. As far back as 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale warned of pollution and environmental breakdown.

On a recent cover of Time magazine, Atwood stares out from under the words “the reluctant prophet”.

Time present and time past

So, can we say Margaret Atwood really is the latest in a long line of so-called prophets, from Isaiah in the Bible to the present day? What is prophecy anyway? Some say the answer is obvious. Look at all the events Atwood has been right about: the gradual chipping away at women’s rights; the normalisation of misogyny online and in politics; the destruction of the environment. She saw it all coming decades before it happened.

Not at all, say many wise voices, including Atwood herself. Prophecy has never really been about seeing the future — however exciting that may seem. True prophecy is about the present. The Old Testament prophets were the equivalent of modern-day newspaper writers, commenting on current affairs. You could go further to say that there is no future. Only the present actually exists. But pay close attention to the present and you can see much that is hidden to the impatient, skittering eye.

You Decide

  1. Do you want to read The Testaments? Why or why not?
  2. Is fictional Gilead becoming a reality?

Activities

  1. In groups, make a list of three ways that women’s rights are improving in 2019, and three ways that they are getting worse.
  2. Write a one-page description, predicting what the world might look like in 2029.

Some People Say...

“Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not be ordinary to you now but, after a time, it will. This will become ordinary.”

Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is 19 years since Atwood won the Booker for The Blind Assassin, and 33 years since she was nominated for The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in September, The Testaments sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK in its first week, making it the fastest-selling hardback novel for four years. Speaking before the ceremony, Atwood said winning would be “a double-edged sword for me but for a younger person, I think it would be great”.
What do we not know?
Whether The Testaments will have the same wider, social impact as The Handmaid’s Tale. Peter Florence, the chair of the judges, said last night: "It does massively more than follow the single story that we had from Offred. This is beautiful in its depth and exploration of the world of Gilead. It might have looked like science fiction back in the day, although all of the extremities are rooted in fact. Now it looks more politically urgent than ever before."

Word Watch

Misogyny
Hatred towards women.
Dystopian
An imagined future society where there is a lot of injustice.
Theocracy
A state that claims to rule in the name of God.
Strictest
The Alabama law outlaws abortion at all stages of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. Abortions are only permitted when there is a serious health risk to the mother.
Manslaughter
The charges were later dismissed by a judge.
Pollution
“The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules,” Offred (the protagonist) tells the reader.
Isaiah
A Hebrew prophet who lived 700 years before Jesus Christ. Isiah is said to have prophecised the birth of Christ.
Old Testament
The first part of the Bible, based on the Hebrew Bible.
Skittering
To move lightly or quickly.

Subjects

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