The woman who can see into the future
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 popular than ever. Last month, Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel, The Testaments, was finally published. Yesterday, it was the favourite to win the prestigious, annual Booker Prize for fiction.
The story is set 15 years after events of The Handmaid’s Tale and returns to the brutal world of Gilead, a despotic theocracy where fertile women are enslaved to produce children for higher-status couples.
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 made into a hugely popular TV series in 2017, the #MeToo movement has highlighted widespread abuse at the top of society, and abortion bans in over a dozen US states undermine progress on women’s rights.
On a recent cover of Time magazine, Atwood stares out from under the words: “the reluctant prophet”, but the author disputes the label.
“I’m not a prophet,” she says. “Let’s get rid of that idea right now.”
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; misogyny online and in politics; the destruction of the environment. She saw it all coming decades ago.
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. You could say that there is no future. Only the present actually exists. But pay attention to the present and you can see much that is hidden.
- Do you want to read The Testaments? Why or why not?
- In groups, make a list of three ways that women’s rights are improving in 2019, and three ways that they are getting worse.
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?
- The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986, and adapted into an award-winning TV series in 2017. The Testaments is the favourite to win this year’s Booker Prize. Atwood won the £50,000 fiction prize for her novel The Blind Assassin in 2000.
- What do we not know?
- Whether The Testaments will have the same wider, social impact as The Handmaid’s Tale. Most people think that The Testaments is faster-paced and more hopeful than the first book.
- Hatred towards women.
- An imagined future society where there is a lot of injustice.
- If you live under despotic rule, you may fear your government and have little or no rights.
- A state that claims to rule in the name of God.
- Able to get pregnant and have babies.
- To weaken or reduce the effect of something.
- A person who is thought to have special powers (sometimes given to them by God) to be able to say what will happen in the future.
- A Hebrew prophet who lived 700 years before Jesus Christ. Isiah is said to have prophecised the birth of Christ.
- A statement about what is going to happen in the future.