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 relevant than ever. Today, after months of mounting anticipation, her sequel, The Testaments, is finally published.
Plot details have been closely guarded, but we know that the story, set 15 years after events of The Handmaid’s Tale, 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, and 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 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 the latest 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.
- Do you want to read The Testaments? Why or why not?
- Is fictional Gilead becoming a reality?
- In groups, make a list of three ways that women’s rights are improving in 2019, and three ways that they are getting worse.
- Write a one-page description, predicting what the world will 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?
- The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale, is published today. To launch the book, Atwood is taking part in a live stage interview in London, which will be streamed to over 1,000 theatres around the world. The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into an award-winning TV series in 2017. The fourth season is currently being filmed.
- What do we not know?
- Whether The Testaments will have the same impact as The Handmaid’s Tale. So far, the book has received generally positive reviews, but many critics admit that it does not live up to the first book. There is a consensus that it is faster-paced and more hopeful than the first book.
- Hatred towards women.
- An imagined future society where there is a lot of injustice.
- Booker Prize judges, who shortlisted the book last week, were warned that they could face legal action if their copies were leaked. However, last week Amazon accidentally sent out 800 copies of the book early to US readers.
- A state that claims to rule in the name of God.
- 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.
- The charges were later dismissed by a judge.
- “The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules,” Offred (the protagonist) tells the reader.
- 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.
- To move lightly or quickly.