Small blessings? Margaret Atwood's The Testaments

The bleakest part of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's follow-up to The Handmaid's Tale, is its epilogue.

(Spoilers follow)

George Orwell wrote 1984 to consist for the most part of the story of Winston Smith, in the moment, following the last part of his life -- in writing terms the book uses the third-person limited perspective, meaning the reader knows only what Smith knows. The book is a depressing story of totalitarianism but Orwell uses one often-ignored device to provide a glimmer of hope: the in-universe essay "The Principles of Newspeak" at the end of the book.

This essay, presented as an explanation to some future reader about the language of Oceania, implies by its nature that at some point Oceania falls and that English-speaking is transformed. (That the essay is written in standard mid-20th century English also hints at the culturally-conservative timber that lay under Orwell's socialist bark.)

Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale uses a similar device, ending that book with a record of an academic conference convened on the topic of the Republic of Gilead. The main message of HT's epilogue was that Gilead falls and the United States is restored, and indeed Atwood comments in her author's notes to The Testaments how the questions implied by that statement led to her writing this new book.

Certainly The Testaments is a visceral novel. We get inside the head of Agnes, a woman surviving Gilead's system of indoctrination and institutionalized rape as we follow her from ages fourteen to twenty-five. We also follow Aunt Lydia, a leader of Gilead and a judge in her life before Gilead, as she speaks directly to us about her life of compromise and the reasons for it. (There are some points in Lydia's narrative that suggest to me she's meant to be read as an unreliable narrator, but that's a separate discussion.)

But the novel ends the same way HT does, with the same academics speaking at a new iteration of the same series of conferences. It's 2197, the United States is back and it has has restored Native American names to at least some places, implying a society at least superficially more progressive than today's.

But in that future professors still make sexist jokes, academics still scramble for funding and it's implied that Professor Pieixoto is getting credit for the work of his graduate student, Mia Smith. Participants in the conference engage in Gilead cosplay as a recreational event, detached from the horrors of its regime.

About two years ago a Bustle editorial talked about this exact point with regard to HT and now we have this new text from Atwood reiterating the situation. Maybe Gilead falls, and that is welcome, a great gain, but what, in the grand scheme, is the point if we don't create a society that makes a new Gilead impossible? The long scale of history makes every tactical victory part of a strategic defeat.

Atwood was not subtle in pointing the finger in HT: Commander Fred and Serena Joy are pencil sketches of 1980s televangelists Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker. The Testaments is even less discreet. We meet two colleagues of Aunt Lydia from her former life: a woman named Anita who prefers death to accommodating the new system, and a woman named Elizabeth who makes every possible concession to Gilead and ends up as a high-ranking but ineffectual schemer. I wonder how many of The Testaments' younger reader will recognize the namesake of the Schlafly Café (younger than me...I'm 40 and I barely get it).

But what is the message here? Resist and maybe we can restore a sympathetic, humanistic "normal," represented in The Testaments by Canada? We can reject that idea out of hand. Atwood has been absolutely clear that every terror inflicted on women in these novels comes from some historical precedent. HT was a warning about the America of the 1980s, of televangelists and of Reagan.

That age has faded to be replaced with something worse. The last gasp of the religious right in high positions of power in the US was probably John Ashcroft's tenure as Attorney General, 2001 to 2005. Instead, we have neo-fascists on the rise outside the government, an outspoken proponent of sexual assault as President, and the loudest people singing the praises of Ronald Reagan are the so-called opposition, the Democrats.

The answer can't possibly be "resist, bring down the system from outside and we'll turn the clock back to 2016." The world we're in now isn't some accidental "darkest" timeline, it is the default timeline: every speck of 2019 was implied by the conditions of three years ago, of ten years ago, of thirty-five years ago, because the vast majority of people heard all those warnings and didn't do one substantial thing.

The Handmaid's Tale the TV show -- Atwood isn't writing it but embraces everything that's happened on the show in the text of The Testaments -- has struggled with one central problem for the past two seasons. June in the show is bending to Gilead as necessary in order to try to change it and save who she can. This past season was sold as one of "resistance." Yet HT the book and TV show are both tales of nearly-disconnected individuals, while no effective resistance to totalitarianism in history has ever come from a small number of isolated, disorganized people.

Between HT and Testaments Atwood has given us four connected, intimate narratives of resistance. As stories of oppression and suffering, of the psychological horror inflicted upon the women of the world by our sexist society, they are masterful. But for the overall plot to work, everything has to go right. At the end of The Testaments, too much goes too well for the protagonists, and Gilead's fall is handwaved to inevitability, yet the only barrier against its return is the fading good will of those who remember it.

I know what solution I believe in to this problem. If we want to make Gilead impossible we need to rebuild society as fundamentally as the transformation from feudalism to the present day rebuilt society. To do that, we need international mass organization of ordinary working people, and the people in those organizations must be willing and able to analyze society and take whatever steps necessary to change it. Even to do this is not sufficient to eliminate sexism, but the mobilization of all genders and the total annihilation of the world's class system is the minimum necessary to begin such a process.

That's what's hinted at in how the Mayday resistance to Gilead works: Marthas and Economen inside and outside Gilead exchange information, coordinate action and...

Our job is to fill in that ellipsis.

Otherwise the fullness of time makes Gilead's return in the world of the books, or its coming in real life, inevitable -- unless war or climate catastrophe get us all first.


Edmund Schluessel

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