BY CAROLINE MAO ’22
In November 2018, Margaret Atwood announced that she would be releasing a sequel to her 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in September 2019. The sequel, entitled “The Testaments,” has no connection to the Hulu television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It follows three female narrators from Gilead, a dystopian America, and is set 15 years after the first novel.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a speculative fiction novel originally published during the second wave feminist movement. Its protagonist, Offred, lives in Gilead, a version of America in which her duties as a handmaiden force her to live in service to a man called the Commander. As the population dwindles — Atwood implies it’s because radiation from nuclear weapons has been affecting fertility — Handmaids are responsible for bearing children for the men they service. Otherwise, they’re sent to die of radiation poisoning in polluted wastelands known as the Colonies. The immediate location of the novel is Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In a press release, Atwood informed her readers that there are two inspirations for “The Testaments”: “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings” and “the world we’ve been living in.” Since “The Handmaid’s Tale” was originally released, Atwood has emphasized that everything in the novel has been drawn from real life political events rather than imagined oppression.
Visiting lecturer at Mount Holyoke Katherine O’Callaghan of the English Department expressed her excitement about the forthcoming sequel and interest in how Atwood will develop Gilead, noting that readers had been skeptical about the realism of the setting when “The Handmaid’s Tale” was first published. O’Callaghan said, “Atwood was proven right in thinking that there was a danger [that] women’s rights could recede,” O’Callaghan said. She added that in light of the current political climate, “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ seems more relevant to today than the 1980s.”
O’Callaghan did not enjoy the TV series. Her colleague, Associate Professor of English Iyko Day similarly expressed reluctance to watch it despite reading the novel. Day said the show “speaks to contemporary politics surrounding #MeToo, #TimesUp, but the dominant optics of these movements have also centered on white women—despite the identities of the founders.”
Day also mentioned that the original novel featured exclusively white characters, and the television show did not improve on this. Day said both book and show “appropriate the history of Black enslaved women’s sexual exploitation, without ever acknowledging this history, in order to cultivate an ethical crisis that is based on the victimization of white women.” Hopefully, “The Testaments” will do a better job of addressing this issue, but in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a few sentences relegate black people to a colony in the Midwest, never to be mentioned again.
Some readers have questioned whether a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” is necessary. In an Electric Literature article titled “Please, Margaret Atwood, Don’t Write a Sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,” Carrie Mullins argues that the timelessness of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will be lost by writing a sequel relevant to today’s politics and the Trump era. The fact that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now more relevant than ever—for example, women dressed in red and white handmaid outfits attended Kavanaugh’s hearing—works both for and against it.
Aside from the book’s setting and narrators, Atwood remains vague about the content of “The Testaments.” In January 2019, she described its cover, which swaps out the iconic red in handmaids’ outfits for a bright green, as a “concealed puzzle” with “hidden figures.”