After Donald Trump’s election, sales of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s canonical 1985 novel of theocratic totalitarianism, spiked, along with other dystopian classics like George Orwell’s “1984.”
Atwood’s book takes place in a world where a clique of Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the U.S. government and instituted the rigidly patriarchal Republic of Gilead. Environmental calamity has left many people infertile, and an unfortunate class of women who can have children, the Handmaids, are stripped of their identities and consigned to reproductive slavery for the elite.
It’s hardly surprising that in 2016 the book resonated with people — particularly women — stunned that a brazen misogynist, given to fascist rhetoric and backed by religious fundamentalists, was taking power despite the wishes of the majority of the population. As the Trump administration proceeded, and once unthinkable things became unremarkable, Atwood’s classic seemed more and more prescient.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a mother trying to flee across the border to Canada has her daughter snatched from her arms. Doctors who perform abortions are hanged as murderers. I don’t know if that felt far-fetched in 1985, but in 2019 Alabama passed a law making most abortions a crime punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
“This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will,” Aunt Lydia, a villainous enforcer for the Gilead regime, tells women being forcibly conscripted as Handmaids. In Trump’s America, “The Handmaid’s Tale” came to represent determination to not let that happen, a determination also represented by the Resistance refrain, “This is not normal.” (You don’t hear that phrase much anymore; Aunt Lydia’s words were truer than many of us realized.)
At the first Women’s March, protesters carried signs with slogans like, “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!” and “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’s’ not an instruction manual!” A TV adaptation of the novel, which debuted on Hulu in April 2017, had been in the works before the election, but it gained a new gravity.
“It’s not that anything in the script changed. But the frame changed, so that people were going to see it differently,” Atwood told me last year, when I had the chance to interview her onstage at the Women in the World summit.
Soon, the Handmaids’ costume was adopted by feminist protesters all over the country, and in several other parts of the world.
You could argue that all this is melodrama; living under Trump may be degrading, but American women are incomparably freer than those in, for example, Saudi Arabia, a society that seems far closer to Gilead than our own. Then again, in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” America hadn’t crumbled all at once. Recalling her old existence, the book’s heroine wondered at how normal life went on even as horrors filled the newspapers. “Nothing changes instantaneously: In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it,” she said.
In the rise of reactionary populism in the West, Atwood herself saw a shrinking distance between reality and the world she’d imagined. “Instead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it, especially in the United States,” she said in London Tuesday. In February 2017, she said, she informed her publisher she was writing a “Handmaid’s Tale” sequel.
That triumphant and long-awaited new novel, “The Testaments,” came out this week. It would be a literary event in any period; in ours, it’s a cultural phenomenon. Atwood launched the book with a sold-out live event at London’s National Theater that was broadcast at around 1,000 cinemas around the world. Readers lined up at bookstores at midnight ahead of its release, like kids awaiting the new “Harry Potter.” Reviews have been mostly glowing. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Naturally, “The Testaments” is being mined for insights into our current predicament. That’s the point of dystopias — to figure out where society might be going. But here’s what’s shocking about the book: Rather than a warning, it reads, in 2019, like wish fulfillment. Instead of a new glimpse of hell, it’s a riveting and deeply satisfying escapist fantasy. Gilead is far more barbarous than all but a few contemporary societies, but it’s vulnerable in a way that modern populist autocracies are not, because even if women have little power in Gilead, truth does.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” came out near the end of the Cold War, and Atwood has said she was inspired by mid-20th-century works of anti-totalitarian speculative fiction like “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” These books depict closed, airless societies, where despots control access to information, which is charged with tremendous importance. In “1984,” history has been obliterated. In “Fahrenheit 451,” all books are banned, while in “The Handmaid’s Tale” reading is illegal for (most) women. The regimes in these books are smothering and all-encompassing, but facts could, at least theoretically, endanger them.
For a long time, the notion that truth threatens totalitarianism was taken for granted. In the Soviet Union, the regime jammed foreign radio broadcasts, and people risked prison to pass around forbidden books.
“Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal,” wrote Vaclav Havel in 1978, a decade before he became the first post-Communist president of what was then Czechoslovakia. He continued: “There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”
This is the case in Gilead, and it’s what gives words their salvific potential. The heroine of “The Handmaid’s Tale” describes herself as “ravenous for news,” and is sustained by the mock Latin phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” which translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It is scratched, presumably by one of her predecessors, on the floor of the closet in the room where she sleeps. (This phrase has since become totemic, reproduced on T-shirts and in tattoos, necklaces and needlepoint.)
Words are even more important in “The Testaments.” (If you don’t want spoilers, you should stop reading now.) One of the book’s great surprises is that the seemingly fanatical Aunt Lydia is actually part of the resistance inside the Gilead Administration, and she does a better job of it than the anonymous Trump official who wrote The New York Times Op-Ed essay. An opportunist rather than a true believer, she joined the new regime to avoid being killed by it, and though she’s complicit in its crimes, she helps take it down by publishing its secrets.
Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Testaments” has a coda set far in the future, at a Gileadean studies academic symposium. The information released by Aunt Lydia, a scholar said, “touched off the so-called Ba’al Purge that thinned the ranks of the elite class, weakened the regime, and instigated a military putsch as well as a popular revolt.” It’s this that makes “The Testaments” feel so optimistic. Imagine: a world where exposing the misdeeds of a regime could unravel it!
That’s been a constant hope of the Trump years. Those who abhor him have dreamed of seeing his depravity and corruption proven in a way that can’t be denied, whether with the fabled pee tape, the Mueller report or rumored outtakes from “The Apprentice” where he’s said to spout racial slurs. Yet again and again, Trump’s depravity and corruption are proven in a way that can’t be denied, and it doesn’t matter.
We’ve all heard him boasting of sexual assault on tape. The Mueller report found that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” A Times investigation documented abundant evidence of tax fraud by Trump, and showed that he owes much of his wealth to his father. Prosecutors said he directed hush money payments to a pornographic film actress and a former Playboy model, campaign finance crimes that helped land his former attorney in prison. You don’t need a secret recording to prove the president is a racist; the evidence is on Twitter.
And it’s not just in the U.S. that truth has lost its political salience. Naked censorship continues to exist, but it’s augmented by the manipulation of search algorithms, and by trolls and bots harassing dissidents and spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. Truth is less suppressed than drowned out.
Contemporary propaganda, wrote P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking in “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” “is colorful and exciting, reflecting the tastes of the digital age. It is a cocktail of moralizing, angry diatribes, and a celebration of traditional values, constantly mixed with images of scantily clad women.” There’s a solemn churchlike hush in Gilead. Modern authoritarianism is often as lurid and cacophonous as a casino.
Dystopian fictions that extrapolate from this shift are starting to appear. (Though young adult novels had a head start: “The Hunger Games” foresaw the nightmare of fascism run as a reality show.) There’s a scene in “Years and Years,” a recent series co-produced by HBO and the BBC, where Vivienne Rook, the sly British demagogue played by Emma Thompson, was asked about the spread of fraudulent, digitally created videos of her political rivals making inflammatory statements. “Oh, of course they’re fake videos. Everyone can see they’re not real,” she said to an interviewer. Then she added, with faux concern, “All the same, they really did say those things, didn’t they?” Soon after, she was elected prime minister.
“Years and Years” is harrowing because it’s only half a step away from our present, where reality feels as if it’s disintegrating under the weight of digital simulacra and epistemological nihilism. Ultimately, though, it concluded with the same Enlightenment assurance as “The Testaments.” Rook’s government fell after guerrilla activists broadcast live footage from her secret migrant concentration camps. Nothing similar, needless to say, happened in the United States when pictures of our own squalid migrant camps emerged. If there was a theme song of our era, it would be Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.”
“Writing dystopias and utopias is a way of asking the reader the question, ‘Where do you want to live?’” Atwood said when I talked to her last year. “And where you end up living is going to depend partly on what you do now.” “The Testaments,” it turns out, isn’t a dystopian work at all. It’s utopian. By the time it’s over, Gilead is a relic, and scholars in a more enlightened time are studying the women who subverted it. Praise be! Our descendants should be so lucky.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.