Riveting, provocative, and harrowing are a couple of the words that have been used to describe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was first published in 1985. You could also add beloved, as this dystopian novel has won legions of fans and great popularity and been made into a movie, an opera, and a recent streaming series that sparked popular conversation in these divisive times.
The story—set in the fictional but New England-like theocracy of Gilead, ruled by harsh fundamentalists—shares how women were stripped of their rights and enslaved to serve men. Some (the titular handmaids) must bear children for higher-status couples who are infertile, but all are forbidden to read, write, or use their names. The lead character’s name, Offred, for instance, means “Of Fred,” hinging her identity on the man, Fred, whom she serves.
Part of the inspiration for the sequel, says Atwood, is the world we’re living in now.
The book clearly re-struck a nerve in this current political moment, when so many of us feel the rights of females are under attack. Sales of the book tallied over three million copies in the last two years, the Hulu-produced series won numerous awards, and women dressed in the handmaid uniform described on Atwood’s pages—red robes and white bonnets—appeared at protests aimed at protecting women’s rights to choice and health-care access.
We now know that the author, 79, also sees the frightening link between her work and the current threats to women’s rights. She announced that she will publish The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, in September 2019. Here is how she described why she decided to return to the story: “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”
Atwood has gone on the record before about the importance of literature bearing witness to tense political times and injustice. Last year, she wrote the following: “In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere—many, I would guess—are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it.”
Her return to the story of Gilead and the subjugated women in it promises to be part of this powerful movement. You can pre-order The Testaments here.