TAC Bookshelf: In Defense of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Testaments’
Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
Kelley Vlahos, executive editor: In September, my colleague Micah Mattix called Margaret Atwood’s new novel Testaments a “poor woman’s Handmaid’s Tale.” Well, call me a poor woman with a big fat smile on my face.
Perhaps late to the party, I finished the sequel to Atwood’s 1986 Handmaid’s Tale and was delighted to find how wrong Mattix was. My general impression was that first, he isn’t a fan of Atwood, a prolific writer of mystery, sci-fi, and subversive drama for 50 years, and second, that he has, like many of us, been repulsed by the woke Left’s incessant appropriation of her classic book. Sadly, it wasn’t necessarily the book, but the uber-popular, “award winning” Hulu series that’s become a lavish visual touchtone for the Trump Resistance—replete with women showing up at protests donning the handmaid’s blood-red woolen dresses and white bonnets. To be sure, having watched the series, it is difficult to separate the ham-fisted agenda the writers have woven into the show from the original material, which was written during a much different period (more on that in a minute) in our political history.
There is so much to say about Testaments, but in the interest of not spoiling the fun, I will only offer this: I see it as Atwood “taking back” her 1986 tale and returning it, however gently and graciously, to the allegory of human nature and tyranny she intended it to be before the Resistance coopted it.
Testaments occurs 15 years after the protagonist Offred (who, as a handmaid, has been used as a breeder in a home where the wife of a commander cannot bear children) seemingly escaped the fictional patriarchy of Gilead. This tyranny, which followed a long period of declining birthrates and unrest, was the result of an armed revolution in which religious fundamentalists overthrew the government and tore up the U.S. Constitution. Women of childbearing age who are not among the higher social ranks are installed against their will as talismans of fertility into the homes of commanders and their wives and sent along when they’re no longer needed. The children are then handed over to the wives for raising. The handmaids are told that “The Republic of Gilead…knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.” This establishes that Gilead’s clear progenitor is Orwell’s Oceania, the most oppressive tyranny in modern literature.
The narrative is twisted and dark, if only broadly defined in terms of how these people could act against their natures so violently as to enslave and essentially lobotomize their mothers, daughters, and sisters—and with such zeal and success.
Mattix claims that the sequel has little to say about “the world we’ve been living in” and even less to say about the “logic of tyranny.” Here is where I disagree most.
Testaments is the story of Offred’s two daughters and, more importantly, Aunt Lydia, the fearsome top female lieutenant to the high commander in Gilead, and for whom the entire fate of Gilead turns. In Lydia’s evolution, we see Atwood’s design. In order for Gilead’s tyranny to work, the men needed women at ground zero. Lydia was broken but came to this responsibility of free will; she was not forced. She, along with other key women of strength and talent, wrote and enforced the rules with an iron fist, tortured and brainwashed young women, legitimized the new order. They were afforded freedoms and prestige. Why they did it is for the reader to find out. But clearly Atwood, who is able to ruminate and channel human behavior like no other author of her generation, would not be satisfied with writing a mere feminist manifesto. She is a woman, yes, but a clear-eyed observer of life first. This is a book about tyranny and its inevitable unsustainability. And yes, it takes men and women to get there.
At risk of injecting my own politically tainted bias, I will say only this. Atwood may have become a hero of the feminist Left when the Hulu series took off, but it was frightening to see how quickly they turned on herin early 2018 when she dared to defend a male university professor who had found himself subjected to a #MeToo kangaroo court. Atwood’s classical liberal instincts were met with the fascistic impulse to shut down free speech and dissent—the same elements that lead to an Oceania, or a Gilead.
Societal conditions were certainly different when Atwood wrote Handmaid’s Tale in 1986. There is no question she wondered and warned about the extraordinary political power of the Moral Majority and Christian Right in her portrait of dystopian theocracy. But perhaps some of what she has seen recently (particularly in her native Canada)—the need to silence, to remove “triggers,” to condemn without due process, all coming from the woke Resistance—are somehow at play, however sotto voce, in Testaments, too.
Word is that Hulu has already bought the rights to the sequel. So my best advice is to read it and absorb it, before all the good stuff is left on the cutting floor. And take off the Trump (anti- or otherwise) glasses first.
Casey Chalk, contributor: There’s no shortage of books by prominent religious conservatives analyzing our current socio-political distemper, providing explanations as to its origins, and offering solutions to this fundamental crisis of the West. We can place in this category Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, and Scott Hahn’s The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order. To this growing list, we can now add First Things editor R.R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West.
As an established scholar, a captivating speaker, and successful magazine editor (many would say he saved First Things from irrelevancy after Richard John Neuhaus’ death), Reno is certainly well-positioned to add his voice to the chorus. And he doesn’t disappoint. Reno’s pithy observations will ring familiar with TAC audiences. “Our societies are dissolving. Economic globalization shreds the social contract. Identity politics disintegrates civic bonds,” he notes. He rightly indicts the idealized post-World War II “open society” that eschews “strong loves” in favor of social and economic liberalization, and promotes individual autonomy from religious, social, and political obligations. Though the promise of these “weak gods” is freedom, this openness actually weakens and disenchants. And a society fashioned on weakness and disenchantment is on its way to ruin.
Thus, contra the liberal mainstream media’s daily warnings about the impending threat of fascism and racism, the most dire threat to America and the West is a decline in solidarity, in shared loves, in a “we” that is “the political subject in public life.” The remedy to this socio-political weakening is a counterforce of strengthening—of families, of religious devotion, and of civic commitments. We must, says Reno, “entertain new metaphysical dreams.” He concludes: “Our task, therefore, is to restore public life in the West by developing a language of love and a vision of the ‘we’ that befits our dignity and appeals to our reason as well as to our hearts.”
I find little with which to disagree with Reno. Perhaps this is because so much of what he offers by way of solutions sounds like Dreher, Esolen, Chaput, Deneen, Hahn, and many others. Yes, these laudable warriors of religious conservatism approach the problem from different angles, with their own scholarly and analytic nuance, sometimes in tension with one another. But the refrain is more or less the same: restore families, restore faith, and restore civic pietas. Their message is true. But is it enough? Are we convincing those outside our seemingly shrinking circles of religious conservative influence? Are our political leaders, many of whom remain committed to the weak gods of openness, paying attention? Reno is right. The question is whether enough Americans are listening, and if they’re not, how to waken them from their dogmatic slumber.