From fiction to nonfiction: Margaret Atwood’s portrayal of a dystopia

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There are a lot of things today that feel dark, almost dystopian. In recent years we have seen the horrid conditions in immigration detention centers, elimination of environmental protections and actions against reproduction rights, among other things. All seem like the makings for a great dystopian novel — and honestly, if you’re curious, Margaret Atwood’s already written it.

In 1984, Margaret Atwood began writing her epic dystopian tale “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and in 2017, Hulu released an adaptation of the novel with the same title. Now in 2019, Atwood has released “The Testaments,” a sequel set 15 years after the events of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Although it’s the same universe, the stakes of her newest work are different. In the afterword to “The Testaments,” Atwood notes “Thirty-five years is a long time to think about possible answers…possibilities have become actualities.” These stories are scary, mostly because truly reading them involves moving her work from the fiction shelf to the nonfiction one. In fact, the world exists in a strange state of historical fiction, and as Atwood poignantly puts it, “No event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.”

What’s so spectacular about Atwood’s work is her ability to access the emotions within the nuanced loss of rights, scapegoating and desperation in disaster situations. More than that, especially in “The Testaments,” Atwood presents a dangerous game we may play between environmental protection and human rights (when removing certain “freedoms” may be the most efficient means of environmental protection enforcement). Reading her work is an ontological exploration of what it means to be a human when the structures of the world around you are suddenly completely overturned. 

But reading this kind of fiction is an essential kind of disaster preparedness. It is a lesson in how close we are to chaos, and how quickly we could fall off that cliff if we aren’t careful. 

Hulu’s television show supplies more detail of the novel’s dystopia — from details of the breakdown of society to the construction of Gilead, an oppressive regime that uses strict societal hierarchies, deep misogyny and gratuitous biblical violence to preserve the peace. In the show, we see women lose access to their bank accounts, LGBTQ+ professors get fired and those who realize what is happening trying to flee to Canada before the climactic coup. 

In “The Testaments,” we meet three new characters, a girl smuggled from Gilead who grows up in Canada, a girl who grows up in a privileged household within Gilead and is forced to marry at 13 years old, and a founding aunt who created the structures and schools that keep women oppressed in Gilead. Through their perspectives, the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” becomes not just a dystopian novel with a female heroine, but a nuanced examination of femininity. 

Although Gilead is all about the subordination of women, Atwood’s work is a celebration of women. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an examination of female oppression, “The Testaments” is a proclamation of women’s power, a reminder that, in the long run, we will never be subordinate. What’s more is that her work is essential to understanding the value of reproduction and the danger of suppressing a woman’s rights in regards to her own body. 

This is the power of great fiction. Atwood takes things currently present in our society and shows us just how close we are to a complete dystopia. But in the same way she also shows us how strong we are. She reminds us that this is not an inevitable reality, but a preventable one. Women fight back, rebel, speak out. We aren’t just pieces to be moved around, we are powerful actors and advocates for ourselves, no matter how the structures of oppression try to keep us down. 

Preparing for disaster often prioritizes concrete actions: building reinforcements, stockpiling resources, protecting the vulnerable. But today, with our country living in a perpetual state of political division and disaster preparedness, reading is an essential form of preparation. Atwood’s lesson is clear — the past informs the present. 

Moreover, reading fiction allows us to enter spheres of unknowing, where the rules of the game are different. Similarly, in a disaster, all of the rules of the game are different. In reading about different places, times and people, we are more able to comprehend the extent of our actions, as well as the value of human rights and environmental protections. Atwood forces us to recognize the value of ourselves as individuals in fighting inequality and oppression in the face of disaster.  

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].