Please, Margaret Atwood, Don’t Write a Sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
The author announced that she would be following up her 1985 classic with a sequel, but we’re skeptical
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Margaret Atwood announced on Wednesday that she is writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, to be published by Doubleday in September 2019. The Testaments will take place fifteen years after the events in The Handmaid’s Tale and will be narrated by three female characters. Nothing else was revealed about the plot, instead Atwood described her impetus for the work, saying, “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.” We are living in the age of sequels (and prequels, and trilogies) and I’m sure that a lot of people offered Atwood a lot of money for this project. I wish she’d said no.
It’s hard to remember now, after 8 million copies sold, but the initial reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale weren’t universally positive. A common critique was that Gilead was overwrought and implausible—that, in short, it didn’t feel like a sign of the times or a warning about the future. In the scather which Mary McCarthy wrote for The New York Times, she argued that Atwood had created a scenario that was “powerless to scare.” “Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition,” she wrote, but recognition is “strikingly missing” in The Handmaid’s Tale. This timelessness, of course, turned out to be one of the novel’s greatest strengths. In many of the best dystopias, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the adaptation of “real life” is so clearly tied to the present that this alt-existence feels terrifyingly plausible, but Atwood instead followed any number of real-world scenarios all the way down their slippery slopes to the worst possible outcome. In writing a book that didn’t tie itself to a specific cultural instance, Atwood gave us a text that remains relevant outside of the time it was created.
In writing a book that didn’t tie itself to a specific cultural instance, Atwood gave us a text that remains relevant outside of the time it was created.
That timelessness is threatened by proposing a sequel in this specific political moment. “Can [a cultural backlash] really move a nation to install a theocracy strictly based on the Book of Genesis?” McCarthy asked skeptically in 1985. These days, we aren’t as sure as we were that the answer is no. Atwood’s book, which has stood on its own for years as a critical text in many classrooms, has taken on fresh cultural relevancy. We can turn to it anew when Mike Pence says that he’ll only have dinner with Mother, or Betsy Devos tries to defend sexual assault on campus. I shivered seeing women dressed as handmaids hovering at the edge of Kavanaugh’s hearing, and hopefully some men did too. A book that wasn’t specific enough for 1985 turns out to be just the text we need in 2018.
Atwood risks all this by writing a sequel in direct response to the Trump era. For all that we are using The Handmaid’s Tale to help us cope, Trump’s America is not Gilead. It’s possible, if not likely, that the future will find women in this same situation of facing a threat to, if not an all-out assault on, our rights. Whatever she intended at the time, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t political satire. The best thing Atwood can do is leave the handmaids as they are, open to future interpretations.
There is also the risk of undoing the power of Atwood’s creation through over-saturation, which has already started thanks to the popularity of the television show and the explosion of handmaiden memes. The book has been made into a movie, an opera, and a TV series; there is a point at which it becomes too cliche to be powerful. Which leads us to the worst case scenario, which is that Atwood is selling out. Is it possible she hasn’t been influenced by all the hype around Hulu’s award-winning television series? Maybe, though it’s telling that the press release included one sentence written in bold: “The Testaments is not connected to the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood must be aware of the fact that people will assume she’s writing a sequel just to cash in on Hulu’s success, but even if it’s not a case where the lady doth protest too much, she’s inevitably dealing with the problem of creating original work after its source material has been adapted in a popular fashion: just look at the struggles of George R.R. Martin or Harper Lee. Add to that the simple fact that in any scenario, writing a sequel of a beloved book is tricky, and writing one long after the first book was published is doubly so, and the chances that this project is a success are slim.
Instead of writing our current predicament into The Testaments and risk creating a work that is overt political commentary and must grapple with other adaptations, Atwood should let her first novel stand alone.