Dystopian literature is all the rage these days — and given the current state of the world, it makes sense. While a new generation of dystopian authors emerges, the works of older authors have gained a second life. None have seemed to stand the tests of time longer than The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Fans of the 1985 tale have easily drawn parallels to our current administration’s oppressive legislation, and the result has been the book’s cultural resurgence. It has inspired an expansive TV show, numerous feminist protests in its name and aesthetic, and some pretty poor capitalist cash grabs (as these things often do).
Most surprisingly of all, it seems the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale has also inspired Margaret Atwood herself. She recently announced that a sequel novel entitled The Testaments will be released in September 2019. This new story takes place 15 years after the first book and will star three new female characters from Gilead.
It’s an interesting announcement — one that seems to be dividing the book world. On one hand, any new work by Atwood is absolutely exciting. But in an era oversaturated with prequels, sequels, and other needlessly expansive material, is this particular sequel even necessary? Conflicted ourselves, Bookmarked held a recent roundtable to discuss the news. Check it out below (and if you want, let us know your thoughts about The Handmaid’s Tale sequel as well)!
Bookmarked: So, what do you think about The Handmaid’s Tale sequel announcement?
Paige Allen: Here, I’ll kick things off with a simple take — I hate it. This feels like Icarus flying too close to the sun on coattails of former glory. I’m afraid we’re all going to watch Atwood get burnt by this latest endeavor.
Amy Lea Clemons: I’m glad Paige and I are on the same page. I think there are a lot of ways this could “burn” Atwood, and I’m getting both enraged and pre-embarrassed about it.
When Atwood initially wrote her novel, it was an extrapolation of dominant Anglo-American (and Canadian, specifically) positions on feminism. While our current situations, sadly, have degraded back to those ’80s concerns, they are not inherently the same. We have thirty years of literature, feminist movements, social media manifestos, intersections, and other intertexts that are in our discourses. We are all hyper-aware of how we do feminism in public. Just as the original novel wasn’t created in a vacuum, this sequel — if it is to be effective — will have to account for things like racial intersectionality; a widening sphere of LGBTQIA concerns; the shifts in the late ’80s and ’90s in how the religious right did PR; and the fact that her book did, in fact, change how we react to specific cultural events (even for those who disagree with her). Her book has become a shorthand for so much in our culture; how can a sequel improve upon that kind of argumentative force? How can a new book hope to adequately account for all of these changes and still be cohesive with the story world she initially created?
Her book has become a shorthand for so much in our culture; how can a sequel improve upon that kind of argumentative force? How can a new book hope to adequately account for all of these changes and still be cohesive with the story world she initially created?
I’m also concerned about this sequel undoing the ending of the original. The “epilogue” of The Handmaid’s Tale, a 5-ish page postscript to the main text, asks readers to re-think not just Offred’s story but stories and their truthiness in general. That reflexive meta move in the last few pages put a lot of the interpretive burden back on the readers. While it does extend the story beyond Offred’s own telling (as the sequel will), it doesn’t do so in order to satisfy us with definite worldbuilding. It keeps us uncertain by asking us to view Gilead not as white middle-class women but as the male First Nation academics who present its content to their future students. It gives us another view of the motives, causation, and feminism presented in the story — even if it’s problematic. That multi-vocal endgame denies us the easy answers I fear we get in the Hulu series and ones I’m afraid will appear in the sequel.
That epilogue ends with the academic presenter asking “Are there any questions?” for a reason: it is inviting dialogue. It wants readers to build the story and logic with Atwood and her characters. It gives us the power to critique and asks us to do something other than sit around lecturing each other. I fear a sequel will drown out the 30+ years of voices about this novel and will silence us in patriarchal ways that Atwood does not intend.
Melissa Brinks: I am also not optimistic.
Now, I love The Handmaid’s Tale. I think it’s a wonderful piece of art and an important story that needed telling. At the same time, there are some things that I think could use more emphasis in the novel, and specific angles that get missed by Offred being a straight white woman. But is Margaret Atwood the person to write this missing information now?
With her response to the firing of Steven Galloway and the subsequent backlash to that response, I question whether hers is the viewpoint we need today. To be frank, her response to the Galloway firing and her subsequent “bad feminist” essay for The Globe and Mail both do not fill me with hope for whatever a Handmaid’s Tale sequel might contain. In 2018 and beyond, I don’t know that the same white woman telling the same story of white oppression is the one that we need. Honestly? Just let it be.
Louis Skye: The Handmaid’s Tale was a pretty difficult read and the show is hard to watch. However, it is sadly relevant to our times so I think it makes sense for Atwood to write a sequel… as long as she doesn’t go down the Go Set A Watchman route.
Having said that, if the book is going to be set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, I really hope it has a more optimistic outlook. I understand the need for writers to show the world as it is. However, at a time like this, we need something that gives us hope. So ultimately I’m looking forward to the sequel, but I will keep my enthusiasm in check until after I read it.
Lisa Fernandes: I’m also moderately hopeful, though I agree with all of Melissa’s caveats. The fact that Atwood’s still alive to oversee the editing of the story leaves me with something like anticipation too. This is a big, wide fictional universe she’s created, and I’d love to see new stories from it that have nothing to do with Offred or examine what Offred is doing post-canon.
It’s really possible this sequel will be a total mess. For now, I’ll just cross my fingers for it being at least decently captivating.
Kate Tanski: Look, I’ll be honest — even with all of the very valid concerns expressed by everyone here, I’m going to read it. I may hate it, but I’m still going to read it. When I first read the book in the ’90s in high school, I thought it was out of touch. I thought there was no way that anything like what was mentioned in the book could come to pass. Ever. It seemed like a time capsule of fears borne out of a time that, for me, never existed.
The TV series and the current political climate have revitalized the book’s timeliness. It’s now relevant for today’s audience in a way that perhaps it wasn’t relevant 20 years ago, when a sequel would never have happened. It’s a dystopian novel, so it’s designed to warn us of what could happen so we make sure it never can. I’m curious how this sequel is going to fit into all this — whether it’s just an extension of the universe, or if Atwood is going to show us something else, some other possible path for us to save ourselves. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a J.K. Rowling-type situation where you wish she’d never written in this universe again.