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At Dartmouth, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ author offers rays of hope in ‘dystopia’

  • Margaret Atwood answers questions from the audience after her talk as part of the Ethics Institute's Dorsett Fellowship Lecture Series in the Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. Atwood is most well-known for her novel "The Handmaid's Tale." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Jamieson, of Montpelier, Vt., reads Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing" before Atwood's talk in the Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. "It's Margaret Atwood!" Jamieson said of why she made the trip. "She's a god." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sophomore biology majors Neelufar Raja, left, and Jenny Chen look at the Margaret Atwood books for sale outside the Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. "It was really good," they both said after Atwood's talk. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ethics Institute Director Sonu Bedi and novelist Margaret Atwood say a final goodbye to the audience in the Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. The largest venue on campus was full as Atwood delivered her talk. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, April 18, 2019

HANOVER — Novelist Margaret Atwood toyed briefly with the idea of titling her Thursday afternoon talk at Dartmouth College something along the lines of “Rays of Hope.”

Then she Etch-a-Sketched it in favor of something more befitting the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and many more stories of manmade worlds gone awry settling on “In Deepest Dystopia.”

“I’ll try to end with a few reasons to be hopeful,” the slyly impish, 79-year-old Canadian author said at the start of her lecture, sponsored by the college’s Ethics Institute. “But first, the main course: Turn on your flashlights. We’re going into the cave.”

What followed was an exploration that Jennifer Sargent spent almost two hours waiting in line for outside the 900-seat Spaulding Auditorium.

Sargent attended the 4:30 p.m. event with more than a dozen students in her freshman seminar, “Looks, Looks-ism and the Law.”

“I told them to be here by 2, because the place was going to fill up,” said Sargent, who teaches writing and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”

Even before a full house of students, faculty and members of the general public proved Sargent right, her freshmen knew that Sargent has been crazy about the prolific and often prophetic novelist since her teens, in the early 1980s.

“Especially for the ones who might not take another literature course the rest of their time here, I hope that seeing her and reading her work can light a fire,” Sargent said before the event. “I know they’re going to come away with a message that resonates with them. She’s extremely relevant.”

How relevant became clear in 2017, when Hulu started streaming a serial adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which follows the ordeal of women forced to bear children for infertile couples in a rigid, patriarchal theocracy that replaces the country formerly known as the United States.

Atwood wrote the novel in the mid-1980s, inspired in part by time she spent in Soviet-bloc countries during the Cold War and by the emergence of the Moral Majority and other movements whose goals, she recalled, “included stuffing women back into the home.”

At the time, some critics dismissed it as far-fetched.

Then came the election of President Donald Trump, which ushered in, in the eyes of many Americans in general and women in particular, setback for women’s reproductive rights.

Also alarming to Atwood is the rollback of regulations aimed at keeping air and water clean by an administration “that doesn’t give a pile of dog … hair … about whether we live or fry.”

So where are the rays of hope?

“The under-20s are demanding changes,” Atwood said, pointing in particular to Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, the climate activist who has caught the ear of, among others, Pope Francis.

“I myself will shortly exit the scene, and this will not be my problem,” Atwood said. “It will be yours.”

Atwood reiterated the point while answering questions from the audience, especially when audience members in their late teens and early 20s asked her what responsibility novelists have to nudge the culture in healthier directions.

“Telling artists that they have a special ethical duty … that lets everybody else off the hook,” she said. “Everybody who lives in a society has a duty of some kind toward that society.”

Citing Australia’s mandate for all eligible voters to go to the polls, she added, “Thousands died to get that vote. ‘The dog ate my homework’ is not an excuse for not voting. So there.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

Margaret Atwood is 79. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age.