Deep Read | 1 April 2020

Toxic Bodies


Hello Deep Readers,

We hope everyone is staying safe, sane, adequately fed, and well-read in these crazy times. It has been great reading and responding to so many of you going deep into Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.

We had some excellent reader responses exploring the hidden meanings of the names of the characters in the novel. Sonya from Santa Cruz went deep with many of the names in the book, including the observation that “the importance of names is also conveyed by the frequent assignation of them—who gets to assign them to whom or whether one is able to choose one for oneself.” Sonya also notes that “Nicole, a Greek name, fittingly means ‘people’s victory.’” Did anyone else find any compelling symbols or hidden meanings beyond the names as they read? Please reply and email us your thoughts!

This week, we will approach The Testaments through the lens of Environmental Anthropology with the help of Dr. Andrew Mathews, a UC Santa Cruz Anthropology Professor. Dr. Mathews is an avid Margaret Atwood reader whose current book project, Plant Politics, investigates climate change, biomass energy politics, and Anthropocene futures in Italian landscapes. His project analyzes human/plant/pathogen interactions which affect contemporary landscapes and politics. We spoke with him about his approach to Atwood, The Testaments, and reading in our current moment of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Deep Read: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Andrew! Let’s kick things off with an idea you raised at our Deep Read Salon a few weeks back—“toxicity of the body.” Can you share some thinking on this concept and how it might relate to Atwood?

Andrew Mathews: Literary theorist Rob Nixon writes about how toxicity is narrated as grossly misshapen bodies. This is what he calls slow violence. Slow violence takes place at a pace that is not picked up in the narrative arc of the realist novel, which mostly focuses on interactions in the present.

The backstory of The Handmaid’s Tale is environmental change and pollution and the fact that only a relatively small number of women are fertile. In another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake, there is a backstory of a worldwide pathogen epidemic, and there are the Crakers—whose bodies are different because they have been engineered. In sum, then, I would say that reading the novels for the environmental backstory as a kind of enduring toxicity sets the stage for what is going on during the dramatic arc of the actual novel. This backstory, when taken seriously, suggests the consistent presence of misshapen or damaged bodies, or bodies which are invisibly damaged through the effects of toxicity on fertility (The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).

The Deep Read: Generally, how do you approach a novel to read it deeply and through your particular academic lens?

Andrew Mathews: Hmm. I’m not fancy—I just read it and see what ideas it sparks off. In a more academic sense, I am interested in how writers construct narratives of encounter between entities that are very different from each other. There is some of that in Oryx and Crake in which the protagonist keeps getting interpreted as a god by the Crakers. More broadly, science fiction writers have tried to write about human/geological relations (N.K. Jemisin) and human/plant relations (Semiosis, a brilliant novel by Sue Burke). I study global climate change and disaster, including disease epidemics. This requires me to think about human/plant/soil/weather/pathogen relations—and I think that the realist mode of the novel (or of ethnography) struggles to handle the very strange events that can happen, and especially, how very long-term processes can affect the human scale of experience. Science fiction begs authors to create relationships between people, political forces, and the environment that wouldn’t normally occur in everyday life (or in realistic fiction).

Margaret Atwood, in some ways, is following this, as she is thinking about how environmental change of a particular kind—environmental pollution affecting human fertility in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments—could lead to a sudden change in a social system, such as a virulent patriarchy taking control. As current events are now showing us, sudden changes are a feature of the contemporary moment, but we are very bad at remembering this and making it a feature of our planning. Science fiction, or speculative fiction as Atwood refers to it, helps us remember.

The Deep Read: How do you see the novel’s depiction of rapid social change relating to your work and worldview? Is it instructive to connect the COVID-19-driven social change we’re experiencing now to the novel? Andrew Mathews: I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall (nobody was expecting that…), and we are now living in an experimental moment. If government health care planners and politicians had been reading science fiction, they might have built up proper stockpiles of necessary medications/medical equipment. COVID-19 has already caused dramatic social change, and there is more coming. A truly universal public health care system seems quite possible. I believe that environmental and medical policy should be informed by science fiction and history (which also shows dramatic and very rapid social change). Planners and policymakers are way too conservative in their assumptions, because they assume that the recent present is going to last.

Change is the Only Constant

Dr. Mathews brings up a lot of really compelling ideas that can inform how we read The Testaments and our world. Let’s take up the idea of rapid social change first, one that most of us are personally grappling with. How do you see rapid change play out in the novel? Do you see this rapid change connected to environmental issues like Dr. Mathews highlights? What does Aunt Lydia’s story of her transition into Gilead life and leadership tell you? How does Aunt Lydia grapple with rapid social change or environmental issues? How about the various abrupt changes Nicole’s character goes through, from shifts in her understanding of her identity to the role she must suddenly play to put a stop to the oppressive regime in Gilead? How do fictional depictions of drastic shifts help us grapple with such shifts in our lives? Since we started reading this novel together, many aspects of our lives have shifted drastically. Do you see echoes of your experience in the novel? Tell us what you see and why that might be significant.

As always, send your thoughts, ideas, and observations to Or you can reply to this email. We’ve received so much great feedback over email—we’ll share more of your responses next week.

Be well,

-The Deep Read