Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, first published 35 years ago. The Handmaid’s Tale introduced us to a future in which the American government has been replaced with a theocratic state called Gilead, which struggles with the problems of reproduction due to accidents with nuclear power. A war is raging on its borders. And Atwood’s Canada is a sanctuary for fertile women pressed into the service of the state to forcibly bear babies for its hierarchy of Commanders. As part of Gileadean ideology, women conform to conservative sexual values and blindly accept the religious precepts of the state. Afterall, women are no longer allowed to read, except for the Aunts, a class of women, usually older, who help mould the women of the state, particularly its handmaids who are forced into reproduction. Apart from them there are the Marthas, house servants in the Commanders’ homes, and the Commanders’ wives.
There is a hint in the closing pages of the original novel that Atwood took her inspiration for Gilead from the theocratic state of Iran as well as Mormonism’s practice of polygamy in Utah during the nineteenth century. Taking that inspiration as an alternate future for the United States was novel in the 1980s. America was founded upon religious ideals, but Atwood’s imagining of Gilead was more a thought experiment that highlighted the implicit strictures placed upon women’s bodies rather than a projection of American religious culture into the future. Like much good science fiction, the future was really about contemporary issues. In reality, the book contributed to the ongoing feminist dialogue that was already decades old in Western culture.
Since the book’s publication there has been the movie with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duval – not a particularly gripping production as I remember – as well as the compelling television series, now into its second season, staring Elizabeth Moss. But in the 35 years since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has also become a symbol to counter conservative pushbacks against women’s rights in America. The handmaid outfit from the television series has become a symbol of protest against those encroachments, which encompasses, among other issues, the abortion debate as well as a misogynistic culture which many believe is enervated by President Trump. So, it was an interesting path Atwood had to tread in writing The Testaments. The sequel needed to return the reader to the world of Gilead, yet offer something new. It had to skirt around the television show which struck into new territory after the first season completed Offred’s story from the first novel. And Atwood was also cognisant of the cultural baggage her story had acquired over its 35 years. Her awareness is evident in her address to her readers on the bookmark I received with my copy of the novel: her inspiration, in part
is the world we have been living in. Her book had to accommodate the expectations that came with that, too.
On the whole, Atwood has successfully negotiated the competing needs in this new novel. She returns us to Gilead fifteen years after the closing events of The Handmaid’s Tale. But Offred’s account is gone. Instead, we are introduced to Aunt Lydia’s inner world, the experiences of Agnes, a young girl soon to be paired as a wife with a Commander, as well as Daisy, a young woman living in Canada with Neil and Melanie, owners of a second hand clothing store.
These voices naturally give us a different perspective of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale was a paranoid, claustrophobic novel, told almost entirely from the limited perspective of Offred, handmaid to Commander Waterford and his improbably named wife, Serena Joy. This difference is the source of the most significant difference between the two novels, and will either please or displease readers, depending on their expectations. Aunt Lydia’s narrative is the most compelling of the three, since it offers not only a broader understanding of Gilead society, but an insight into her own character: her personal and political beliefs; her opinions of the other aunts; her long game. In The Handmaid’s Tale she was a fairly unsympathetic character who oppresses the handmaids through her ideology and position, as well as her taser. In The Testaments Atwood has given her a backstory which explains her cooperation with the patriarchy of Gilead, and how she hopes to use the power she has attained over the years to change things for the better. Her narrative gives an insight into the world of the Commanders, the backstabbing culture of power of the Commanders and Aunts and provides much of the sardonic insights that are typical of Atwood’s style.
The plot revolves around circumstances that are borrowed from the television adaptation, namely the fate of Baby Nicole, the putative offspring of Commander Waterford, but in reality, the daughter of Offred and Nick, her Guardian-turned-lover. Baby Nicole has been spirited away to Canada and the state of Gilead has made her a symbol of purity as well as the tensions between Gilead and Canada. Her identity is now unknown as is her whereabouts. The Pearl Girls, missionaries from Gilead who are Aunts in training, are tasked with bringing back converts from their postings, but also, to look for Baby Nicole if their posting happens to be in Canada.
The use of multiple voices by Atwood – Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy – creates an expectation that the narrative will integrate their stories into one. As a result, there is a predictability about The Testaments that one never felt with The Handmaid’s Tale. The identity of Baby Nicole is obvious, as are other plot progressions once certain points are reached. This is what is the most significant difference between the two novels. The Handmaid’s Tale was a journey into a foreign world. It was unsettling and even offensive. Offred’s limited perspective left Gilead largely to be imagined and the story’s applicability one of the reader’s choosing. But if The Handmaid’s Tale was a journey inward, where rebellion occurred in the last most private corners of the human mind -
don’t let the bastards get you down - The Testaments is a journey outwards which trades the claustrophobic horror of Gilead for a story of escape. Meditation upon the human condition is traded for action and plot, speculation gets traded for explanation, and as I have said, once certain plot elements are reached, there is an inevitability as to where it all must go.
Given the cultural significance now accorded The Handmaid’s Tale, it was inevitable that The Testaments would be a big seller. And given this, it is easy to decry the novel as pandering to a popular desire for a merrier ending than The Handmaid’s Tale offers. To an extent, that seems true, since the plot becomes rushed in the last hundred pages, once the most pressing questions are answered. Yet one might also make a case that Atwood’s approach to this second novel was foreshadowed in the ending of the first, which hinted at the fall of Gilead in the Historical Notes section at the end, since Offred’s account and the Gileadean society have become a matter of historical debate. That too is a story Atwood may have felt compelled to tell. If the first book was an account of how power was exercised and control maintained, then the second might be about how that power diminishes: what human factors are involved in that.
To this extent The Testaments is an enjoyable read, and compelling enough, especially for the narrative of Aunt Lydia. But the impulse in the narrative to explain and resolve everything felt like a characteristic of popular fiction, which commensurately shed the speculative tone of the first novel as the story progressed. For that reason, this new novel isn’t as bold. It was a thought that occurred to me as I read the closing pages. Without revealing anything of importance, Professor Pieixoto, whose comments at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies close The Handmaid’s Tale, makes a return for the ending of The Testaments. His first words are by way of an apology for the jokes he made in the previous Symposium concerning the pun on tale/tail as part of the title given to Offred’s account, as well as the appellation he gives to the Underground Femaleroad to Canada: the
Underground Frailroad. I remember attending the filming of one of the last episodes of The Book Club, a production by our government broadcaster, in which The Handmaid’s Tale was reviewed. Jennifer Byrne, the show’s host, threw her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale offset, in an irritated response to Pieixoto’s smug remarks. The moment was cut from the final broadcast. I found it interesting that Atwood should have him apologise, now, since that may have been the response of many readers over the years. Was Atwood signalling that Pieixoto’s future society was improving? Or was the apology a nod to her readers. I hope not. Atwood has always toyed with provocative ideas, and I hope she continues to do so.
Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale should enjoy this novel if they approach it as an entertainment, that offers new perspectives and some answers.
My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years. Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far from the war, in the still heart of the tornado. So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line. We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror,they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.