“You think that festering shithead can be renewed?” I said. “Burn it all down!”
“Why would you want to harm so many people?” she asked gently. “It’s my country. It’s where I grew up. It’s being ruined by the leaders. I want it to be better.”
Shamefully, I first read The Handmaid’s Tale only a couple of years ago. It was sitting on bookshop feature table, carefully nestled amongst some of science-fiction’s heavy hitters; Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. What was this peculiar novel with a cover that looked like a cross between Sense and Sensibility and Mein Campf?
“Dad’s books”, as my son calls the science-fiction section of any bookshop, are usually hidden away on a dark shelf at the back of the store next to the manga with the dubious cover art. Not one to want to discourage a mainstream bookshop from highlighting science fiction novels, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale and in doing so discovered yet another dystopian classic.
Through whatever means of fate, I’d never heard of the book or the author, Margaret Atwood, for which I should be rightly be sent to Particution, and it sat languishing on my shelf for several weeks before I was finally ready to pick it up.
Needless to say, The Handmaid’s Tale became, and remains, one of my favourite novels in the genre. I’ve long had a fascination with the concept of a “closing society”, or how a population transitions from one state of political ideology to another, and this has directed much of my reading into 1930s Europe and historical Russia and Ukraine. Offred’s story of oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale brilliantly describes one such society, which in this case happens to be the transition of the former United States to the puritanical theocracy of Gilead. Shortly after reading The Handmaid I started making my way through other of Atwood’s novels.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Released 35 years after the original, The Testaments is Atwood’s belated follow up to the classic The Handmaid’s Tale. The narrative picks up 15 years later, dutifully bunny hopping the television series, no doubt to the relief of its producers and cast, and apparently selecting a few choice cuts from the show, which I’ve yet to see.
But it’s impossible to talk about The Testaments without comparison to its predecessor. The original novel, disturbing in its prescience and oppressive in its storytelling spawned some of the most iconic literary imagery ever put to paper, which has been used by by various groups across the globe to rail against their oppressors.
Can Atwood’s latest novel reach the evangelical heights of success of the original? Of course not, but let’s find out more anyway.
The Handmaid’s Tale as a Warning
If The Handmaid’s Tale was a warning of a potential future, The Testaments is a route out the current political situation now that we’re so much closer to Atwood’s dystopian world of Gilead. Set 15 years after the original novel, this is Atwood shouting, “Wasn’t I clear enough the first time? Okay, here’s something you might get your head around.”
The Testaments is darker, has greater scope, and speaks with far greater clarity about the threats posed by the evangelical far-right and the structures that need to be put in place in order to achieve their goals. In the 35 years since the previous novel, Atwood has absorbed the impact of an emboldened political far-right, the warping of social norms caused by social media, and the trend for victim blaming and brought that to the fore in her new novel.
One scene, in which a group of ‘feral’ handmaids admonish one of their own with screams of “Her fault!” when she admits under duress to having been gang-raped, raises transparent comparisons to the chants of “Lock her up!” and “Send her back!” at political rallies that have not gone unnoticed by Atwood. It’s also no coincidence that several of the powerful male characters, of which there are scant few, bare resemblances to current political personalities.
While this is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s not a direct continuation of Offred’s story, and nor should it be. To sully the ambiguously dark but perfect ending to the first novel would be a disservice to the reader; although fans of the original will see subtle glimpses of the original novel’s character if they care to look hard enough.
Narrative and Characters
The Testaments tells the intertwining stories of three women impacted by Gilead’s now mature authoritarian regime. Like the first novel, we get flashbacks to an earlier time in which we see images of the political tribulations that resulted in the creation of Gilead, but this time we see the United States in much more detail as its society slowly closes down and transforms into the puritanical theocracy so brilliantly portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The first character we meet is Aunt Lydia: the aging head of Gilead’s austere matriarchal agency, forbidden from marrying or bearing children, who wields power over the handmaids and manages the female population.
The second protagonist is a young girl, Daisy, who resides in Canada, outside the grasps of Gilead. Her world is unexceptional and is immediately recognisable to any modern westerner. Daisy struggles with unexceptional teenage angst and family relationships against the backdrop of the bizarre religious extremism seeping out from the former United States.
The third character is Agnes, the young daughter of a Commander and his Wife, living in Gilead. In Agnes we see a familiar world to that of Offred from the previous novel, but from the perspective of a person with apparent privilege.
Each character is uniquely flawed and suffers repression in their own way despite the apparent privilege afforded to each. Aunt Lydia has great political power, which gives her sway with the patrichical structures, but requires her to ruthlessly adhere to the grotesquely oppressive regime. Daisy lives in near freedom, living in a western democracy, but her tumultuous family life means she has no control over her personal destiny. And Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander, appears to live a privileged life with her own housekeepers, or Martha’s, but is destined to become a Wife and mother despite her dreams to the contrary.
These three narratives intertwine to give us a clearer image of the inner workings of Gilead and the twisting contorsions its inhabitants must go through in order to survive, and that’s where the novel both succeeds and fails.
The Handmaid’s Tale was an intricately detailed observation of a single handmaid’s life. Through the story we lived with Offred and understood the pains she was forced to bare in order to survive. In contrast, The Testaments gives a much faster paced and broader view of the world of Gilead which results in much of the feeling of oppression being lost as we are now able to take a step outside of the claustrophobic confines of Gilead and occasionally take a cool breath of air.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead was a mythical place, a country with blurred borders, with no sense of place or time. We were lost in the fog of a world where a person’s name could be changed or lost in an instant, where the dress code evoked times passed but the technology suggested a lost future. The Testaments we see for the first time Gilead from the outside, from the perspective of a young girl to whom, like us, this puritan theocracy is a series of strange and twisted customs. As a result much of the mystery of Gilead is gone, the systems and structures of the country are told from the perspective of two people who fully understand it fully.
Similarly, the themes of female oppression in The Testaments are more explicit than ever, and maybe they need to be. Atwood’s audience for this novel appears to be consciously different to that of the previous book.
As a three strand narrative, the 418 pages split between three intertwined perspectives, depth of story and character development is sacrificed in order to instead paint a broad stroke message and push forward an interesting but ultimately predictable and unsatisfying plot. Small sections of the story feel out of place, as though they have been picked out of a YA novel and dropped in here and don’t quite fit with the overall tone of the novel. And I’m sure it’s no accident that two of the protagonists are young girls.
The mystery and oppressive atmosphere of the original novel is laid open and bare here, and I’m sure this is a deliberate attempt by Atwood to show that we’re not messing around here, this is real world stuff. But as a result the foreboding tone and horror of the original novel is lost. Damn the suspense, this is what life is really like.
Unlike the ambiguous ending to The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood is very careful to skirt around, The Testaments is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. Is it as great a novel as the original? For me, no, but there is an important and stark warning message written for a more modern audience, and maybe that’s just as important.