34 years after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood compels action in ‘The Testaments’

McClelland & Stewart/Courtesy

Related Posts

Margaret Atwood began writing “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1984. Now, decades after its publication, the Canadian author has released a sequel entitled “The Testaments.” Not only has the political climate in the United States changed since the original novel’s publication (perhaps inching “The Handmaid’s Tale” closer to reality than fiction), but the sequel also follows the Hulu series’ adaptation and commercialization of the book. Some people wonder what truly motivated the sequel. Was it a need to focus on a different narrative than the TV show? Was it to ride the profit-making wave of the newly created franchise? Was it to contextualize the story within today’s political framework? The answer: all of the above. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale” gave us an account of a crisis. We followed the devolution of the United States from a democratic state to the totalitarian state of Gilead. Here, women are only valued for their childbearing capabilities, leaders use extreme violence and discrimination to maintain order and anyone who does not embrace the fundamental extremism of Gilead is killed. “The Handmaid’s Tale” focuses on the first generation of Gilead, with its characters having gone to bed one day and woken up the next to a new government. The TV show expands on this premise, providing backstories for many of the characters and expanding into the future.

In “The Testaments” we find ourselves in the second generation of Gilead — a decade and a half later. Children born by Handmaids live with their “mother” and father, oblivious to the world as it existed in its previous form. Instead of furthering the story of Offred, the protagonist of the first novel, Atwood furthers the story of Gilead. 

The novel switches between the narratives of three women. One is told by Agnes Jemima, a young girl raised by a wealthy family in Gilead. Upon turning 13 she, like all girls in Gilead, switches schools to go to a marriage academy, forced to prepare for life as a wife before being matched with a powerful commander (who happens to be over the age of 60). Her resistance to the norms imposed on her comes into conflict with every value she has been taught and believes about her world. This leads her down a path of discovery, highlighting how information has the power to reorganize the world. 

Another is told by a young girl who watches the chaos in Gilead from Canada. She participates in riots protesting Gilead and fends off “Pearl Girls,” missionaries who aim to bring Canadian women to Gilead. Her desire to act is complicated by a discovery that forces her to go undercover in the oppressive state, highlighting the personal struggle between feeling obligated to fight oppression and maintaining her own personal comfort. 

Perhaps the most compelling narrative is that of Aunt Lydia, a woman who aided in the creation of the state of Gilead and the only character from the previous book and TV show who receives more than a handful of lines of dialogue. Her chapters take the form of journal entries and reflections on her past in an illegal manuscript. Aunt Lydia is a survivor, a woman who has done what she thinks is necessary to avoid further death and loss. A judge before the coup, she chose collaboration over death and soon rose to become the most influential women in Gilead’s government. Yet she is playing a long game, one of manipulation and capitulation, until she, a woman, can hold all of the power in the masculine state. 

Aunt Lydia’s narrative, supplemented by the narratives of the two girls, provides a necessary statement about totalitarianism and oppression. If “The Handmaid’s Tale” was about one woman adapting to a state of crisis and served as a dangerous warning about diminishing the value of women’s rights, “The Testaments” is a testament to women’s power. 

Atwood’s fast-paced writing in “The Testaments” reminds us that people do have the agency to enact change. Although it may take time, there will always be resistance. From Atwood’s perspective, women will not succumb to the pressures of a patriarchal system, they will always attempt to subvert it

This is not to say “The Testaments” is purely hopeful. Although not as gruesome as the television show, the novel does not shy away from horror. There is no happy ending or even a sense of closure at the end of the novel. In this way, Atwood’s story parallels many Americans’ feelings at this particular moment: We don’t know where our story is going. Yet, she leaves us with an important lesson — even under oppressive conditions, individuals do have the power to take action and change those conditions. 

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].