The Testaments: Margaret Atwood

“All things come to she who waits. Time wounds all heels. Patience is a virtue. Vengeance is mine.”

Margaret Atwood says that the question she was asked most often about The Handmaid’s Tale was what happened next? How did Gilead fall? The Testaments, written 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, answers these questions.

For those of you who have not read The Handmaid’s Tale (or seen the TV series), the book is set in a dystopian and misogynistic future where the religious right has taken over a part of the US. Pollution has made people infertile, which makes fertile women especially valuable. These women, known as Handmaids, are farmed out to childless elite couples to bear children for them. Deprived of their identities and freedoms, Handmaids have no function outside of this. They are trained by older women known as Aunts, who have some authority in society. But as a whole, women in Gilead have no rights. Men make up the rules and take all the decisions.

I would suggest you read The Handmaid’s Tale—if you haven’t already—before reading The Testaments.  

The Testaments picks up the story towards the end of the reign of Gilead. Each of the three testaments is from a different perspective: Aunt Lydia, who has the respect of the ruling elite and is a force to be reckoned with; Agnes, a girl who has grown up in Gilead; and Daisy, a girl who has been raised in Canada (where a lot of those who have escaped Gilead have ended up, helped by an underground movement called Mayday).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia comes across as someone who willingly collaborates with the regime. Here, she gets a chance to tell her story. She is now a legend and there is even a statue of hers (“Already I am petrified”). But this so-called bastion of Gilead is plotting to bring down the regime, which she sees as morally corrupt. She is a woman wielding power in a man’s world and needs to do it with all the cunning she can muster.

Both Agnes and Daisy have been raised by people who are not their biological parents. Agnes was a Handmaid’s daughter who was taken from her mother and raised by Tabitha, a Wife unable to bear children. The story that Tabitha tells the child about stealing her away from a witch has more truth to it than the woman cares to admit. Daisy was raised by Melanie and Neil in Canada, and although she was loved by the couple, she felt there was something not quite right: “It was like I was a prize cat they were cat-sitting.”

Tabitha dies and her “father” remarries. Her stepmother, Paula, does not want Agnes around and arranges for her to be married to Commander Judd, a thoroughly unpleasant old man who, like Bluebeard, goes through young wives at a startling rate. But with a little help from Aunt Lydia, Agnes manages to avoid the marriage and becomes an apprentice Aunt.

The stories of the three women coalesce as the narrative moves forward.

Daisy, who now calls herself Jade, is sent into Gilead to help engineer its fall. She is placed with Agnes, who tries to help her adjust. It is interesting to see each girl from the other’s perspective. Agnes, in her account, comes across as a bit of a rebel, but seen through Jade’s eyes, it is quite clear that she has been brainwashed in the ways of Gilead.

To be honest, I was a little traumatized by The Handmaid’s Tale. It was scary, prescient and incisive: I never knew what was coming, which left me constantly on edge. The Testaments was easier going because I knew everything was going to be okay. The testaments of the girls are witness statements, which means they managed to get out of Gilead and survive. Aunt Lydia assumes that if her testament is found, then Gilead has fallen. She is playing a dangerous game, but I felt that if anyone could pull it off, she could. 

All this means that The Testaments lacks the tension that The Handmaid’s Tale has. This, to me at least, makes it less powerful (although the comeuppance some of the characters get is extremely satisfying).

That said, I enjoyed the book very much. Atwood’s writing is a pleasure to read. She conveys everything you need to know in a few words, often laced with a wicked sense of humour. For example, Aunt Lydia writes about having tea with Aunt Vidala, who is out to get her and is therefore becoming a nuisance. “She sneezed. Perhaps we should do something about the mildew in this café, I thought. Then again, perhaps no.”

Atwood also captures the tension generated by an authoritarian regime: “So peaceful, the streets: so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that of 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 doesn’t actually reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

Atwood never disappoints. And there is a definite sense of relief—at least on the part of this reader—that Gilead is no more. Like most authoritarian regimes, it had held the seeds of its own destruction within it.

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