Professor Susan Watkins, Leeds Beckett University, reviews The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s eagerly awaited follow-up novel which is set more than 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale.
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains plotlines and details from The Testaments
When Margaret Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, she felt that the main premise seemed “fairly outrageous”. She wondered: “Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?”
How times have changed. The connection the novel makes between totalitarianism, reproduction and control of women is now legible to most of us. The image of the red-and-white-clad handmaid has become a symbol in the wider culture of resistance to the restriction of women’s reproductive rights and to their sexual exploitation.
Partly this is a consequence of the immensely successful TV series, the third series of which has just concluded. Series one was directly based on Atwood’s novel and subsequent episodes over two years have continued the story of Offred beyond the ambivalent ending Atwood imagined for her, in which her fate is uncertain. Now, in her eagerly awaited sequel, The Testaments, Atwood makes a series of dizzying creative decisions which move away from, but also develop out of, both novel and TV series.
The action of The Testaments takes place 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The claustrophobic first-person narration of Offred is widened out to incorporate the stories of three narrators. These narrators are Aunt Lydia – the most senior of the Aunts in the first novel, who trains and manages the handmaids on behalf of the Gilead regime – and two young women.
It is in the identity of these young women that Atwood incorporates elements of the TV series. We discover that both are Offred’s daughters. One, Agnes, is the daughter she was forced to give up when she became a handmaid. The other, Nicole, is the baby she is pregnant with at the end of the novel and gives birth to in the second series of the TV programme.
Agnes has been brought up as a privileged daughter of the Gilead regime; Nicole – and the name choice here, as well as aspects of the story, draw on the TV series – has been smuggled out of Gilead by the May Day organisation and raised in Canada.
The inventiveness of this choice of narrators, plus the time shift, allows Atwood to do all sorts of exciting things. She explores what it actually means to be a mother. The Gilead regime has to keep records of bloodlines to avoid the genetic conditions attendant on incestuous couplings. Genealogical information is kept by the Aunts in folders organised by the male head of the family, but paternity will always be more uncertain than maternity. We never find out for sure who Nicole’s father is, although there are hints.
More broadly, though, can the same uncertainty be attached to the mother figure too? As one of the Marthas (the domestic servant class in Gilead) says to Agnes when she finds out that the person she believed to be her mother was not her birth mother: “It depends what you mean by a mother … Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” How do we define a mother when conventional family structures have been upended?
Making a difference
The interplay between the three women’s stories also allows us to compare how individuals make decisions about what constitutes ethical behaviour in a totalitarian regime. In the world of The Testaments, unlike in The Handmaid’s Tale, later period Gilead is on its uppers. It struggles to control its leaky borders and there is internecine in-fighting and betrayal within the upper echelons of the Commanders.
Unbabies – defective births – continue to be born and the resistance is growing. Lydia begins to plot Gilead’s downfall, but in retrospect we also get her account of her earlier collaboration as the regime was established. Do her attempts to destroy Gilead cancel out her previous decision to collaborate? If she had not survived, she would not have been alive to work to bring down the regime, but can the master’s tools ever dismantle the master’s house?
Casualties of the resistance efforts abound. Becka – a friend of Agnes and a survivor of child sexual abuse – sacrifices herself for the greater good of what she believes to be the purification and renewal (rather than the destruction) of Gilead. Nicole (who engages in an undercover operation in Gilead vital to the resistance) remarks that she “somehow agreed to go to Gilead without ever definitely agreeing”. The novel asks readers to think about the extent to which exploitation of idealism and naivety are appropriate as means that justify the end of Gilead’s potential destruction.
Judgement of history
The Testaments ends with the Thirteenth Symposium of Gilead Studies – an academic conference taking place many years after the regime’s destruction. This is the same framing that concludes The Handmaid’s Tale, although the emphasis here is different. In her book, In Other Worlds, Atwood claims that the afterword to the first novel was intended to provide “a little utopia concealed in the dystopic Handmaid’s Tale”.
But, for most readers of the original novel, the effect of encountering the afterword is the opposite of optimistic. Reading it diminishes and undermines our emotional investment in Offred’s narrative, as historians debate whether or not her story is “authentic” and a professor warns us that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgement on the Gileadeans”.
The same historians make similar comments in the Thirteenth Symposium that ends The Testaments, but here they are fundamentally convinced of the witness transcripts’ authenticity. The postmodern uncertainty about the status of Offred’s narrative in The Handmaid’s Tale could be seen as characteristic of the mid-1980s (with its suspicion of narrative authenticity and reliability), as characterised by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”.
Now, in 2019, Atwood replaces that incredulity with a much clearer sense of the validity of women’s stories. I believe we can relate this change of emphasis to the different times we find ourselves in – where the notion of the equal status of all versions of the past and indeed the present has been abused explicitly by Trump and others who make accusations of “fake news”.
In Gilead, women are not allowed to read or write – unless they are Aunts. Agnes therefore struggles to become literate as a young woman. The description of her slow and painful acquisition of literacy reminds us of the vital connection between words and power and how important it is to validate women’s words in particular. A testament is a witness after all.