Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ Is Done With Handmaids
The news is very much out there that none other than Aunt Lydia, Gilead’s most terrifying enforcer (in the “women’s sphere” of fertility and domesticity at least), is one of the three narrators. It’s a decision that’s the reverse of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s “first draft” of To Kill A Mockingbird, which stars an alternate, overtly racist Atticus Finch.
There’s no rewriting her own literary history here from Atwood, though, simply a detailed appeal, concerning a character widely regarded as monstrous, to consider her origin story and the system and principles within which she has been operating all these years. It’s the kind of setting straight we saw in Atwood’s 2005 mythological retelling The Penelopiad.
This is one of the ways in which Atwood reconfigures the classifications that the original set out: Virgin Mary blue for Wives, memeable Mary Magdalene red for Handmaids, green for Marthas, brown for Aunts, etc. Perhaps because the regime is close to falling apart, these groups are less rigid, everyone’s place in Gilead society seems less certain, including the powerful Commander Judd, who was part of the initial Sons of Jacob coup and sits on the Council. This fluidity, this having some choice in the matter, may also have been required to get the plot where it needed to go.
Still, it’s intriguing to see who is classified, how they’re classified and who doesn’t get a look in. Marthas (Gilead’s female domestic servant class) still don’t get much of a narrative in The Testaments, though that’s not a surprise, and an Angel (male guard) jokes that there’s two types of women “sluts” and “ugly ones”. It’s difficult not to think of the incel community’s divvying up of men and women into ‘muscular, popular’ Chads, ‘attractive’ Stacys and ‘average looking’ Beckys.
Atwood has said that part of the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale came from reading canonical stories about utopias and dystopias which featured exclusively male protagonists and “decorative” women who often weren’t wearing many clothes. Again, The Testaments doesn’t go down the route of overly feisty, rebellious Handmaids to overcompensate. It opens with the dry description of a statue by the woman it was made to honor: “Already I am petrified.” Women can be “precious flowers” or pearls but they’re also told stories about witches.
In a similar way, though discussions of bodies, bodily fluids, and women’s duty to deal with them are real and present—“that thick red knowledge”—Atwood clearly didn’t feel obliged to do too much of a Part Two on pregnancy, perhaps because other writers such as Megan Hunter, with The End We Start From, and Louise Erdrich, with Future Home of the Living God, have recently taken on pregnancy and dystopia.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s coda The Twelfth Symposium ends with the line ”Are there any questions?” and, according to Atwood in the acknowledgements of the sequel, the question that “came up repeatedly” from readers over the past 35 years was: How did Gilead fall?
Offred was mostly limited to minor but meaningful acts of rebellion in the 1985 book. And if there’s one overarching tonal difference it’s the frequency and scale at which the women of The Testaments actively question and disobey the rules. They have to, of course, as from the outset, this was always designed to be the account of disastrously extraordinary times for the Gilead project, whereas Offred’s story, we are led to believe, was being repeated in homes across the country.
With one sickeningly inevitable choice Atwood has made, The Testaments is even darker, but for most of the book these three particular narrators are shielded from the very, very worst of Gilead either through childhood innocence, some limited personal power, or the actions of other women. As such, none have quite the raw intensity of Offred’s shock journey from regular American woman to Handmaid concubine in a sinister theocracy, though one of the strands does pose juicy questions around survival, complicity, and manipulation when all the choices around you are bad.