For a work predestined to become a political football, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Testaments is admirably oblivious to current events. It’s the surprise sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, coming 34 years after that culturally influential work.
In recent years, it’s become part of the political miasma since its 2017 adaptation by the streaming service Hulu. The Handmaids’ red capes became familiar sights at rallies against Brett Kavanaugh, signifiers of dawning female oppression – i.e. restrictions on abortion – under President Trump.
Given the most recent controversy involving sex and politics, it’s amusing to contemplate heads exploding at the sight of women in the Handmaids’ puritanical outlets showing up at Biden rallies this summer. Alas, our current real-life dystopia is likely to stop large campaign events and the attendant public protests for the foreseeable future.
The novels are near-future dystopian thrillers about an oppressive patriarchal theocracy that takes over a swath of the United States, already mired in a fertility crisis, after a terrorist attack on Washington wipes out the federal government. The Republic of Gilead clamps down with brutal alacrity.
Women can’t own property or earn money. Most are forbidden to learn to read, their pursuits narrowed to flower arranging and crochet. The few fertile women are coerced into becoming Handmaids, bearing children for the regime’s male Commanders, stripped even of their names.
Bloody World, Dry Wit
The Testaments (a brilliant title) begins 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, which ended with the heroine Offred, signifying “Of-Fred,” whisked away to an uncertain fate. The scope and scale of The Testaments are kept vague, although everyone in Gilead seems to have met everyone else. There is a feel of a rotting edifice, of whited sepulchers, ominously creaking. The regime has devolved into a “dog-eat-dog mentality” and “Gilead is a slippery place: Accidents often happen.”
Someone is furtively scribbling into a secret journal within Ardua Hall, the nest of vipers where the regime’s Aunts reside, pondering her just-unveiled statue in the courtyard, noting “I am already petrified.” The writer is none other than the fearsome and sadistic Aunt Lydia. She recounts this bloody world with bone-dry wit.
She recounts a molester “being reduced to a slurry by the handmaids,” during a Particicution (an Atwood coinage), a psychologically shrewd outlet for Handmaid rage. She opines, “Torture is like dancing: I’m too old for it.” She characterizes her power as “an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten.”
Two other voices in the novel are introduced, via academic archives, as Witnesses 369A and 369B, one a girl living in Canada, the other a girl in a high-ranking household in Gilead. Talking about names and connections risks giving much away, but the girls are initially known as Daisy and Agnes.
Still, the most interesting voice is the Gilead insider Aunt Lydia, stealthily putting in print the regime’s secrets and describing her harrowing life journey to her exalted position, among the narrow opportunities for female power anyway, in Gilead. Her account of surviving the first traumatic weeks of the regime at least invites our empathy, even if it doesn’t really humanize her – it’s the best part of the book.
Over the years she collects a big bag of blackmail held in reserve – but to what end? That’s the impetus for the plot. Much of the excitement comes from observing Aunt Lydia put her plan to work, although the details are revealed by what she doesn’t write down as much as what she does. A lot centers on the regime’s propaganda demanding the return to Gilead of “Baby Nicole,” spirited away to Canada.
The three strands of the story, which inevitably intertwine, are told in retrospect via archive material accessed at an academic symposium in a far-away future. Theoretically, this indirect approach should reduce the tension, but even in retrospect, there is satisfaction in seeing a dictatorship potentially toppling like Babel.
Atwood, who turns 80 in November, brings impressive energy to The Testaments, which has an enjoyably queasy feel: Political intrigue, surprise saboteurs, planted evidence, and scheming among the four founding aunts. While the Hulu adaptation acquired a gruesome, Saw-movie aesthetic in its decadent Season 3 phase, the only lurid scenes in The Testaments are told second-hand.
New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani came out of retirement to give away even more plot points than usual in her eagerness to embrace Atwood’s supposed anti-Trump tome. But conservative fiction fans can breathe easy: The specter of Donald Trump doesn’t hang over The Testaments. It’s marred only by the recurring, unnecessary cheap shot of characters meeting at the Schlafly Café, as in Phyllis Schlafly, vanquisher of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Those looking for a more extensive political ambush of Schlafly will have to content themselves with another prestige TV series.)
To Atwood’s credit, the political terrain of Gilead doesn’t neatly map onto America’s real-world partisan divide. The Handmaid’s Tale features hangings in Harvard Yard, on the soil of New England Puritanism, not a fundamentalist Deep South. Centering Gilead in the Northeast also works for dramatic purposes, with Canada a convenient escape hatch. Atwood, a Canadian, is blessedly once-removed from the raging U.S. cultural wars.
Surprising Political Nuance
Atwood is a heroine on the feminist left, but her accounts of the inspiration for Gilead are more politically nuanced than one might expect. A Commander’s bookshelf is full of biographies of dictators – not the obvious right-wing figures like Hitler or Pinochet, but Stalin and Ceausescu.
In a 2017 essay, Atwood observes that she wrote the first part of The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin, “which was still encircled by the Berlin Wall: The Soviet empire was still strongly in place, and was not to crumble for another five years.” Handmaids are brainwashed in what Atwood termed “a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center,” a reference to the student-led movements during Chairman Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution.
The book has its flaws. Some plot details are left hazy. A lot of responsibility is borne by a lightly experienced teenager. One character arc seems truncated to round off the story. But there is some exciting cloak and dagger, and an Aunt is satisfying slugged. In all, this elegantly written dystopian thriller conjures up an entire society through three sealed-off worldviews, making it greater than the sum of its parts, a tribute to Atwood’s world-building.
One finishes The Testaments gratified that the idea of a fascist and patriarchal theocracy taking over America is as implausible now as it was in 1985. As for secular, corporatist flavors of authoritarianism, perhaps that’s another matter dystopian fiction writers may want to take up.