As I held the copy of ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood, I was elated to think I am holding on to the most awaited sequel of a modern classic. ‘The Testaments’ was also the joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize. However, the negative reviews were a bit dampening. Anyhow, I went ahead with my set of anticipations. I wanted to know what happened next to Offred and in Gilead.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published in 1985 and the ensuing 30 years garnered a cult status for the book. Today, it is one of the most acclaimed books for book lovers. The Handmaid’s red cloak and the white bonnet have become symbolic of women’s oppression the world over.
*** Spoiler Alert ***
In a line, I would say, ‘The Testaments’ relives the ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ days with more insights and drama within the established regressive social structure.
‘The Testaments’ does not continue from where Atwood left you on the last page of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It begins fifteen years later.
‘The Testaments’ is different from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Now it isn’t just about Offred or understanding Gilead through her eyes. This book has three narrators – Aunt Lydia and two young girls – Agnes and Daisy. Considering ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ series which went beyond the book after its first season, it was inevitable to exclude Aunt Lydia from the main spine of the new book. However, you get another version of Aunt Lydia from the one painted as monstrous and villainous in the series, and with a different tale to tell!
If you have watched the ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ series, you have all the hints with you. Gilead is pained in its loss of Baby Nicole and wants her back. Baby Nicole is symbolic of the betrayal and deviousness of the Handmaids inside Gilead.
In Canada, people are organizing protest marches against the autocratic rule and oppression of women in Gilead. Daisy, a young teenager is growing up in liberal Canada, unaware of her future calling from Gilead. Her guardians own a second-hand cloth store that garbs their efforts in continuing the Mayday resistance.
What is happening in Gilead? Agnes, a teenager is growing up with Commander Kyle and his wife, Tabitha. Tabitha’s death opens up a myriad of conspicuous reality regarding family and education in dystopian Gilead.
Aunt Lydia’s story is told as the one who survived brutality and accepted a fate with the inevitability to oppose the oppressive regime.
Commander Judd, the leader of the Eyes now, personifies the very evil Gilead stands for. Atwood elevates Gilead from being an abstract rogue state to a more functional and systemic one. You get a deeper insight into the working of the state from the helm, especially with the Aunts and Commanders as hand-in-glove running Gilead.
The Vidala school for girls in Gilead is where the brainwashing is done; there is no education except on how to run their households. Agnes studies here along with Becka. Becka’s father is a dentist who sexually abuses his female patients. Becka’s plight is perhaps the one that takes you closer to Offred, emotionally speaking.
Draconian Gilead gets more graphic details to accentuate its demonic existence curtailing women’s freedom and rights. Offred lived in this place without agency but fifteen years later, we have the Mayday resistance.
My Take on the Book
First thing, I should have read ‘The Testaments’ as a standalone book without the constant mental comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ created Gilead and showed its readers the perils of an oppressive society. Gilead mirrors the realities of many darker places (still) existing in this world where women are denied education, freedom, and a voice. They are merely considered vessels for reproduction. When surrogacy came about in modern society, reducing women to wombs became a reality in front of us. We read stories of the exploitation of women who turned to surrogacy for earning for their poverty-stricken households.
However, ‘The Testaments’ transcends no boundaries beyond the established repressive measures already depicted in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. What it adds to – is the gory, graphic detail of violent measures undertaken by the regime – physical tortures and denial of medical aid for handmaids. ‘The Wall’ from the earlier book has a supplement in the form of ‘a think tank’.
In Offred’s story, one found an unnamed protagonist who is denied any agency as the hero of the story. Here most of the important characters have an important place in the hierarchical structure of Gilead or in the Mayday resistance. The result – you shuffle between three narratives and in my opinion, Aunt Lydia’s character shaped up the best. And, then probably Becka.
Inside Ardua Hall, the headquarter of the Aunts, you see most of the story revealed. The brown-sack-coloured costume of the Aunts fall over most of the pages with plotting, scheming, and rivalry amongst the Aunts.
However, I ended up wondering why Aunt Lydia was indispensable to the totalitarian regime of Gilead? Aunt Lydia even gets to have a statue with a taser around her belt.
Atwood definitely wanted to please the millennial readers, thus the caricature of Daisy as a modern, stubborn and indifferent teenager. An uncertain future does nothing to rattle her. Later, as she is trained by a Mayday operative, visuals of Tris and Four training from the movie ‘Divergent’ kept flashing inside my head.
‘The Handmaids Tale’ rested widely on the emotional and psychological claustrophobia it created inside readers’ minds. Lack of lotion and using butter stolen during meals by Offred had more sentimental value than Aunt Lydia’s case of going without toilet papers and towels. The denial of basic conveniences to the Handmaids, Marthas and even the reduced existence of the Wives was enough to jitter us.
In ‘The Testaments’, there is no possibility of interpretation. The text you read is what you get, without a subtext, or layers to peel, and without any real complexity. You ought to read ‘The Testaments’ if you are an ardent Atwood fan or want to know what happened after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in the published form.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ kept me restless for days, thinking of women’s issues and deprivation but ‘The Testaments’ left me with microdots as an impression.