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The Testaments

September 11, 2019

Since 1985, when it was published, I have assigned reading The Handmaid’s Tale to students in any literature class I taught. It’s an important novel with a satiric ending–because readers don’t know what happens to Offred, they’re inspired to work harder to make sure that what happens to her can’t happen to any woman in our world. (Readers are goaded even harder in the “Historical Notes” by Prof Pieixoto’s clueless and relativistic academic point of view on Offred’s experience in Gilead—see Gerry Canavan’s article on the Historical Notes for more detail on Pieixoto’s problematic attitude.)

So I’ve been a bit skeptical about the tv series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, and repulsed and worried by the violence depicted in it–worried because not enough people seem to be similarly repulsed and because a few even seem to be excited by the violence. I watched the second season because I couldn’t follow the story any other way, and it was almost beyond my capacity to keep watching to the end. I decided not to watch the third season, especially after reading about how it offers the viewers hope (that’s the last thing women need right now—hope through fantasy fulfillment fiction).

I was even more skeptical about Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments. How could it possibly be as important, as much of a call to action, as The Handmaid’s Tale? How could it co-exist with the tv show? Well, it is and it does. It’s brilliant and well-written; I read it all in one evening and thought fondly about the evening a few years ago when Margaret Atwood came to Kenyon and I got to meet her (she is tiny in stature while mighty in intellect).

As usual, I will avoid “spoilers” in this review, but try to interest you in reading The Testaments and thinking about the issues it raises. There are three points of view in the novel: one from an Aunt, required to enforce the laws of Gilead for its female population, one from a sheltered daughter of Gilead, and one from a character who was raised outside of Gilead–this one we first met on the tv show version of The Handmaid’s Tale (although any knowledge about the show is not necessary to an understanding of this novel). I guessed who this third character is shortly after she was introduced; you probably will too.

The daughter’s life has been severely curtailed; the details of her story reveal that she is from the first generation of girls adopted into the families of Commanders of Gilead. She is not allowed to read, of course, or even to learn to bake, since she is told that she will always have a “Martha” to do that for her. When she crosses a playground she is wistful:
“There were swings in one of the parks, but because of our skirts, which might be blown up by the wind and then looked into, we were not to think of taking such a liberty as a swing. Only boys could taste that freedom; only they could swoop and soar; only they could be airborne.”

The character who was raised outside of Gilead tells about writing a paper on a female from Gilead who escaped to Canada, saying that “she was being used as a football by both sides, and it would be the greatest happiness of the greatest number just to give her back. The teacher had said I was callous and should learn to respect other people’s rights and feelings, and I’d said people in Gilead were people, and shouldn’t their rights and feelings be respected too?”
Discerning readers might hear the echo of an American president saying there are “good” people on “both sides” of the white supremacy movement and also an echo of Professor Pieixoto’s remarks about how the job of academics is “not to censure but to understand” (his relativism is particularly offensive as it comes immediately after Offred’s harrowing account).

The Aunt’s story is the backbone of this novel, and reveals even more of the seamy underside of Gilead. We learn what this particular Aunt did before Gilead took over, why she was chosen, how she was forced into her position, and how delicately designed and long-plotted is her revenge on the whole regime. She echoes Dante as she guides us through hell, although that echoed language (“think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood”) is juxtaposed to the comedic effect of such names as the “Schlafly Café” and the “Hildegard Library.” Still, when the phrase is repeated in the thoughts of the daughter, it’s clear that this Aunt has guided that young woman to the point where she can actually begin to see the dark wood that surrounds her.

This particular Aunt was dragged away by armed soldiers at the very hour that women in the newly-created country of Gilead were discovering that they no longer had bank accounts. Held for weeks in a stadium, she describes the effect of the conditions of their captivity on her fellow judges, lawyers, doctors, and other professional women:
“I am sorry to dwell so much on the facilities, but you would be amazed at how important such things become—basics that you’ve taken for granted, that you’ve barely thought about until they’re removed from you. During my daydreams—and we all daydreamed, as enforced stasis with no events produces daydreams and the brain must busy itself with something—I frequently pictured a beautiful, clean, white toilet. Oh, and a sink to go with it, with an ample flow of pure clear water.
Naturally we began to stink. In addition to the ordeal by toilet, we’d been sleeping in our business attire, with no change of underwear. Some of us were past menopause, but others were not, so the smell of clotting blood was added to the sweat and tears and shit and puke. To breathe was to be nauseated.
They were reducing us to animals—to penned-up animals—to our animal nature. They were rubbing our noses in that nature. We were to consider ourselves subhuman.”
The details, like that some of the women were menstruating but had no supplies, are chilling in their relevance to current U.S. news.

The Aunt gives three reasons for her survival:
“First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders—too much dirt—and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.
Third, I’m discreet. Each one of the top men has always felt that his secrets are safe with me; but—as I’ve made obliquely clear—only so long as I myself am safe.”

This Aunt has a wry way of stating things, which might make a reader think that she’s the character who has the most of the author’s voice:
“Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords.”

The wry way of stating things may come from the way she uses humor to keep from getting hysterical about the situation she’s found herself in:
“Once a Vassar girl, always a Vassar girl, as I sometimes said snidely to myself while watching her beating to a pulp the feet of some recalcitrant Handmaid prospect.”

Everything the Aunt relates is a warning:
“Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

The most serious warning, I’d say, is about the person reading what the Aunt has gone to so much trouble to be able to say:
“How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”

Let us hope. And let us also hope that we will never achieve the degree of academic detachment that Professor Pieixoto has reached, as he again gets the last word.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2019 4:00 pm

    Liked your review! The only other review I have read of the book was really negative, saying that this one did not have the power and horror of Handmaids Tale and that it ends up being a hopeful kind of rah rah women empowerment sort of tale, caving into fandom’s demand for closure and hope. The reviewer also complained that Atwood made the Aunt too sympathetic so it was too easy to forgive her for all she did. Do you think the reviewer was off base?

    • September 11, 2019 5:03 pm

      Just from the parts I quote I think you can see that I found this to have an adequate measure of the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale.
      In 2019, when Wicked has been delighting audiences since 2003 (and Gregory Maguire’s book has been around since 1996), I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that getting more of a villain’s backstory makes her “too sympathetic.” The reasons why we do what we do are important.
      I think maybe that reviewer expected things that the novel didn’t deliver.

      • September 11, 2019 7:16 pm

        From what you say about the book, it does seem the negative reviewer did have expectations that weren’t met. I am glad you wrote such a good review! Thanks!

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    September 11, 2019 5:57 pm

    Very interesting and convincing review. I admit it has been a long time now since I read The Handmaid’s Tale: I think I reached a point where it just seemed too much, too obvious or omnipresent or something. (This may in turn be related to Atwood’s Grand Dame status in Can Lit.) I haven’t been particularly tempted to read The Testaments but maybe I’ll read the pair of them together, to refresh my experience of the original and then find out about the sequel for myself.

    • September 11, 2019 7:54 pm

      I think she is revered a little less here in the U.S. A lot of us who read SF were turned off by her desperate need to call the MadAddam books something other than SF.
      What worries me is that this latest novel from her includes a clear warning to professional women to get out of the U.S. before it’s too late.

      • Rohan Maitzen permalink
        September 11, 2019 8:00 pm

        She has been a controversial here recently because of her actions around the Steven Galloway case: it has actually been interesting seeing how much more muted reactions are here to the new book than in the US and UK.

  3. September 11, 2019 6:07 pm

    I’m so glad to see this lives up to The Handmaid’s Tale. If only we could get the right people to read it.

  4. September 11, 2019 6:19 pm

    I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it came out, and was properly chilled.

    We just finished watching the last season on Hulu (3?), and I’m glad I watched, even though some pieces were over the top (too many coincidences, a few too many easy places – but Gilead had fewer people available to watch everything than they would like you to think; hence some of the more gruesome punishments – they were intended to terrify and paralyze, and they did.

    I am looking forward to Testaments, but I’m not in a hurry.

    And no one thought the USA would be SO horrible when this show started, did they?

    • September 11, 2019 7:57 pm

      I’m afraid that visualizing some terrible things makes them thinkable, and I hope this won’t be the case with any scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not even sure I think it’s a good thing when women dress as handmaids to protest misogynistic laws–it just makes the outfit–and maybe the whole, twisted idea–a reality.

      • September 11, 2019 10:45 pm

        With people who have watched the show, the message is clear. For people who wouldn’t watch it anyway, the message of a woman in a Handmaid’s gown is lost – but those are not the ones liberals are trying to reach; they might see it as desirable – until they are forced to live it. Those who don’t take heed will have to find out the hard way, I suppose.

  5. September 16, 2019 9:48 pm

    I always say that it’s good I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, because I do not have the intestinal fortitude to read it now. And that is indeed proving to be the case with The Testaments — I’ve heard good things, I’ve flipped through it a few times in the bookstores, and I just know that I can’t get through it. I’m glad it’s good though! You never can tell about sequels, especially sequels that happen many years later.

    • September 16, 2019 10:00 pm

      It gives me more fortitude–and the patience to persist–to read about women bringing down an authoritarian government.

  6. September 17, 2019 7:26 pm

    I’ve talked about this book everywhere because I wish everyone would read it. Someone from the U.K. said to me that “a lot of people have been asking whether there was any real point in writing it.” This is my answer to that, which maybe I should have explained more fully in the text of my review:
    There is certainly a real point to Atwood having written The Testaments, and there’s a real point to everyone reading it. It’s the same point a character in the play The Laramie Project makes about the two boys who killed Matthew Shepard–that we can say evil happens because some people are “monsters,” but what happens when we say that, even to ourselves, is that we allow evil to continue to grow in our midst by pretending that evil-doers are monsters instead of ordinary people who were allowed or even encouraged to do little bad things until they worked up to something truly monstrous.
    At the end of The Testaments, Aunt Lydia says “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask. You yourself would never have done such things!”
    The point is to see that people do such things, and how it can happen.

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