The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Why write a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale?  Why write one in 2019?  In the acknowledgements section of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood writes that, since the publication of Handmaid in 1985, she has received multiple queries about the fate of its characters and world.  Why choose to answer (some) of those questions now, thirty-five years after the original novel's publication?  A cynic would say that this is a cash-in, a reflection of how the original novel has dominated the zeitgeist since the premiere of the television series based on it in 2017.  An idealist would say that this is just the right moment, when far-right, fascist movements all over the world are gaining prominence, many of them with an essentialist, instrumentalized view of women's role in society at the very core of their ideology.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but that just brings us to the more important question: what does The Testaments accomplish?  What does it tell us that The Handmaid's Tale didn't?

I reread The Handmaid's Tale before starting The Testaments, my first time returning to it since I read it in my early 20s.  It remains a viscerally powerful work, and one that establishes a template for writing about totalitarianism and how people live under it.  There are things about it I hadn't remembered, such as the streak of dark humor that runs through it, delivered via Offred's catty mockery of everyone she meets, her cruel but accurate assessments of their physical imperfections, gross personal habits, and obvious unhappiness, even within a system that is supposedly perfect.  Or the fact that its horror is rooted less in the abuses that Offred experiences than it is in boredom, in Offred's yearning for even the slightest variety and stimulation in her proscribed life.  Or the centrality of the prohibition on women reading to its depiction of Gilead's repressiveness, how Offred has to stop herself from letting on that she can read, how the public sphere has been remade to eliminate "temptations" by, for example, removing the names from store signs, how the promise of illicit reading materials is what draws Offred to the Commander--and how, in the end, her choice to create a testimonial of her experiences in Gilead is the ultimate form of rebellion and resistance.

Since my main association with The Handmaid's Tale these days is the (increasingly frustrating) TV show, it was fascinating to observe how Atwood anticipated and avoided many of the adaptation's pitfalls.  The Handmaid's Tale, the show, frequently falls into the trap of making Gilead look glamorous--all those richly-decorated, tastefully-appointed interiors, the sumptuous costuming for every possible occasion, the heavy, and irresistibly affecting, ritualization of every aspect of life.  It's a show made by people with taste, who have seemingly never stopped to consider that this was the wrong approach to take to a place like Gilead, one that implicitly reinforces the "logic" of Gilead's segmented society by making it seem elegant.  The novel, on the other hand, is relentless about making Gilead look chintzy and cheap.  The color-coded costumes of the Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas are a shallow marketing gimmick, brought to us by the same person who has come up with awkward, faux-modern neologisms like Econowife, Computalk, and Particicution.  Where the TV version made Offred's immediate tormentors, Commander and Mrs. Waterford, young and sexy and interesting, in the novel, they are grotesques, exactly the sort of people you'd expect to be elevated by a system that rewards cruelty to those beneath you, and obsequiousness towards those above you.  Rather than feeling elevated by the victory of their supposedly godly way of life, Gilead's triumph has made them querulous, bitter, and petty--if they weren't so already.

Most importantly, The Handmaid's Tale understands just what a tightrope it walks, as a work of fiction about atrocity.  Whether invented out of whole cloth, or sewn together from existing horrors, or storifying a real history, fiction about genocide, totalitarianism, and oppression often struggles with its tone.  Too dark and hopeless, and you've written misery porn.  Too heroic and triumphant, and you've written The Hunger Games.  Neither feels true to reality, and more importantly, neither feels useful.  The failure mode of both is using horror as a gimmick, a way of drawing in an audience without actually getting them to engage morally with what you're writing about--as in the recent fracas over the Nazi-hunting show Hunters, whose writers for some reason felt compelled to dress up the horrors of the Holocaust with something out of a James Bond movie.

The Handmaid's Tale not only balances itself perfectly between horror and heroism--Offred is brave and smart, but only within the limits afforded to her by her constrained situation; she's complicit, but not to an extent that obscures the greater evil of almost everyone around her; and she's heroic, but only up to a point, past which she prioritizes her own happiness, which is part of the reason why she survives.  But it is also a novel that is deeply skeptical about the power of empathy, of narratives like Offred's that put us in the heads of people suffering oppression, to change the hearts and minds of the people consuming them.  The "Historical Notes" section at the end of the novel makes this clear, first by reminding us that Gilead and places like it, though a world-destroying calamity for those unlucky enough to be caught in them, are merely Over There for everyone on the outside--and that Gilead exists right now, in many places, while the rest of us go on with our lives.  And secondly, through the airy, condescending detachment exhibited by the discoverer of Offred's narrative, for whom The Handmaid's Tale is not a cri de coeur, but an exciting bit of historical trivia, whose objectivity he questions, and whose importance lies primarily in how it helps his career.

The best thing I can say about The Testaments is that, thirty-five years on, Atwood has lost sight of very little of this.  The Testaments is perhaps a little more optimistic about the power of empathy than its predecessor, a little more heroic in its storytelling.  But its moral clarity on the matter of what Gilead is and how it functions remains unassailable.  You can see this in its use of humor, as pitch-dark and lacerating as in the original novel--a child raised in Gilead describes being allowed to go on outings "to see people being hanged or married".  You see it also in the little jabs Atwood makes at some of the TV version's choices.  A passage at the very end of the book, for example, prods at the way that AMC's Handmaid's Tale has turned Gilead into an aesthetic, staking out a decidedly queasy stance against the phenomenon of Handmaid cosplay.  Earlier chapters reiterate the point made in the original novel--and elided in the series--that Gilead's fanaticism has its roots embedded just as deeply in white supremacy as it does in misogyny.  Most importantly, where the show continues to draw increasingly flimsy dividends from the "irony" of depicting Gilead as evil in the aggregate, but kind and loving on the level of individual homes and families, Atwood is more clear-sighted.  She recognizes that the kind of people drawn to an ideology that tells them god has made them superior, and given them inherent power over others, are not likely to be good husbands and fathers.  When she peeks behind Gilead's doors in The Testaments, she reveals what we've heard about in fundamentalist, Complementarian movements in the real world--neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder, all covered up by Gilead's establishment, to the greater glory of god.

And that, I'm afraid, is the extent of the praise I can offer for The Testaments.  It's not a bad novel, but it is a thoroughly inessential one, and the pleasures of reading it are the same ones you would get from reading a good piece of fanfic, one that expands the original story's world and follows up on some beloved characters, without really pushing the envelope on what the original work did and the ideas it offered up.  You should read The Testaments if you want to know (one possible version of) what happened to Offred's two daughters, or an answer to the question of what became of Offred's husband, Luke, after they were separated during their attempt to escape Gilead, or a (not entirely convincing) vision of how Gilead was ultimately defeated.  But there's nothing here that wasn't in the original novel, merely an expansion of its worldbuilding, a peek at corners that Offred couldn't show us.  By definition, however, these corners are afterthoughts, or at best deleted scenes.  Nothing in The Testaments has the gut-punching power of the birth scene from Handmaid.  Nothing makes you feel the nauseating combination of shock and dull unsurprise as Offred's visit to Jezebel's.

(For this and other reasons, it's nothing short of laughable that such a minor work should have landed Atwood the Booker--an award she has already won, so there wasn't even the excuse of wanting to recognize an unjustly overlooked author--and it's all the more aggravating that deciding to split last year's award ended up dulling the thunder of the first black woman ever to win it.)

The closest that The Testaments comes to justifying its existence is through the first of its three interwoven first-person narratives, that of Aunt Lydia, the director of the indoctrination center in which Offred is trained--through a combination of brainwashing, deprivation, and torture--to accept her lot as a Handmaid.  Seen through Offred's eyes in the original novel, Aunt Lydia is a true believer, alternately terrifying and pathetic as she, on the one hand, leads her charges in a chant of "her fault!  Her fault!  Her fault!" at the disclosure that one of their number was gang-raped as a teen, and on the other hand, rhapsodizes with watery-eyed sincerity about the beautiful gift they are giving to Gilead of their working uteruses.  In The Testaments, she is something completely different, a former judge who, having been arrested and presented with the laundry list of crimes now punishable by death in Gilead--divorce, abortion, political activism, being educated, holding a position of power and authority--as well as reminders of her uselessness to that society, as a woman past her childbearing years and unaccustomed to physical labor, is given a stark choice: become an instrument of horror, or be consumed by it.
I'd spent my earlier years doing things I'd been told would be impossible for me.  No one in my family had ever been to college, they'd despised me for going, I'd done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs.  It toughens you.  You get stubborn.  I did not intend to be eliminated if I could help it.  But none of my college-acquired polish was of any use to me here.  I needed to revert to the mulish underclass child, the determined drudge, the brainy overachiever, the strategic ladder-climber who'd got me to the social perch from which I'd just been deposed.  I needed to work the angles, once I could find out what the angles were.
Atwood has never gone in for easy female solidarity, and relationships between women are never entirely nurturing in her writing.  In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred often feels stronger revulsion towards the women of Gilead--Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, and even some of her fellow Handmaids--than she does towards the men who created and benefit from its system, like the Commander or her lover Nick.  It's entirely in keeping with that approach to have given us Lydia, who by certain twisted lights is a feminist hero, a self-made woman twice over, who has carved out an enclave of female power in the heart of Gilead's male supremacist nightmare, and who has even managed to use that power to help some of Gilead's women--recruiting girls who wouldn't survive Gilead's forced teen marriage into her army of Aunts; and delivering rough justice to at least some of Gilead's domestic abusers by trumping up other, more politically correct, charges against them.  But this is all accomplished, of course, on the backs of the majority of Gilead's women.  The Testaments gives us specific examples of Lydia's cruelty--she turns a blind eye to, and even enables, a senior commander's string of increasingly younger wives, each of whom eventually falls victim to a mysterious accident or illness; she plots against her fellow aunts and doesn't balk at denouncing them to Gilead's secret police.  But it's in the commission of her regular duties for Gilead that Lydia commits her worst atrocities--the schools she founds, whose sole purpose is to keep girls ignorant, and teach them to be ashamed of their bodies; the missionaries she sends out to recruit vulnerable girls, abuse victims and rough sleepers, and bring them to Gilead to swell its ranks of Handmaids and Econowives; the marriages she arranges between girls barely into puberty, and men two or three times their age.

What keeps this portrait from falling into the same trap as the TV show--a "complexity" that usually translates into a refusal to take a moral stand--is that Lydia herself is completely unapologetic.  She knows that she is a monster, and that history will judge her harshly, if it remembers her at all.  Though she is intent on an act of rebellion--releasing all the dirty secrets she's amassed about what happens behind Gilead's idyllic facade to the wider world--it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine hatred of what Gilead is and a desire to bring it down, or simple, selfish vengefulness, the culmination of a decades-long plot to get back at the people who tore down her old life and turned her into an unperson.  Nor do we need to know the answer to that question.  The Testaments's structure, and Lydia's own, unsentimental narrative voice, are such that we can root for Lydia's plan to work, without rooting for Lydia herself.

Less successful--or rather, less interesting--are the novel's other two narrative strands, following two girls raised inside and outside of Gilead.  Agnes is the dutiful daughter of a high-ranking Commander, whose life is one great process of disillusionment.  Her beloved mother turns out to have stolen her from her real mother.  Her pious stepmother abuses her and plots to marry her off as soon as possible.  She's molested by her dentist--something she'd been assured was impossible in Gilead, and certainly not to a well-behaved, modest girl like her--and realizes that she can say nothing.  Finally, she joins the Aunts, but the Bible she learns how to read doesn't end up saying the things she'd been taught it said.  Daisy, meanwhile, is a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, whose strangely overprotective parents are killed in a car bombing.  Whisked away by their mysterious associates, she learns that they were agents of Mayday, the anti-Gilead resistance, and that she is actually "Baby Nicole", the daughter of a Handmaid spirited out of Gilead as an infant, whose return has been loudly demanded since then.

Most readers will quickly realize that these are Offred's two daughters, the one Gilead stole away from her before The Handmaid's Tale began, and the one she stole away from Gilead after its end.  It's here that The Testaments most clearly surrenders to the demands of fanservice.  Aunt Lydia feels like something fresh and different to the original novel, but learning the fate of Offred's daughters--and, ultimately, of Offred herself--feels indulgent.  It doesn't help that there isn't much else to read for in either of the girls' narratives.  Both contain the occasional moment of raw emotion or disorienting worldbuilding--when Agnes is molested, and realizes that everyone around her knew the dentist's proclivities, and turned a blind eye because Gilead is no longer a place where such offenses are pursued; when Nicole realizes that Gilead, up until that point a vague and distant political cause, actually concerns her intimately--but for the most part they proceed exactly as you expect them to proceed, and with a great deal of greased plot rails and convenient coincidences to boot.  By the time Aunt Lydia's plan, to use the two girls to smuggle out a cache of documents indicting Gilead, starts moving in earnest, the novel feels entirely untethered.  It's so obvious that the girls will succeed--and they themselves have so little to do with that success, merely allowing themselves to be couriered from one point to another--that it's hard to feel much investment.

It doesn't help that The Testaments elides what should be the most important parts of both girls' arcs.  We never see the moment in which Agnes's disillusionment with Gilead solidifies into a determination to bring it down.  Up until the novel's final chapters, in fact, she allows Lydia to convince her that the purpose of releasing the documents is to reform Gilead, but when we meet her at the end of her adventures, she has already concluded that "Gilead ought to fade away".  The transition between the two views is missing.  And by the same token, when Nicole arrives in Gilead, posing as a foreign recruit, her reactions are opaque and shallow.  She deems Gilead "weird", and marvels at its bland food and strange customs.  But its horror never seems to touch her, even though her first introduction to it is to be forced to watch a Particicution, in which dozens of enraged Handmaids are goaded into tearing supposed criminals apart with their bare hands.  Nicole, in fact, manages to keep herself at a remove from Gilead even when she's placed at the very heart of it.  Brought to the Aunts' indoctrination center where she's meant to be trained in "proper" behavior, she nevertheless goes around peppering her speech with profanity, describing god as an "imaginary friend", and performing calisthenics in her room.  This is completely antithetical to the point The Handmaid's Tale was trying to make--that it is impossible to hold yourself apart from a world like Gilead.  That once swallowed by it, you can't help but participate in it, in one way or another, and become marked by its horrors.  Both Agnes and Nicole's stories thus end up feeling too easy, a way of giving fans a happy ending, rather than facing up to the reality of growing up under, or being seduced by, totalitarianism.

"Too easy", in fact, feels like The Testaments's watchword, especially when it comes to its ending, in which Lydia's document cache starts the clock on Gilead's downfall.  It's hard to know how to take such a conclusion.  As Deborah Friedell writes in her review of the novel at the LRB: "The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that's more shameful than what they've been doing openly?"  The document cache, full of revelations of the type of abuse, rape, and murder that Gilead doesn't openly sanction, reveals that Gilead has betrayed its complementarian promise--that if women accept confining and belittling roles in society, they will be kept safe.  But pinning so much hope on the revelation of "hypocrisy" to destabilize Gilead from within, and galvanize opposition to it from without, is a weirdly naive turn of plot in 2019, several years into the era of Fake News and the constant churn of consequence-free scandal.  Worse, it seems to ignore the fact that The Handmaid's Tale already anticipated this attack, in the chapter in which Offred visits Jezebel's, and discovers that the pious, doctrine-spouting Commanders are all (not-so-) secretly cavorting with prostitutes.

The Handmaid's Tale understood that hypocrisy is baked into a system like Gilead, in which, as the saying goes, there are people whom the law protects but does not bind, and people whom the law binds but doesn't protect.  Though I've praised The Testaments for holding on to its prequel's moral clarity about what Gilead truly is, in this rather crucial instance, it loses its nerve.  For its ending to work, we have to forget that Jezebel's exists, and that escaped Handmaids and prostitutes would probably have told people about it (as Gerry Canavan observes in his review, it's strange that a book that is otherwise so meticulous about letting us know the fate of almost every character in Handmaid is completely silent on the subject of Moira).

Whatever argument you could have made for the necessity of a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale in 2019, the fact that this sequel buys into the very canard that the last few years have disabused us of--that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that exposing perfidy is a means to ending it--seems to render its existence pointless.  If there's anything that an expansion of the original novel should have addressed, it's the way that totalitarian regimes create their own reality.  How the first prerequisite to being allowed to participate in them is surrendering your own judgment and substituting it with the state-mandated reality.  Instead, Atwood gives us platitudes--even The Testaments's equivalent of the Historical Notes segment ends with treacle, not the sharp stiletto of the original novel's ending.  It's hard to begrudge these characters their happy ending--after thirty-five years, finding out that Gilead fell and that Offred was reunited with her daughters can't help but feel good.  But it's also the very definition of inessential.  I'm not sure what kind of fiction we need to get us through, or at least learn to understand, our terrible present moment.  I just know that The Testaments isn't it.

Comments

Adam Roberts said…
I think you're right. Fanfic is fine, of course; but I couldn't shake the sense, reading this, that “fleshing out” this world is, simply, the wrong way to proceed. Asking “how would Gilead actually work in real life?” is as misguided as asking “how would Kafka’s THE CASTLE work in real life?” The answer is necessarily either: there *are* actual gynophobic theocratic states, in the world today, that enslave and murder women and therefore make evident how a “real” Gilead functions (but Atwood doesn't want to write about them), or, more astutely, the answer is: HANDMAID’S TALE is a fabulist reimagining of present-day USA 1980-2020 that creatively distorts & simplifies reality for reasons of aesthetic & political polemical eloquence. Strip away the fable and the ‘real’ Gilead is just ... here, now. It seems to me that TESTAMENTS is weakest exactly to the extent that it wants to replace Kafkaesque fable with verisimilitude. It’s not even that this latter rings false (although it often does would the new regime really recruit its senior, politically-powerful ‘Aunts’, from amongst the ranks of its enemies, female judges and professors? Surely actually-believing women from their own ranks would be better? Why would any amount of politically embarrassing intel about corruption amongst Gilead’s ruling elite bring about the downfall of the State? Surely the Powers That Be would just shrug it off as fake news?) ... but as I say: it’s not even that Atwood’s new details ring false, it’s that the broader approach is misconceived. As fable it doesn’t *matter* that the Commanders are all 2D villains, that nobody in this theocracy actually believes in the state religion—everyone is a hypocrite, using it as merely a cover to source women and girls to rape. A caricature state of bourgeois cod-respectability and detached-house green-lawn affluence is the whole of Gilead, the entire working class and US racial diversity brushed under the carpet.That’s OK—caricature is a fine and noble fictional tradition, and for many purposes it is superior to realism. The problem is is the extent to which TESTAMENTS tries, and I have to say I think fails, to decaricature its picture.
Brett said…
She should have written a sequel after the fall of Gilead, where some (but not all) of the leadership was publicly tried and executed, but where there are many, many people who were important and involved in it who are now trying to pretend like they never did anything wrong or were never involved. Put it from the perspective of the victims of Gilead now trying to adjust to the new regime.
Unknown said…
I don't know what kind of fiction we need to get us through this either, especially in the US where we have a fascist President and a Vice President whose version of Christianity probably means he thinks Gilead has a lot of good ideas. I didn't mind the idea of having an adventure story be the core of the book. Escapist fantasies would seem to work better in the context of a world much closer to Gilead than a pessimistic litany of rape and torture inflicted upon the protagonist. But as you say, what we get is rather trite.

And I didn't enjoy the Aunt Lydia parts as much as you. I was disappointed that the flashback sections ended right when Lydia was getting down to the details of designing Gilead (although it completely makes sense why, in a first-person confessional you'd stop here). But I just didn't buy that the same person who was so invested in the importance of reproduction and did all the cruelty-for-cruelty's sake things in The Handmaid's Tale was the same person who was also secretly compiling an archive of receipts to take down the Commanders.
Retlawyen said…
I continue to be baffled at 'Aunt Lydia - Reluctant/complicated Villain'. Like, why is her response to "Do you want us all to be silenced?" Not a resounding "Yes, obviously!". I'm trying to remember the last high ranking villain who is depicted as believing what they say.

It's like what you said about the idea of hypocrisy as a knockout punch. Sure the Commander's policy is that people should be beaten and raped, but, wait for it, did you know that they also...commit atrocities separately from the ones they admit? The horror, the horror, close it all down!

Why not come out firing? Make Lydia exactly the kind of fundamentalist that you'd expect to construct such a project. She isn't compensating for something or trying to get back something, she is enforcing her vision on a world she perceives to be lacking.

Gilead at this point is like the Get Smart episode where every member of the gang is an undercover officer from a different agency! Serena fronts for the Commander, who fronts for Lydia, who fronts for the Waterfords. As depicted, what keeps the hell on earth going is a coordination problem. All of these double secret skeptics who long to do the right thing think that everyone else is a sincere believer, so they all have to act like sincere believers, and the beat goes on. Ridiculous!
Dave W. said…
I enjoyed the book, particularly the portrait of Aunt Lydia, but I had a problem that the main plot of the second half of the book didn't make sense to me in-universe as something that a ChessMaster like Lydia would have orchestrated. It makes sense from the author's perspective - it gives the three main characters a chance to interact with each other, and sets up an exciting action sequence with high stakes to end the book. But from a Watsonian rather than a Doyleist perspective, there is no good reason why Lydia should have tried to smuggle Nicole into Gilead just to smuggle her out again with the documents. They are microscopically reduced documents - if you want the scheme to succeed and don't care particularly if you survive after that, just make ten copies and send them out with the next ten anonymous women you are smuggling out via ten different routes. If even one of them makes it out, you have accomplished your mission. You can use cooperating Pearl Girls as smugglers also. Why stake everything on being able to smuggle out a specific potential celebrity who the government already has a recent photo of?
Adam:

I think that attempt to "decaricaturize", as you say, has its genesis in the TV show, which also expands its storytelling past Offred's limited perspective and tries to imagine how the world would really function with Gilead in it, and how Gilead itself really looks. (Though, and as noted by many commentators, one thing the show insists on despite both the original novel saying otherwise and all common sense is that Gilead is merely misogynistic, not white supremacist; Atwood, at least, knows better than that.) As you say, by trying to ground the dream logic of the novel in a concrete reality, Atwood instead exposes its flimsiness - and then goes even further with highly implausible turns of plot that belie the seriousness of her premise. Whether or not the origin of this novel is an attempt to cash in on the show, the fact that the show has infected Atwood's approach towards her original novel turns The Testaments into a purely commercial product.

Retlawyen:

I can see the purpose of grounding so much of Gilead in hypocrisy, because "belief" is actually a more complicated concept than we tend to acknowledge, and often has more to do with social signaling than actual conviction. (The most obvious example is the anti-abortion canard that a fertilized egg is indistinguishable from a child; a position that no sane person could actually hold, but which is nevertheless vehemently affirmed because it is an essentially consequence-free, in-group shibboleth.) But as you say, eventually you end up with a "turtles all the way down" situation in which Gilead persists despite the fact that no one in it actually believes in the things it's meant to stand for. I think this is another aspect of the trap of "sophistication" the TV version often falls into. Real, frothing at the mouth religious fundamentalists aren't that interesting, so the temptation when writing characters in literary fiction is to focus on ones who are more complex and ambivalent.

Dave W.:

Yes, Lydia's plan makes absolutely no sense. She doesn't even end up making anything of the fact that Daisy is "Baby Nicole". She mentions it to a few people, but if the intention was to use Gilead's years-long crusade to get Nicole back in order to facilitate Daisy and Agnes's escape or smuggling out the document cache, it doesn't actually seem to happen. I don't tend to read Margaret Atwood novels for the tight plotting, but this level of sloppiness is hard to justify.

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