When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, the Christian right was on the rise in the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed an indelible element of the global political landscape. It would be a mistake to think that the former had a greater influence on Atwood’s masterpiece than the latter. True, the novelist has said that, before writing it, she’d been researching the small-scale theocracies the Puritans established in colonial America. (That’s one reason the book is set in Massachusetts.) But The Handmaid’s Tale is a direct descendant of George Orwell’s 1984, the kind of bleak literary contemplation of the human spirit under the totalitarian regimes that flourished in the post–World War II era, when it often felt like such states were inevitable. “Always, at every moment,” Winston Smith’s torturer tells him in Orwell’s novel, “there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Atwood’s Gilead is that kind of place, and it’s infused with the understanding that, for much of human history, most places were that kind of place if you had the misfortune to be a woman. The citizens of Gilead spend remarkably little time thinking about God or Scripture, and its leaders, even less so. Ideology—communism, fascism, religion, racial supremacism—merely provides a rationale for the exercise of raw power and conveniently designates a class of victims and slaves. “The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards,” a character in Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, recalls of Gilead’s convulsive birth. “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.”
Readers who come to The Testaments fresh from the Hulu series based on The Handmaid’s Tale may be surprised to learn that these lines—their sardonic dryness so quintessentially Atwoodian—come from Aunt Lydia, the overseer of the “women’s side” of Gilead, and an object of veneration and terror in every version of the story. A cipher in the first novel and a true believer driven to zealotry by sexual humiliation in the TV series, the Aunt Lydia of The Testaments is another beast entirely, a cunning political survivor with an extensive collection of other people’s secrets and no love for Gilead itself. This Lydia plays the long game, and one of the many pleasures of this enthralling novel comes from witnessing how her plans finally pay out. Recognizing that she is reaching the end of her vitality, Aunt Lydia has no illusions about her future should she weaken. She, like everyone else, must die, but she prefers to decide “when and how.” Oh, and also “who to take down with me. I have made my list.”
Gilead will fall, too. This we’ve known from the beginning. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is framed as primary source material presented to an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” at the end of the 22nd century, long after the collapse of the dictatorship. One part of the novel is Aunt Lydia’s handwritten account of her final months, with recollections of her own imprisonment and torture following the overthrow of the United States government and the establishment of Gilead. It alternates with two other narratives, both transcriptions of recorded testimony, one from a young woman raised in a powerful Gilead family and the other from a 16-year-old Canadian girl who becomes involved in a plot to smuggle out a dossier of documents incriminating enough to undermine Gilead’s rulers and ultimately topple the regime.
Atwood picks up plot elements that originated in the TV series—a baby named Nicole born to a handmaid in Gilead and spirited across the border to Canada, Aunt Lydia’s past as a family-court judge (in the series, a lawyer)—and twists them to her own ends. In The Testaments, Baby Nicole, hidden away in parts unknown, becomes a literal poster child, a rallying symbol for both Gilead and its critics. “So useful, Baby Nicole,” Aunt Lydia observes. “She whips up the faithful, she inspires hatred against our enemies, she bears witness to the possibility of betrayal within Gilead and to the deviousness and cunning of the Handmaids, who can never be trusted.” Daisy, who will soon go undercover as a bogus convert to the Gilead religion, joins a protest in which marchers wave Baby Nicole signs, vowing that the child will never be returned to captivity.
But The Testaments owes more to the TV series than a handful of details. Its tone hews closer to the series than to the novel that precedes it. The Offred of the novel version of The Handmaid’s Tale—trapped, impotent, and considering suicide to the very end—confronts that eternal quandary: deciding whether or not to trust a man. Nick, her lover, is either a member of the Mayday resistance or a government spy. When she steps into a black van on the novel’s last page, she thinks, “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”
By contrast, the Offred played by Elisabeth Moss in the TV series is a steel-nerved, gun-toting rebel who engineers a plan to smuggle 52 children out of Gilead and stabs a would-be rapist with a pen before finishing him off by whacking him in the head with a statuette. The novel was a study in how easily agency can be stripped from a person who’d previously considered herself free and strong. Like a prisoner, Offred studies every detail of her spartan room, discovering a motto scratched on the wall by a previous inmate: mock Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” But she finds out that the handmaid assigned to the house before her killed herself, a discovery that casts the viability of such defiance into doubt. The Offred of the novel, like 1984’s Winston Smith, is ground down. “Fatigue is here, in my body, in my legs and eyes,” she says, resigning herself to her fate. “That is what gets you in the end.”
To judge by history, Atwood’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale, the one in which everyone, or nearly everyone, capitulates to the power of the state, is the more realistic. It’s also less entertaining than a story in which the downtrodden outwit and rise up against the tyrants. The Handmaid’s Tale makes for lugubrious reading because Offred is so helpless. It is a novel of stasis, boredom, despair—punctuated by moments of pure terror. It replicates the emotional state of living under totalitarianism. Wouldn’t we all rather believe that we’d be brave and resourceful enough to join the resistance? And if we’re really honest with ourselves, just how likely is it that we would be?
The Testaments is fun to read in a way that The Handmaid’s Tale is not, fun in the same way that the TV series, for all its grim lighting and performances, is crowd-pleasing. Its characters are not powerless or crushed. Aunt Lydia, it is soon revealed, is secretly working toward Gilead’s downfall. Clever Agnes Jemima, another of the book’s new narrators, who was raised to be a docile wife to a Gilead commander, begins to have doubts. Daisy, a smart-mouthed teenager, is both refreshingly irreverent and hopelessly naïve. “I thought I knew what was wrong with people then,” she recollects during her testimony, “especially adult people. I thought I could set them straight.” When Aunt Lydia asks if Daisy, a recent arrival at Ardua Hall (a sort of convent for trainee Aunts), would prefer to just go back home to Canada, Daisy asks, “Like how? Flying monkeys?” Later, when Aunt Lydia enlists several novices to participate in a risky scheme, Daisy protests that the older woman is resorting to “emotional blackmail.” “I appreciate your views,” Aunt Lydia replies, “but your juvenile notions of fairness do not apply here.”
Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
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Banter like this may be irresistible, but it would have cost a girl a beating in the novel version of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments comes adorned with much splendid writing. Atwood, who is also a poet, can turn a metaphor that feels both original and like something you’ve always known: “ ‘Life is not about hair,’ I said then, only half jocularly. Which is true, but it is also true that hair is about life. It is the flame of the body’s candle, and as it dwindles the body shrinks and melts away.” She has always grounded her fiction in the creatureliness of experience, whether it’s Offred stealing butter to use as hand lotion in The Handmaid’s Tale or Daisy observing that the woman who raised her “had a distant smell. She smelled like a floral guest soap in a strange house I was visiting. What I mean is, she didn’t smell to me like my mother.”
All of this and a corker of a plot, culminating in a breathless flight to freedom, makes The Testaments a rare treat. The Handmaid’s Tale, while magnificent, was never that. But—let’s not kid ourselves—that’s because, of the two novels, it is the least reassuring, the least flattering, and, sadly, the most true.