[Some book and TV series spoilers]
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after watching the first few episodes of the TV series. The book was a fascinating read because Gilead, unlike other fictional dystopias, felt like something that could actually happen or may be even going on right now, to some extent, in some parts of the world. Social anxieties from the 80’s like women’s reproductive rights and oppressive gender roles are, sadly, still very relevant today, making the book feel eerily current.
The original novel’s subject matter is no easy read as the acts of cruelty done to woman are deplorable and infuriating, and worse of all based on historical practices according to Atwood. Offred’s narration reads like a disorienting and claustrophobic nightmare, something the first season of the series captures perfectly (minus some questionable “badass” musical montages). The book is ambiguous about the protagonist’s fate (not even her real name is revealed) but the epilogue leaves a glimpse of hope when it confirms that Gilead would eventually fall.
The second season of the TV show continued directly after Offred’s book ending and stretched out her story to exhausting lengths, leading to a third and even more confirmed seasons to come. I must confess I stopped watching after the first couple of episode into the third season, since it started feeling like glacially paced misery porn not even Elisabeth Moss’s great performance could make bearable. After spoiling myself the latest season’s ending I don’t think I’ll give the show another chance, since the speculative fiction turning into almost fantasy isn’t sitting well on me.
Enter The Testaments, Atwood’s direct sequel to the original book, released 34 years after the original and set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ending. Not following the TV series canon, the story follows three different women affected by Gilead’s regime, none of them handmaids. After being disappointed by the repetitive TV show, this is a very welcomed breath of fresh air. Horrific and tragic things do happen, but hope is more prevalent this time around, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Aunt Lydia, one of the most captivating antagonists from the first book and the series, is now a point of view character and is fascinatingly fleshed out. Through Offred’s eyes, the aunt was a cruel and hateful woman, but The Testaments lets Lydia speak for herself. Her chapters are presented as her own written testimony and reveal her moral complexity and sometimes even evoke sympathy for her. Yes, she has committed atrocious acts but we get an understanding of her reasons. In fact she is one of the key figures to the downfall of Gilead, with the help of Agnes and Daisy, the other two main characters.
Agnes is a girl raised in Gilead by a Commander and a Wife, after being separated from her mother at a very early age. Her story is as compelling as Aunt Lydia’s because it showcases the way education works under the regime and the psychological impact it has on the children, particularly the “privileged” girls like her friend Becka. Learning to be a dutiful wife coupled with the suppression of her real desires creates unmanageable distress and a pessimistic view of life, not far away from considering suicide as a viable option to escape. Her only other choice to avoid her unwanted fate is becoming an aunt with the help of Aunt Lydia.
Daisy is a rebellious teenage girl living in Canada with her adoptive parents. Of the three protagonists, her journey is the weakest one in my opinion, playing out too much like a conventional YA chosen one journey without any subversion. After tragedy strikes, Daisy is taken by the Mayday organization, which had already been established in the first book as an underground rebellion group that helped handmaids and children escape from Gilead while also working to take down the government.
Not everything is wrong with Daisy’s part though. Her chapters are actually the most dynamic and add a real sense of urgency, compared to the more subdued psychological conflicts of the other two women. We also get more world building through the introduction of the Pearl Girls, missionaries who recruit girls from around the world to bring to Gilead. Additionally, we get a glimpse of how Canadians and other nations deal with Gilead, something only previously shown in the series.
As expected, the three stories eventually converge and everyone has a part to play in Gilead’s inevitable downfall. The final act comprises of the adventure Agnes and Daisy escaping from Gilead with key information while Aunt Lydia deals with the chaos that ensues and her enemies close to finding out her real agenda.
I consider The Testaments a success at exploring more facets of Gilead ripe for dissection. Atwood’s decision to shift the focus away from the handmaids and the use of a time skip were very much needed, there is just so much handmaid suffering we can endure before exhaustion, as the show proves.
The exploration of Aunt Lydia’s psyche was a very welcome surprise. Feeling sympathy for her is complicated because we know she is capable of consciously abusing others, but nonetheless she is still a woman living under an oppressive, unjust system where women hold on to whatever power they can amass. And she is indeed playing a long term game by helping Mayday while risking her own life in the process. Aunts and wives are indeed complicit in perpetuating misogyny as means of self-preservation. What we do with that idea is up to the reader, but it is symbolic that Aunt Lydia’s statue is shown as a decaying relic of the past.
Atwood makes it clear that the theocratic, fascist Gilead is rotten at its very core and its injustices and power imbalance are the reasons for its eventual collapse. A society where women (and minorities) are not full persons cannot prosper, a lesson that the world unfortunately needs right now.
The original Handmaid’s Tale is a classic and The Testaments is a worthy follow-up. The novels create a wholesome experience that doesn’t actually need the TV show to be fully appreciated. It is a scaringly-close-to-reality tale that echoes current bigoted, misogynistic discourses in politics and religion. That is the real terror we should keep an eye on.