Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become a seminal work in the world of feminist literature. The novel follows the chilling story of a woman known as Offred, who is forced to play the role of a Handmaid in Gilead, a brutal dystopian society based on Puritan values. In Gilead, women are stripped of basic rights and are restricted to a few subservient roles.
On Sept. 10, 2019, over 30 years since its release, “The Handmaid’s Tale” received a sequel: “The Testaments.” The sequel was highly anticipated, especially by readers of the 1985 novel who wanted answers to the many questions Atwood left open about the fates of the characters. Even before its publication, “The Testaments” was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. In part to avoid entanglement with the ongoing story of the Hulu show based on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood sets “The Testaments” 15 years after the events of the first book.
“The Testaments” differs in many ways from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” most strikingly in its use of three narrators. The novel benefits the most from the perspective of Aunt Lydia who, as an aunt, is one of the few women with any power in Gilead. She works closely with a wide range of people in the society and has access to a wealth of personal information about them, which she carefully uses to achieve her own goals. Aside from masterfully conveying bits of information to the readers through Aunt Lydia’s perspective, Atwood struck gold in including her mature, morally complex narrative, as it contrasts with the idealism shown through the other two younger narrators.
The stronger of these idealistic views is expressed through Agnes’ perspective. Agnes is a young woman who grew up in Gilead and knows no life outside of it, and her experiences provide readers with a glimpse of how the society has indoctrinated a new generation. As a girl, she is not taught how to read or write in school; instead, school is a place for learning the crafts dedicated to women of her high social standing as well as religious teachings based on Gilead’s interpretation of the Bible. From a young age, Agnes is taught, and believes, that her body is shameful and if it tempts men into hurting her in ways that she does not know, it is partially her fault. Atwood crafts Agnes as an unwitting victim of her upbringing that reflects misogynistic and deeply harmful values held in the modern day, magnifying them through the horrors Agnes endures.
One of the few areas where “The Testaments” falls flat is in its third narrator, Daisy. She is a teenage girl who grew up in Canada, which borders Gilead but is not under its rule, and where women and girls participate in society much more normally. Daisy’s perspective had enormous potential, as she is the only character who has not known life in Gilead and views it from the outside, but instead she reads as an unlikable protagonist and undergoes less character development than the other two narrators. Atwood also writes a romantic arc for Daisy, possibly to emphasize that she is a normal girl, but it is out of place and distracts from what could have been a chance for her to mature and be self-reflective. Her constant complaining and optimism do not fit well together, and the few moments where she shines are solely due to the empathy of other characters.
Despite this flaw and others involving plot and pacing, “The Testaments” is another example of Atwood’s relevant storytelling. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood told a plausible story through an extremely limited viewpoint, prompting social discussions in the real world, particularly about the treatment of women as well as a never-ending list of unanswered questions from readers about the fictional world. “The Testaments” seeks to answer some of these and prompts readers to reflect on what they would do if they noticed the small and gradual changes that can precipitate inhumane atrocities.
Photo Credit: Shown here is the cover of the hardback first edition of “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood. Photo by Grace Reeb.