It’s been 34 years since Margaret Atwood published her dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” set in a future America that had been taken over by a corrupt fundamentalist Christian theocracy and renamed “Gilead.” Women are deprived of all rights. Biblical injunctions are strictly enforced with biblical punishments like stoning and hanging.
What seemed hardly likely in 1985 no longer seems impossible in 2019.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” ends on an ambiguous note: Protagonist Offred (the “handmaid belonging to Fred”) is not sure whether she is being arrested or escaping Gilead, though an epilogue indicates that she does escape, and that by some means Gilead eventually falls.
Atwood, in an epilogue to her new book “The Testaments,” says that she wrote this novel not just as a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but also to show that path by which Gilead would fall. Set 16 years later, the story follows Offred’s two daughters, named Agnes and Nicole, as well as Aunt Lydia, the leader of the unmarried women (“Aunts”) who enforce the extreme gender repression in Gilead.
Atwood is a good storyteller. “The Testaments” has a gripping plot that revolves around the way the two girls are drawn into resistance to the regime, partly due to Aunt Lydia’s manipulations but also because of their own dislike of the strictures on women in Gilead. Atwood has a knack for creating self-enclosed worlds in which the most bizarre ideas take on detailed, concrete form; as such, the setting of “The Testaments,” as often happens in good speculative fiction, has a convincing vibrancy.
Most of the scenes are limited to Gilead’s ruling elite and their servants. There are references to wars with the West Coast, refugees fleeing to Canada, the attempt to create a “homeland” in North Dakota and the “Econowives,” which is the term for working-class women. The main story within Gilead takes place in a small circle of wealthy families.
Unlike Atwood’s “MadAddam” series, the humor is somewhat muted in this book, though expressed in subtle forms. For example, the names new Aunts take come from a list of women’s beauty and clothing products from before the coup — “Immortelle,” “Victoria,” “Ivory,” and so on. There’s also a subtle humor in the way that violent atrocities become normalized, as when the Aunts complain that the frequent hangings outside their headquarters are a nuisance because of the smell.
Atwood’s characters are not particularly complicated. The story she tells is less about how resistance grows in an authoritarian regime than how people are drawn into either resistance or collaboration (or both) in spite of themselves. Aunt Lydia, who sets the main events of the book in motion, was a federal judge before the coup that put Gilead in power, and chose to collaborate with the regime rather than face torture and execution. While her secret intent is to accumulate enough power to bring about the downfall of Gilead, in the meantime she becomes the principal architect of the institutions of gender oppression in the regime. She is a very lonely and isolated character, mainly living in her head.
Agnes and Nicole are even less ideologically motivated: Nicole, raised as a Canadian, is convinced to infiltrate Gilead to move Aunt Lydia’s plot forward after her foster parents are killed by Gilead agents, but has little confidence or training in what she’s doing. Agnes, raised in Gilead, is manipulated by Aunt Lydia into joining the plot. Both are similarly isolated, full of self-doubt and mistrust, and finding it hard to form strong bonds with anyone else. A friend of Agnes, Becka, has a surer sense of why she is helping with the plot, but ends up sacrificing herself for her friend.
Other characters in the novel are one-dimensional. Atwood treats the activists of the Mayday resistance with respect (except for those who are mainly motivated by money), but the reader has no real sense of why they’re taking the risks they take with both Canada and Gilead against them. They seem on the verge of defeat, mainly due to the indifference of the rest of the world.
The characters in Gilead, though often venal and corrupt, are mainly reactive to the complicated and bizarre society surrounding them, pretending to fill their prescribed social roles while advancing their own interests and desires. The hypocrisy of the society is predictable in any dictatorship that tries to justify violence and repression on ideological grounds, but it is also characteristic of Atwood’s cynicism and plays oddly against her clear opposition to social oppression.
This novel, like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” ends with a satirical epilogue about an academic conference decades later, where historians are trying to make sense of the narratives that survived the fall of Gilead. Nicole, Agnes and Aunt Lydia are barely remembered and possibly mythic figures, their roles in events subject to historical interpretation. In the long run, Atwood suggests, history moves on, and while our struggles may seem critical in the moment, eventually they’ll be blended into the unknowable past and any heroism or villainy will be forgotten. It’s not a philosophy that would inspire someone into resistance to America’s current drift to the right, though the descriptions of Gilead might well scare them into it!
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