Book Review: The Testaments. The sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Chatto & Windus, London, September 2019

Recently published, The Testaments is Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, her extraordinary dystopian novel first published almost 35 years ago. In elegant and chilling fashion, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a young woman conscripted into brutal sexual and reproductive surrogacy by the “Sons of Jacob” – a Puritan-like cult which has seized power in Washington DC and the north-eastern states of America, creating the new nation of “Gilead”.

Gilead’s violent secession from the United States and its use of nuclear weapons has left deep wounds upon the land and its people – most critically, widespread infertility – but its leaders are determined to project to the rest of the world an image of confidence, happiness and prosperity, no matter how high the moral cost or how many lives must be sacrificed to maintain it.   

Atwood’s masterly attention to detail and her ability to re-imagine and re-present historical events in a fresh and enthralling way is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale such a unique and enduring literary achievement. From the horrors of Nazi eugenics, Communist re-education camps and the book-burning of the Cultural Revolution, to the courage of the Underground Railroad and the daring exploits of the French Resistance – to the reader aware of these dramatic events in human history, Atwood’s story is deeply resonant and rewarding.

The characters and customs of Gilead's Stalinist-like society spring to vivid life under Atwood’s pen: the “Eyes” or secret police; the “Aunts”, educated women of authority who train the “Handmaids” and facilitate their systematic rapes to produce children for the regime’s commanders; the “Unbabies” – the innocent babies born with deformities from nuclear fallout and killed without mercy; and the “Particicutions”, public executions of accused criminals at the hands of the brutalised and traumatised Handmaids. And then there is “Mayday” – the brave network of resistors who strive to rescue the Handmaids and help them find sanctuary in Canada, whilst planting the seeds of Gilead’s eventual collapse.

Not sadism, but human dignity and resistance are her themes

Whilst the hugely popular HBO television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has brought Atwood’s work to a new generation, regrettably Atwood has not been well served by the very graphic physical and sexual violence portrayed onscreen. The writers of the series have unaccountably chosen to “enhance” the brutality of the Handmaids’ suffering by adding sadistic elements not in the novel. This is a pity, as it has meant the loss of many potential viewers who, with a more restrained adaptation, could have appreciated the intelligence, complexity and moral power of Atwood’s story.

The real power and appeal of the series, like the novel, lies in its enduring theme of resistance, which it has in common with novels and films depicting heroic wartime and post-war suffering and survival. We are drawn to such stories because they show the resilience of the human spirit and the extraordinary courage and endurance of which human beings are capable; they remind us that whilst our bodies may be imprisoned, broken or defeated, our souls are always free.

The Handmaid’s Tale boldly defends the truth that human dignity is intrinsic to the person and can never be destroyed or lost, even under the most brutal and brutalizing of conditions. The deeply human, flawed but courageous heroine Offred (movingly portrayed by actress Elisabeth Moss) offers an image in which we may see our own moral and spiritual dramas play out – our own resistance to or acquiescence with evil; our desires for comfort and security versus our higher impulses to compassion and love; our choices to keep silent or to speak out when truth is declared to be falsehood, and falsehood truth.

16 years later: The Testaments

The Testaments takes up the story some 16 years or so after the concluding events of The Handmaid’s Tale. Through the first-person testimonies of three female characters, Atwood delves deeper into the background of the regime, its rise to power and the continuing efforts of “Mayday” to infiltrate and defeat it. The formidable Aunt Lydia discloses how she was compelled to collaborate with the regime and her secret efforts to use her position and power to undermine it from within. The character Agnes Jemima allows us to follow the journey of a privileged child of Gilead from evading the threat of a forced marriage to entering the “novitiate” of the Aunts.

Meanwhile, the young heroine Nicole, Offred’s daughter, has been smuggled into Canada as a baby and raised there under a new identity. Seen as an innocent child cruelly snatched from her family and country, Nicole is a cause célèbre in Gilead – a patriotic symbol wielded with pride by the government, her very name (meaning “victory of the people”) signifying the ongoing struggle between ideology and truth.

As Aunt Lydia observes the gradual decay of the Gilead regime, Atwood draws a fascinating historical parallel with the internal collapse of the Soviet Union. The commanders are beset by increasing corruption, depravity and betrayals and the weight of maintaining the ideological façade becomes too heavy a burden for them to carry with conviction. Atwood movingly describes the disillusionment that people start to feel as they see the hollowness behind the old propaganda and as the beauty and power of the truth begin to break through.

Atwood offers us compelling criteria by which to identify the moral evils that beset women across the world today; in particular, the dehumanising of women through the use of sanitised terms which attempt to hide the grim nature of what is being done to them. From rape, prostitution and pornography to the exploitation of women’s wombs through surrogacy; from abortion and other forms of violence against women and children to the denial of education to women and girls – The Testaments stirs the conscience to look at them with new eyes. 

The power of naming and remembering unseen victims

Early in the novel, Agnes Jemima witnesses the death of a handmaid in childbirth who is denied medical care until it is too late. Her death is valorised by the regime as a noble and selfless sacrifice, yet Agnes can see that the poor handmaid did not choose to die. Years later, Agnes discovers the handmaid’s real name and reflects upon the dignity this gives her, that was denied her in life. Some reviewers have suggested this brief, tragic episode shows Atwood offering a defence of abortion as necessary for women’s dignity. Whilst this is plausible, it is not coherent with the idea of dignity which the novel so fiercely espouses. If human dignity is not intrinsic and radically inclusive of all human creatures, it can be denied to some – to any of us. The passionate plea to give dignity to the woman by naming her and acknowledging her life and death seems to apply just as powerfully to the unborn child. As Atwood so memorably states, “It was like finding a handprint in a cave: it was a sign, it was a message. I was here. I existed. I was real.” (p.104)

These themes of naming and memory are crucial to the moral power of the story. Atwood shows how the deliberate dehumanisation of the Handmaids, in particular, by denying their true names, facilitates the evil of their sexual slavery. The “testaments” of Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Nicole bear witness to the truth, and it is the naming and remembering of the unseen victims that will in time – Atwood encourages us to hope – set other victims free.

The idea that there is a profound moral and spiritual power in naming – in literacy itself – is further developed in the character of Agnes Jemima. As she progresses in her novitiate, she is taught to read and write. It is a privilege allowed only to Aunts – education being denied to women of all other classes in Gilead. A lyrical passage in which Agnes enters a library for the first time is a highlight of Atwood’s delightful prose. At this point, Atwood is explicit that she does not identify Christianity as responsible for the abuses of women and girls, or as representing a threat to their dignity and rights. The true danger comes from “false shepherds” who distort religion to achieve their own ends. When at last she is permitted to read the Bible, the devout Agnes is astounded: “As I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith.” (p.303)

A 'notorious heretic' makes an appearance

The Testaments contains a recurring reference to John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), soon to be canonised a saint by the Catholic Church, but known in Gilead as “a notorious heretic”. (p. 313)

To Aunt Lydia, who conceals her testimony within the pages of his famous autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman is a reminder of the moral, intellectual and spiritual courage and integrity to which she once aspired in her former life as a judge. With her testament, she seeks to leave behind a defence of her life and a justification of her choice to cooperate with an evil regime – at first, in order simply to survive, but later because she judges she can best work towards its downfall by remaining in her position of trust and authority. As a woman of conscience and education, the haunted Lydia knows her culpability is greater than that of others and that, although she can never atone for her crimes, she can choose again – however imperfectly – the path of courage and truth. 

The theological note introduced with Newman becomes stronger as the final chapters of the novel recall the Song of Songs and allude to the three supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. Anticipating the eventual fall of Gilead, Agnes Jemima (her names meaning, significantly, “lamb” and “dove”) pleads with another character for mercy to be shown to the people. Atwood strongly rejects the notions of collective punishment and mass vengeance, which historically have all too often followed the victories of those purportedly on the side of good. In her public life too, Atwood has been courageous in breaking with fellow feminists and criticising elements of the #MeToo movement that seemed to endorse mob justice and the overturning of the presumption of innocence.

Writing in the Spectator, journalist Allison Pearson expresses her admiration of Margaret Atwood “not just for the enchantment of her prose, but for the courage of her often unfashionable convictions”. Atwood’s belief in an objective truth and her confidence that this truth will, in the end, triumph over ideology is deeply unfashionable in this postmodern age. Unsurprisingly, The Testaments has been criticised by the cynical, who find its faith and hopefulness naïve, but these critics only betray their shallowness next to Atwood's wisdom.

The Testaments shows us that such faith and hope are not irrational or unfounded, but emerge from the human experience of suffering and resilience. But it is perhaps her novel’s quiet belief in the greatest virtue, charity – its affirmation that a woman who has betrayed her sisters and has innocent blood upon her hands is nonetheless worthy of redemption – that is the bravest and most unfashionable conviction of all.

Mary Joseph is a registered midwife from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and an honours graduate in English literature from the Australian National University.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...