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Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: On the Literature of Witness in Margaret Atwood's 'The Testaments'

Margaret Atwood's The Testaments provides a hard-earned and much-needed "happy" ending to the dystopian parallel universe that is The Handmaid's Tale, albeit at great cost and courage to one vital witness.

The Testaments
Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese

September 2019


Note: This article contains spoilers.

Thirty-four years ago, our pregnant heroine Offred climbed into a black van and disappeared. Luckily for her fans, her story did not end there. At the end of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood offered a brief coda detailing the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies, in which scholars debated the meaning and implications of the rebellious Handmaid's story as a primary historical document. This meant, of course, that the patriarchal dystopia Gilead was a relic of the past that had become an object of study.

The afterward was, according to Atwood, "a little utopia concealed in the dystopic" novel, even if readers did not learn what happened to Offred. The afterword, in the setting of the academic conference, ends with: "Are there any questions?"

For Atwood, the primary question—one she has been asked "repeatedly" by readers over the decades—is: "How did Gilead fall?" The Testaments is her answer. But it is more than that, of course; no mere return visit to memorable characters or response to the popular Hulu show, The Testaments is a deliberate reaction to current politics. Although there are obvious nods to the rise of the New Right that helped inspire the original tale in the 1980s—the Aunts pander, back-stab, and plan their palace intrigue over mint teas at the nostalgically named Schlafly Café—this is a novel of and for the Trump era.

Atwood told her publishers of her plans for a sequel in February of 2017, just after Trump's inauguration. One month later, she published an essay in the New York Times, "Margaret Atwood on What 'The Handmaid's Tale' Means in the Age of Trump" (10 March 2017) on the meaning of the original novel in the "Age of Trump". She had hoped for The Handmaid's Tale to be an "antiprediction", and she reiterated in a recent interview that the "desired outcome" for the original novel "would have been that it would fade into obscurity as a period piece." But, she concluded, "That's not the turn that history has taken." A recent Variety headline gets straight to the point: "Instead of Moving Away from Gilead, We Started Moving Towards It" (Henry Chu, 10 September 2019).

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Beyond current politics in America, the intertextuality of The Handmaid's Tale is a significant context for this sequel; sales of the novel boomed after Trump's election, just in time for the show's debut in April of 2017. The Hulu series has moved beyond the screen into the realm of politics, as well, with women wearing Handmaids' costumes to protest restrictions on reproductive rights in many states and several other countries. The enormous popularity of the show and the ubiquity of the costume could derail the originality of a literary sequel, but Atwood has deftly avoided this pitfall in two primary ways.

First, The Testaments is set in second-generation Gilead, some 15 years later. And second, Atwood leaves Offred largely behind. While Offred is a mythical figure known both within and beyond Gilead in The Testaments, she gets a scant few lines. Atwood confesses that she had to write it this way: "You can climb the Empire State Building barehanded once. When you try again, you'll fall off…[Offred] said her thing. There's nothing you can really add in her voice."

Atwood replaces the iconic Handmaid with three narrators. Agnes is the privileged daughter of a Commander and his Handmaid, destined to be auctioned off at the age of 13 to be a Commander's Wife. Her younger counterpart is Daisy, a Canadian teenager who becomes a member of the Mayday resistance after learning her true identity. And most memorably, the third narrator is Aunt Lydia, the fearsome female enforcer of repression in the original novel and the Hulu series.

Like The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments is an example of the "literature of witness". In the original, Atwood recounted to the New York Times in 2017, "Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it." "This," she emphasized, "is an act of hope: every recorded story implies a future reader." In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred reasons that "if it's a story" that she is telling, then "[she] must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else." The Testaments picks up 15 years after Offred has vanished, whereupon Aunt Lydia echoes Offred's hopeful logic a few pages in: "If you are reading, this manuscript at least will have survived."

The Testaments even more explicitly employs the techniques of the literature of witness: the two younger narrators are listed as "Witnesses 369A and B" in the subtitles of their sections, indicating a fictional historical audience in the future, while Aunt Lydia often addresses the reader, whom she calls her "only friend" directly. "Think of me as a guide," she suggests as she describes her pre-Gilead past. "Think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood. It's about to get darker."

Although Agnes and Daisy's chapters have undeniable " YA appeal", complete with a grunge-style makeover, an adolescent love interest, and some aggressive girl power (one reviewer called these sections "The Hunger Games in bonnets"), I found them to be page-turning primarily as sources of information about and perspectives of the "Late Gilead period," as Atwood refers to the fictional timeframe. Despite their true identities, which readers will suspect long before they are explicitly revealed, neither character is all that interesting on her own.

Instead, Aunt Lydia emerges as the most compelling character by far. This turn of events is not revisionary; Atwood's brief cameo as an Aunt on the television series brought home to her just how "horribly upsetting" such a role could be (or has been—the experience was, Atwood says, "way too much like way too much history"). Atwood has stated that while she has no formal power over the Hulu series, she has given the showrunner one ultimatum: Aunt Lydia has to live. And this reader, for one, is glad the old torture-monger stuck around for the sequel.

Aunt Lydia's backstory and ongoing political machinations, even in her dotage as the old-school doyenne of Gilead in its dying days, are the key to the brilliance of this novel. Aunt Lydia drives the plot by bringing the loose ends and significant characters together, and her chapters are chilling, cunning, and razor sharp. She plays a very long game—so long, in fact, that to make sense of her plot to destroy Gilead, she leads readers minutely through her experiences at the beginning of the theocratic regime.

In doing so, Atwood partially answers the question of how this totalitarian regime fell by detailing the cracks in its construction—and by extension, that of similar states—from its very inception. One rises to the top of a dictatorship, according to Atwood, by either being a "true believer from a beginning, at which point you're probably going to get purged later on, or you're an opportunist." In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia is cleverly, ruthlessly, the latter.

In Gilead, Lydia states bluntly, "there are only two directions: up or plummet." She chooses to climb. A former teacher turned family court judge, she arrived at work after the puritanical coup only to be rounded up with her female colleagues, lawyers and judges all ("a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination," she says ruefully by way of explanation). She quotes Frost on two roads diverging, although in this dystopia, "the one most travelled by" is "littered with corpses." But, she notes, her own "corpse is not among them." Like Offred, Lydia is a survivor.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale © 2016 Hulu (2017-) (IMDB)

When Aunt Lydia chooses to buy in to this brutal patriarchal bargain, she leans in for the long haul. Shrewdly, she uses her sex as a source of power against those who are certain that women should have none. Lydia explains, "By being female I was excluded from the lists of potential usurpers," and so over the decades she set about making herself necessary to the regime, Gilead's "iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten." But she has her own agenda; she plays commanders like fiddles, pits aunts against one another, threatens wives into submission, and expertly indoctrinates the two younger narrators so that when she is ready to enact her plan to bring down Gilead, she encounters no resistance from them.

Like "J. Edgar Hoover," Atwood has said of one of her worst characters, Lydia "realizes the power of having dirt on people that you don't reveal publicly," and so she painstakingly maintains files of the crimes of the Commanders, Wives, and Eyes over the years. She deems herself a "Recording Angel, collecting together all the sins of Gilead," for use at the proper time. "I've made it my business to know where the bodies are buried," she writes in one chapter, an uncharacteristically modest claim—Aunt Lydia not only knows those locations, she quite frequently orchestrated the hits and oversaw the burials. "Topple me and I'll pull down the temple," she whispers unheard to one of her rival Aunts.

Despite what she tells her "destroying angels", her secret mission is not the purification of the rotting regime; Lydia was never a true believer, and her goal is revenge. She opens one self-satisfied chapter thusly: "All things come to she who waits. Time wounds all heels. Patience is a virtue. Vengeance is mine."

The Testaments ends, fittingly, with the Thirteenth Symposium on Gileadean Studies in 2197, in which readers learn the outcome of Lydia's long game: a purge, a military revolt, a popular uprising, and a successful frontal assault from outside forces. Gilead thereafter became a historical mystery, fleshed out only through Offred's cache of tapes, Aunt Lydia's records, Mayday resistance activist debriefings and testimonies, and archeological evidence from old Gileadean sites. The academics at the symposium discuss the possibility that Lydia's manuscript is a "forgery" or a "trap" composed by one of her enemies, but they deem her tale "authentic", corroborated as it is by the mission described by two equally mysterious Gileadean "fugitives" who claim to have been working for her. Although they acknowledge the gaps within their historical knowledge, the scholars choose to believe the testaments they have uncovered.

This, then, is a story in which women's truths bring down patriarchal totalitarianism. It's certainly a promising message for those of us concerned about current parallels—although as Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in the New York Times, emphasis on truth and facts, and exposure of lies and wrongdoing, does not seem to have yet made much of a dent in existing regimes. Predictably, Atwood has considered this problem. She told the New York Times in early September, "I'm a World War II baby. Things looked pretty dark in 1942."

The Testaments features its fair share of casualties, but its ending is, thankfully, hopeful. The outcome of our tale under the current political regime, however, is yet to be witnessed.

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