Books

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

Other

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Studies, in which scholars debated the meaning and implications of the rebellious Handmaid's story as a primary historical document.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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.