THE TESTAMENTS. By Margaret Atwood. Doubleday. 419 pages. $28.95.
In 1986, Margaret Atwood closed “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her dystopic masterpiece, with the riddle of destiny. Offred, the title handmaid, is desperate to move in a hopeful direction and to believe that she can still guide her own life. So, she takes a chance. In the novel’s final line, she steps up, “into the darkness within or else the light.” She’s hoping for love.
Now, 33 years later, Atwood transports us back to Gilead and fills in the consequences of that step. She follows the questions "What if?" and "Why?" — the basis, she says, for all literary and scientific inquiry — to imagine a return to her tragically off-kilter world.
Gilead is a totalitarian regime tracking back to Old Testament and 17th-century Puritan patriarchies. Throw in a dose of New Right philosophy from the 1980s (Moral Majority and Total Woman), and you have a society disposed to value women most highly as breeders.
And the women? Custodians of what they don’t value, women still have the power to send men over the edge. Still defined by their roles (Wives, Marthas, Econowives, Aunts, Handmaids), they continue to travel in pairs and speak in platitudes. In the years between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments,” what has changed?
The main difference is that the young women of “The Testaments” don’t remember a time before. They have always been regulated and costumed. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred hung on to every memory from her carefree pre-Gilead life. She marvels at dorm rooms full of books and the glut of choices once available to her. She conjures the faces of her husband and child, but they keep fading, “ghosts at daybreak.” She wants to cry out, “Stay with me.”
In the earlier book, Gilead is both a physical place and an emotional place. The Kingdom of Gilead is potentially within each of its citizens, and by extension, readers. Atwood imagines triumph as inner resistance: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
The protagonists of “The Testaments” are Offred’s daughters, Agnes Jemima and Daisy. Atwood structures her novel as witness testimony from these two and from Aunt Lydia, the one who indoctrinated handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” What was new and terrifying in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now codified. No one likes the way things are, but opportunists are able to manipulate the system.
The new novel gives legs to Offred’s “limping and mutilated story.” It is brisker, more plot driven, less reflective and mysterious. Offred makes a brief appearance at the end, but she lives on in the fantasies of her daughters. Agnes was born before the Gilead takeover. During a botched escape attempt, mother and child were separated.
Agnes’ fairy tale origin story spins close to the truth, though it omits her birth mother. Her foster-mother Tabitha tells her that she walked in the forest to an enchanted castle, where she found children under the spell of wicked witches. She owned a magic ring with one wish in it, and she used that wish to gain a daughter. Hand in hand, she and Agnes exited the forest together.
As the novel opens, Agnes is of matrimonial age, and Tabitha is dying. Destined for an arranged marriage to one of Gilead’s rulers, a “Commander,” she dodges her fate and becomes an “Aunt.”
The other daughter, now called Daisy, was born after the Gilead takeover and lives in Canada with her adoptive parents, who die violently in the novel’s opening pages. In a plot centering on hidden origins and official secrets, she becomes a pawn in someone else’s game. Through the two daughters of a powerful mother, Atwood exposes Gilead’s contaminated underpinnings.
Aunt Lydia, the third of our guides, is the only one who wields power beyond her own life. Readers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will remember her as a malignant character who forced Gilead’s theology on a batch of captive young women, the handmaids. “The Testaments” presents us with a ruthless character, yes, but one who wishes to undermine her own work.
Early on, Aunt Lydia identifies the extreme storylines available in Gilead: “In times like ours, there are only two directions, up or plummet.” She’s willing to plummet, perhaps to atone. Aunt Lydia’s efforts center on Baby Nicole, a handmaid baby who was smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada and became a national cause. Late in her testimony, she addresses Baby Nicole directly: “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”
Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Testaments” closes at an academic conference almost 200 years in the future. Once again, the academics who study Gilead’s literature muddle its message. Stories are the antithesis of everything that Gilead stands for. With its hokey slogans and its rote language, Gilead was never the place for those with imagination and heart. We are the sympathetic listeners that late-model Lydia craves. Her parting words to us might be: “Good-bye my reader. Try not to think too badly of me, or no more badly than I think of myself.”