Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But 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)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple “good intentions”; this novel is compelling as a narrative through the character of Agnes above while also dramatizing what poet Adrienne Rich confronts through essay:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. (p. 150, emphasis in original)

The Testaments comes to the world in trying times; we are apt to say in any present that these are the most trying times.

Yet, I am drawn to Atwood’s own words about The Handmaid’s Tale, her own warning to her readers, her Becka to us as Agnes:

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. (p. 92)

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