Margaret Atwood, The Testaments

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The Testaments is the sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a classic of dystopian literature recently adapted into a TV series (2017-) by streaming service Hulu. Published worldwide on September 10, 2019, The Testaments elicited an enthusiastic response from the public. Bookstores organised popular launch events and fans attended dressed in Gileadean outfits. On the evening of the launch, Atwood was interviewed by Samira Ahmed at the Royal Theatre in London, with actresses Lily James, Sally Hawkins, and Ann Dowd reading excerpts from the novel. In an unprecedented promotional choice for a novel, the event was broadcast live to cinemas all over the world. The Testaments confirmed its success by selling over 500,000 copies worldwide in less than a week and by receiving the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction, shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

The events narrated in The Testaments begin fifteen years after those of The Handmaid’s Tale and collectively sketch a picture of how Gilead—the theocratic dictatorship established in the United States after a coup—was brought down. Whereas the first novel had only one narrator, the Handmaid Offred, its sequel has three: Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of the regime, Agnes Jemima, a girl growing up in Gilead, and Daisy, a Canadian teenager. All three narratives are extracts of written documents (“The Ardua Hall Holograph”, “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A”, and “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B” respectively) and are followed by the “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Thirteenth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, International Historical Association Convention, Passamaquoddy, Maine, June 29–30, 2197” (407), reprising the structure of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Aunt Lydia, one of the founders and moral guides of the regime, narrates the early days of the theocracy and the crimes committed by its leaders in a secret diary she plans on smuggling out of Gilead to Mayday, an international network set on rescuing women from Gilead and overthrowing the totalitarian regime. Agnes describes her life as a young girl belonging to a family of the Gileadean elite, her barely-avoided marriage to Commander Judd, followed by her decision to become an Aunt, and the discovery that she is the stepsister of Baby Nicole, a child smuggled out of Gilead by her Handmaid mother. Finally, Daisy recounts learning that she is Baby Nicole, her return to Gilead as a Mayday mole, and the trip back to Canada with Agnes and the evidence of the abuses of the regime collected by Aunt Lydia, which would set in motion its fall.

The Testaments, like The Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopia. It depicts a future United States where a patriarchal totalitarian theocracy oppresses and controls its citizens, particularly the female ones. The novel situates itself within the tradition of works such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (192), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977). With its strong focus on feminist themes, The Handmaid’s Tale itself has inspired an array of dystopian novels centred on the oppression of women, such as Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016), Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps (2018), and Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks (2018). The Testaments matches closely the themes and social issues depicted in these recent works.

It is important to note, however, that The Testaments is not only a dystopia, but a critical one. In Lyman Tower Sargent’s words, a critical dystopia is “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as worse than contemporary society but that normally includes at least one eutopian enclave or holds out hope that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with a eutopia” (Sargent 2001, 222). Indeed, although much of the novel focuses on the repressive experiences of Gileadean citizens, in many ways it also depicts the possibility of a way out, of an alternative. Canada acts as the most evident counterpart to the regime. It is a mostly liberal society where Gileadean Customs and World Social Awareness are taught in schools (46,48), protests against the theocracy regularly take place—to the point of being part of the students’ curriculum—and several organizations for escaped Gileadean women are in operation. Secondly, a few brief mentions of the Republic of Texas and of unruly territories like California (196-200) let the readers understand that Gilead has not completely replaced the United States, suggesting the possibility for more former states to rebel against the regime. Most importantly, though, The Testaments does not limit itself to giving the readers examples of positive alternatives contemporary to Gilead (Canada, Texas, etc.) or glimpses of a future without the regime (through the conference transcripts at the end of the novel); it tracks the events that cause the toppling of Gilead. Whereas classic dystopias often follow their protagonists through their attempts to overthrow a regime only to see them fail and either be eliminated or subjugated by the totalitarian government, a critical dystopia focuses on the strenuous efforts, ploys and sacrifices of its protagonists in order to bring about a better society, and leaves the reader with the hope that they will succeed, if not with the certainty of it. However, most critical dystopias do not go as far as The Testaments goes in confirming that their dreadful scenarios will be overcome. They simply end on an uplifting note that signals there might be a way out of the dark times they have narrated. The Handmaid’s Tale itself only gives glimpses of the fall of Gilead or of Offred’s fate, leaving much to the readers’ imagination. The Testaments is much more explicit. It details the horrors of the regime and its demise, the way it came about and the way it was toppled. To quote Natasha Walter, “The Testaments, unlike The Handmaid’s Tale itself, is a truly hopeful tale. It reassures us that we are right to fear our enemies and right to resist them, and it reassures us that totalitarianism can be seen off” (Walter 2019).

According to Atwood herself, The Testaments was derived partly from questions asked by fans of the first novel, and partly from her sense that the historical and political moment called for such a narrative. After having put off returning to the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale for over thirty years, she explained: “For a long time we were going away from Gilead and then we turned around and started going back towards Gilead, so it did seem pertinent [to return to it]” (Allardice 2019).

Many of the themes explored in The Handmaid’s Tale return in its sequel: the distortion of religion in Gilead as a means to exercise social control, the need to oppress women in order to ensure the perpetuation of the nation, and the omnipresent surveillance, practiced both by the Eyes and the Aunts officially, and by the rest of the citizens unofficially. Atwood revisits, in particular, the importance of political activism to both avoid and overthrow a totalitarian regime, expressing the need for women to take action. Aunt Lydia's rebellious acts of betrayal are an example of this, and so is Daisy’s choice to protest against Gilead both on the streets in Canada and secretly within Gilead itself. Less evidently, a form of activism—or at least of rebelliousness against the regime—can be detected in Agnes’s ruse to avoid her arranged marriage. In this case, she exploits a ‘loophole’ in the system in order not to be forced into an unwanted union. Her form of resistance comes from within the strict Gileadean system of laws and it allows her to avoid being accused of betraying Gilead’s rigid rules on the role of women.

Atwood also  draws attention to the imprisonment of the female body in Gilead through comments on the choice of garments that impede movement (380) and the way young girls and women are taught to see their body either as a vessel for reproductive purposes (the wives), an offer to atone for their sins (the handmaids), or as a temptation to be hidden away from men (as the girls are continuously reminded of at school). This oppressive vision results in Agnes writing: “The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. [...] There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it” (83).

Particular focus is placed on motherhood. Agnes and Daisy both grow up with surrogate mothers and move through the narrative looking for their biological one. A string of female figures act as substitutes for the missing parent (Tabitha, Paula, Melanie and, to an extent, Ada and Aunt Lydia). The latter, when questioned by Commander Judd right after the coup, is accused of having “wasted [her] woman’s body” and “denied its natural function” for having had an abortion (170-171). She is a missed mother, rather than a missing one.

Ultimately, The Testaments is a novel about womanhood. It narrates the ways in which women can be oppressed and their bodies exploited, but most of all it focuses on how they can react to said constraints. This novel, even more than The Handmaid’s Tale, is about female empowerment, about the strength that comes with the rebellious acts perpetrated for a freer, more equal society. It is telling that the seeds of Gilead’s demise were planted on its very first day, when Lydia obtained “carte blanche” for matters concerning the rules for women and the promise that men would stay out of the Aunts' premises, thus ensuring herself the opportunity to secretly record every crime perpetrated by the leaders (176).

Moving beyond its most evident themes, The Testaments also tackles another much-debated topic, albeit in a somewhat covert way: climate change. Atwood, who has dedicated her dystopian trilogy MaddAddam to the subject, stated during her interview at the Royal Theatre that this should be humanity’s number one priority. In The Testaments, climate change is not evident but it is nevertheless one of the catalysts for the advent of Gilead. As Aunt Lydia recalls,

In that vanished country of mine, things had been on a downward spiral for years. The floods, the fires, the tornadoes, the hurricanes, the droughts, the water shortages, the earthquakes. Too much of this, too little of that. The decaying infrastructure—why hadn’t someone decommissioned those atomic reactors before it was too late? The tanking economy, the joblessness, the falling birth rate. People became frightened. Then they became angry. (66)

Although there are only a few more vague mentions of climate change in The Testaments, Atwood explained during the same interview that she wanted to stress how the repercussions of the current environmental crisis will fall hardest on the most vulnerable: women, children, and people belonging to minorities, who would be oppressed in order to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class.

Atwood has always been considered an acute observer of the evils of US society. Notoriously, she has made it her rule to write only about things that have already happened at some point in history or that could plausibly happen in the future. Indeed, in The Testaments it is possible to identify several references to some of the darkest moments in the history of the United States. The most evident is the name of the chain of people helping women flee from Gilead, known as the Underground Femaleroad. The term evokes the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African-Americans to escape to free states and Canada during the first decades of the nineteenth century. The correlation is explicitly stated in the last section of the book, when Professor Maryanne Crescent Moon, introducing the Symposium on Gileadean Studies, says: “I would also like to point out that our location—Passamaquoddy, formerly Bangor—was not only a crucial jumping-off point for refugees fleeing Gilead but was also a key hub of the Underground Railroad in antebellum times, now more than three hundred years ago. As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” (407). Even though Atwood does not explicitly add much on the topic, it can be inferred that she is drawing parallels between the treatment of women in Gilead and that of slaves in Antebellum America. One can find hints of this in the methods used to oppress women in Gilead, particularly in their forced illiteracy and the use of distorted passages from the Bible—memorably, the Story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces (77-78)—which are reminiscent of the slaveholders’ practices of handing out redacted copies of the Scriptures and of reading out-of-context parts from it to their slaves in order to justify their condition. It is noteworthy that the similarities between African-American slaves and women in Gilead continue throughout the history of their emancipation: as the reader can infer from Agnes’s narration, it is through her learning to read, and especially read the Bible, that she understands the false roots of the oppressive practices of the regime and begins to question and rebel against them. Such a narrative arc is reminiscent of that of Frederick Douglass, who explains how learning to read allowed him to become aware of the injustice of his condition in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

A second reference to the past of the United States lies in a casually uttered remark by Commander Judd. Talking to Lydia about his plans for the newly-founded Gilead, he explains: “We’re building a society congruent with the Divine Order—a city upon a hill, a light to all nations—and we are acting out of charitable care and concern” (174). “A city upon a hill” was first used as a phrase describing the United States long before it even existed as a nation. Uttered—it is reported—by John Winthrop onboard the Arabella while en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, it is the slogan of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, which can be summed up as “the belief that the United States is ‘different’” —not only different, but “unique, one of a (superior) kind […] [that] carries with it a unique moral value and responsibility” (Byers 1997, 86). American Exceptionalism has puritan roots and has been under scrutiny in the last few decades, as scholars declared it a dying (if not already dead) myth and foresaw an increasingly less influential role for the United States within the global order, all the while underscoring how the myth left out everyone who does not belong to the dominant WASP class. However, in the early twenty-first century, and particularly since the election of Donald Trump, a vocal section of the American population has resurrected Exceptionalist claims. Writing as early as 1997, Thomas Byers was already anticipating the possibility of the myth finding new life. His example of a novel that depicted what America would look like if the Exceptionalist myth was rigidly followed in crafting the domestic and foreign policies of the US was The Handmaid’s Tale (1997, 103). By making Commander Judd mention the myth of a ‘city upon a hill’, Atwood strengthened Byers’s example by making the relationship between Gilead and the myth of American Exceptionalism explicit in The Testaments.

There remains a final element to address: intertextuality in The Testaments. Although, as shown above, many of Atwood’s allusions can be traced back to historical events or ideologies, a few take a different, less realistic route. In fact, more than once Atwood relies on fairy-tales to narrate significant moments in the novel. The first instance of this is Tabitha’s story of how she rescued Agnes from evil witches that kept her prisoner in a castle in the forest using her magic ‘mother ring’. It is an original fairy-tale built on the most common tropes of the genre to describe Agnes’s kidnapping from her biological mother, whom the reader is led to understand to be the Handmaid Offred. Two more fairy-tales appear in The Testaments: Aesop’s fable The Cat and the Fox (254) and Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard (348). In all three instances, a fairy-tale is used to relate violent or traumatic events – Agnes’s kidnapping, Lydia’s glossed-over actions that led her to her powerful position,  Commander Judd’s habit of killing his wives to get younger ones – thereby seeming to shelter readers from their true horror. However, at a second glance, in The Testaments fairy-tales have the function of alerting readers to the potential universality of the events they represent. Fairy-tales are used as a reminder that the evils of Gilead are the same evils as those of our own past.  They thereby retrieve their original function: acting as a warning. In the case of The Testaments, they alert the readers that the horrors of Gilead can be the ones of our own present if nothing is done to avoid them.

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Citation: Romanzi, Valentina. "The Testaments". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 December 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=38988, accessed 27 February 2024.]

38988 The Testaments 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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