Book Review: ‘The Testaments’ — Thirty Years Later, Atwood Returns to Gilead

After prolific Canadian author Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, readers had questions. What happened to the Handmaid Offred? When she got into the van at the end of her story, was she taken to Canada and freedom or back to Gilead and certain doom? How did Gilead come to be? And why did it eventually fail?

You’ll find answers to all of these in Atwood’s thrilling new novel, The Testaments.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a first-person account of life in Gilead, formerly the United States. Set in the near future, the U.S. is struggling with toxic waste, widespread pollution, and declining birth rates. A successful coup is carried out by religious fanatics; the administration is attacked and killed, the Constitution suspended, newspapers shut down. The new government that emerges is a terrifying mix of a throwback puritanical society and a brutal military dictatorship. Basing its structure on convenient reinterpretations of the Old Testament, the country devises a strict hierarchy in which most rights — especially those of women — have been revoked. Women have limited choices (and those choices, by and large, are made for them, not by them). The elite are docile Wives; the lower classes are either domestic Marthas or Econowives; a group of true believers become the Aunts; and the still fertile become Handmaids, essentially sex slaves whose sole purpose is to provide barren Wives and their Commander husbands with children. Women are forbidden to drive, own property, speak their minds, or read.

Pregnant Handmaid Offred (her new name, meaning, quite literally, “belonging to Fred”) has escaped and writes her story in the hope that someone will eventually find it and understand the true nature of Gilead. At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, she is either rescued or recaptured. And fans of the book (the English language version alone has sold more than eight million copies) have waited thirty years to learn her fate.

Atwood has famously said that she chose to write this bestselling dystopian novel in the tradition of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, rather than the fantastical imaginings of H.G. Wells. In other words, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t science fiction. She included only events “that had already happened” somewhere at some time. It was a combination of “the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th century Puritan New England,” Nazi policies such as Lebensborn, designed to raise the birthrate for the Aryan race, and public executions then (and still) taking place in countries like Saudi Arabia. “No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities,” the author has written. “God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”

In today’s highly charged political climate, people — especially women — have reinterpreted The Handmaid’s Tale as a prescient warning. As women’s reproductive rights have been threatened at the state and national levels, activists have donned the scarlet robe and white bonnet of Atwood’s Handmaids in protest. And current events have certainly been a contributor to the popularity and critical success of Hulu’s acclaimed original series.

The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed the book fairly faithfully. The second and third seasons introduced new characters and political developments, as well as positioned Offred as a vigilante of sorts, rallying the Marthas and spearheading the smuggling of dozens of children out of Gilead, first and foremost her own infant, “Baby Nicole.” I might take issue with this expansion of the source material if it weren’t for the fact that Atwood herself has been heavily involved in the series, serving as a consulting producer each season and even playing a cameo role as one of the Aunts.

In The Testaments, Atwood draws from the on-demand series as well as her original novel. The story picks up about 15 years after Offred’s journal ends. Baby Nicole, still missing, has become the poster child for Gilead and a source of continuous friction between that entity and neighboring Canada. Mayday, the “Underground Femaleroad,” is still helping women escape; and the cracks in the thoroughly corrupt Gilead are beginning to show. Like the original book, The Testaments, is written in the first person; in this case, narrated by three women rather than one.

Agnes is the privileged daughter of a Commander and his Wife. Although she’s strong-willed and less compliant than the Aunts at her school might like, she accepts the principles of Gilead. However, when her mother dies and her father remarries a bitter and jealous woman, Agnes is forced to rethink her role. Should she marry the high-ranking Commander they’ve chosen for her? Or claim that she’s had “a calling” and become an Aunt, devoting herself to God’s work and shaping the — albeit limited — sphere of women?

Daisy is a teen growing up in Canada. Although she lives in a far more liberal and progressive society, she’s overprotected by her parents and frustrated that they treat her as if she’s something breakable. When they’re killed by Gilead terrorists, she learns more about her past and is suddenly thrust into a daring and terribly dangerous Mayday plot. (All of this is alluded to early on in her “testament.” And it isn’t difficult to guess her true identity.)


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