I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time as a college freshman. I didn’t have the words to adequately describe patriarchy or societal patterns of misogyny, yet. Atwood’s work, including much of her poetry, was integral to my literary and sociological education. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite novels. I finally had the opportunity to read the 2019 sequel, The Testaments. Impressively, I think the sequel has managed to surpass The Handmaid’s Tale in quality.
The Original Story
If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, you may still know the basic plot thanks to the 2017 HBO adaptation of the same name. The book also came out in 1985, so there’s also a good chance that you’ve encountered spoilers. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read, and readers will have an easier time inferring or predicting the events that unfold in The Testaments. Whether you’ve read the original story or not, here is a quick summary.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, one woman narrates her plight as a Handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead after the United States succumbs to a political terrorist movement. The few fertile women of Gilead, including her, are forced to have children for the highest ranking men. All women are coerced into a hierarchy of strict and limiting social roles. In addition to Handmaids, there are Wives, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Unmarried, and Widows.
The narrator reminisces about her life before and after she became Offred, the Handmaid of Commander Fred. She faces cruelty from both the men who rape her and the women who don’t know how else to fight for their own survival. In the end, she climbs into a van, uncertain if it is ferrying her and her unborn child to safety or certain doom. The meta epilogue reveals that her story was revealed in some hidden tapes, now centuries old, and some professors speculate about her fate.
“…we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else…”
Fifteen years after the ambiguous end of “Offred,” three women testify on or keep track of their own experiences with Gilead. The book is framed as a historical archive, much like The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia, a sinister figure in the previous novel, returns to give insight on her past in the former United States and her hopes for the future of the nation. Agnes, the young daughter of a Commander, grapples with the concept of marriage. Meanwhile, Daisy, another young girl, critiques the politics of Gilead from Canada. She unwittingly gets tangled in the new terrorist conspiracy to topple the Republic of Gilead as the three protagonists start to come together.
Atwood stunned me with The Testaments. While The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent critique of misogynist politics and practices in its own right, The Testaments adds more complexity and ambiguity to Gilead and its citizens. Aunt Lydia, for instance, blurs the boundaries between a victim and a villain of the system, to paraphrase Sophia Gilbert’s review in The Atlantic. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she seems unequivocally evil. Here, her many potential motives abound. Aunt Lydia also plays a large role in the plans to destroy Gilead.
Also, interesting contrasts appear in the perspectives of the two young girls, Agnes and Daisy. Like many women trapped in Gilead, Agnes questions much of the quasi-Christian, antifeminist doctrine she is taught, but she is forced to uphold the illusion of belief for her own safety. Agnes internalizes some of those beliefs despite her doubt. Her teachers spout the quote above about flowers. They compare women to delicate petals that they must preserve. Otherwise, they will be destroyed for “tempting men” to ruin their petals. Daisy has no such illusions, and outright calls this victim-blaming, much to Agnes’ confusion. They clash several times due to cultural differences.
I rate this book five stars. Rarely do sequels impress me more than the original story. This one takes what was good in the original and makes it even better. Margaret Atwood’s prowess as a poet shines through both of her dystopian novels, with eloquent and evocative language that underscores misogynist issues our society still contends with today.
Have you read any of Atwood’s work? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!