When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, the world was in the midst of a huge social experiment: If we just told girls that sexism was over, would it somehow turn out to be true? Growing up as a (rich, white) girl in the 1980s and ’90s was to be the target of a mind-blowing amount of propaganda related to girlhood: Being a girl was great and fun and sparkly and magic and a superpower and also completely ordinary and normal and nothing to worry about at all. In my experience, this method was fantastically effective up until I hit adolescence, at which point the gap between these stories and the reality I was living came pretty close to driving me insane. In that context, the nightmare vision of The Handmaid’s Tale felt like a kind of lifesaving contraband, an explosive secret truth with the power to bring the world to its knees.
Margaret Atwood’s novel imagines a society named Gilead, in which a fertility crisis has led, in short order, to the overthrow of democracy, the rise of a patriarchal theocracy, and a system of oppression in which the country’s few remaining fertile women are farmed out to wealthy couples and forced to bear children for them. Teenagers are often drawn to fantasy worlds in which young people are fed into impervious systems to be classified, labeled, and defined (see: Allegiant, The Hunger Games). Even if the categories are oppressive, the clarity of rules can be a kind of relief. In Gilead, categories proliferate: Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, Unwomen, Econowives, Aunts. But the novel is most concerned with the lives of the Handmaids, those fertile women whose sexuality makes them a particular target of societal prurience, violence, and control. In a sense, the Handmaids are the teenage girls of Gilead, their sexuality both definitive and taboo.
The sole note of hope in the novel is sounded only in its final pages. After the narrating Handmaid disappears offstage, headed to an uncertain fate, an appendix informs us that the testimony we’ve just read is an artifact from a fallen civilization: The all-powerful Gilead is no more. This promise—of the end of Gilead—is the starting point for Atwood’s new book, The Testaments.
The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s an immersive, well-constructed book, as I’d expect any novel by Margaret Atwood to be. The first half of my copy is filled with light pencil marks noting well-turned phrases, sharp observations, and subtle emotional truths. For example, here’s how a young woman captures the coolness of the relationship between herself and her adoptive parents.
They were too careful around me, as if I was breakable. It was like I was a prize cat they were cat-sitting: you’d take your own cat for granted, you’d be casual about it, but someone else’s cat would be another story because if you lost that cat you would feel guilty about it in a completely different way.
Or this simple statement of fact: “When a shameful thing is done to you, the shamefulness rubs off on you. You feel dirtied.”
The second half of my book is largely blank, because I’d given myself over to the story. It’s a fast-paced yarn featuring a range of classic adventure-novel tropes: mysterious parentage and secret identities; spying, friendship, and short-lived teenage romance, capped off with a climactic seafaring adventure. The plot is propulsive, the characters compelling, the world closely and thoughtfully observed. And yet, The Testaments largely lacks the power of its predecessor. Why?
One simple reason may be familiarity. Since its publication in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has become a classic, a staple of high school reading lists, and more recently a TV show. Protesters wearing long red dresses and white bonnets have become a familiar sight outside state houses and courts. Headlines about the erosion of reproductive rights regularly scream variations of the phrase “We live in Gilead now.” The cultural omnipresence of the Handmaid as a shorthand for female oppression has had the counterintuitive effect of domesticating the bizarre, dark world that Atwood originally imagined. The second book simply can’t land with the same shock of the strange that the first one did. And make no mistake, Gilead is weird: Its system of oppression is both baroquely elaborate and extremely narrowly tailored. It seems to function only to oppress women, since none of the other pressing social issues of our day—white supremacy, economic inequality, etc.—come into play in any meaningful way. One might reasonably ask: In a world awash in possible dystopias, why this particular one? And why now?
In the first book, much of the shock and confusion we feel when we are introduced to Gilead is shared with the narrator, Offred. After a coup, Offred is catapulted from her commonplace existence into a nearly incomprehensible worst-case scenario, and she struggles for most of the book to wrap her mind around what has happened. Her isolation and lack of information work to facilitate the book’s claustrophobic sense of terror. The characters in The Testaments, by contrast, have much more access to information about the system under which they live. They have this information (spoiler alert) because they’ve been tasked with bringing that system down. Of the book’s three narrators, one has grown up inside Gilead, and so she has access to the small details that structure it from the inside; one has grown up outside of it—in Canada—and so she has access to sources of broader perspective, like history classes and broadcast news. The third is Aunt Lydia, the main antagonist of the first book and one of Gilead’s core architects, and so she has access to its secrets.
This three-dimensional perspective certainly illuminates Gilead in ways that the first book could not: We learn about Gilead’s isolated status within the international community, and of what is required to pass through its border controls. We discover the weaknesses of its technology, and the strain that fighting a war on multiple fronts has put on its army. The increase in knowledge comes with a corresponding decrease in terror. The bureaucratic reality of a (semi-)functioning Gilead is far less scary than it was when the details weren’t as clear.
There’s a more important way, though, in which the uncanny power of Gilead decreases as our understanding of it grows. One of the most frightening things Offred struggled to understand was the political change she was living through. Even more than the whereabouts of her missing daughter, this is the question that haunts her: How could we have gone from this world to that one? How could something she so took for granted—namely, her rights as a citizen—vanish so quickly? The answer, of course, is that’s why. She didn’t believe it could happen, so it did. What The Handmaid’s Tale captures, beautifully and terribly, is the way Offred’s loss of rights comes as a shattering surprise—a slow, barely noticeable erosion of political status, followed by a sudden crumbling.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale again as an adult, I was struck by how much of the book revolves around Offred’s relationship with her mother. Offred’s mother is a classic second-wave feminist: She marches and goes to protests, and she distrusts men so much that she raises her daughter alone. She’s under no illusions about the fundamental mendacity of men. Meanwhile, before the coup, Offred wants to use the freedom won by women like her mother to live a life that more closely resembles her grandmother’s. She wants to wear makeup and get married and raise children—but by choice, not compulsion. She thinks her mother’s rants and warnings are an embarrassing vestige of an earlier era, hysterical and over-the-top, which is precisely why she’s unprepared when the revolution comes.
The Handmaid’s Tale investigates the conundrum of the way rights are passed, or not passed, through generations: The more successful our forebears are at securing our freedom, the more we, in turn, take it for granted. We raise our daughters to believe they can do anything, and then we’re terrified when they act as if they might. The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning against complacency—the nightmare you wake up from in a panicky relief, determined to be a better person from now on. It’s also a kind of love letter and apology to an earlier generation of feminists. We took what you gave us for granted, we’re sorry, we won’t do it again.
Perhaps the deepest perversion in The Handmaid’s Tale is the way women betray each other. By rehabilitating Aunt Lydia in The Testaments, Atwood steps back from the darkness of that particular abyss. Under Aunt Lydia’s expert tutelage, two teenagers are able to bring down a totalitarian government with relatively little difficulty, relying on an array of old-fashioned tricks (microdots, secret codes) and clean, straightforward heroism. In this way, The Testaments feels oddly out of step with its time. After all, the days of propaganda for girlhood are largely over. The message is out: Sexism isn’t just back; it never went away. If anything, the propaganda machine has adopted the opposite tactic. Some days, it’s hard to believe there’s anything good about being a woman at all.
Atwood says, in her acknowledgments, that she wrote The Testaments to answer the question that women kept asking her: How did Gilead fall? I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have created a fictional character that has since taken on as much social and political weight as Atwood’s Handmaid. The sense of moral responsibility—the intensity of those encounters with readers—must be immense. The answer she gives in The Testaments is simple: Two girls fought back, and they were honest and strong and very, very brave. I can understand why she answered that way. It’s the kind of useful, reassuring answer a mother might give a daughter. But I also wonder if there might be deeper comfort in a confrontation with messier and more difficult truths.