Girl Reading A Book In Bed

Margaret Atwood's "The Testaments" is the Powerful Feminist Narrative We’ve Been Hoping For

SPOILER WARNING! This article contains plot details about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019). Proceed with caution!

When we last saw Offred, the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaids Tale (1985), she was pregnant and being swept away in a van. Was this van being operated by the Eyes, Gilead’s acting police force, or by operatives of Mayday, the underground resistance network with intentions to overthrow Gilead?

This question was left unanswered–save for Hulu’s 2017 interpretation of the novel and its dramatized plot continuation as a multi-season TV series. Although I love the show, and struggle to separate the beloved Offred in my imagination from Elisabeth Moss’ portrayal of the role, I was desperate for Attwood to release her own series of events after Offred was mysteriously taken away.

The Testaments is simultaneously narrated by three different women: Aunt Lydia, the authoritarian and uncompromising Aunt introduced in Offred’s time in Gilead, Agnes Jemima, a young girl being raised in Gilead, and Daisy, a teenager living in Canada during Gileadean times. 

Just like its precursor, The Testaments is told from a metafictional perspective. The testaments (if you will) of the three women are provided as witness testimonies and transcriptions of letters by historians and Gileadean anthropologists in the year 2195. I didn’t enjoy this device any more than I did in The Handmaids Tale. Personally, I think it draws attention away from the idea that a Giladean society is a mockery of our own, and instead suggests that we have moved past archaic ideologies. But I digress.

Aunt Lydia’s is a tale of redemption from her once despised role as the autocratic anti-woman in the original novel. In this sequel, Aunt Lydia’s history, as well as her intentions in Gilead, are revealed. Although the revelation is slow, it becomes clear to any Handmaids Tale fanatic that Aunt Lydia is playing the long game–and has been from the birth of Gilead. We learn that Lydia was a judge in her life before indoctrination, and she believes the discrepancy between morality and legality. Her relationship with Commander Judd, one of the original founders of the Republic of Gilead details just how hard Aunt Lydia has worked to gain trust and notoriety. She details her induction as an Aunt–a chilling, torturous, and graphically violent chapter of her character’s life– and her intentions are abundantly clear. She’s going to take revenge on her captors; but that can’t happen without thinking like a fox. Each move, each year, and action are calculated to bring down the regime from the inside.

“What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously-praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive.” - Aunt Lydia, Chapter 29

While Lydia dominates this story and highlights more of the atrocities in Gilead that readers expect from Atwood, there are two more very important voices in this novel: Daisy and Agnes Jemima. Daisy embodies the typical, rebellious teenage archetype that we expect in modern Western society. She’s grown up observing Gilead from the outside, and her parents seem to be active in the Mayday resistance. Compared to Aunt Lydia, Daisy’s story feels predictable. All three narrators discuss the impact of ‘Baby Nicole,’ Offred’s child smuggled out of Gilead 15 years prior. Gilead is on the prowl for Baby Nicole and is using her photo as propaganda to support the regime. If you’ve read the original novel, within the first few chapters you begin to wonder if Daisy is the teenaged Baby Nicole, which she is.

“I’d basically disliked Baby Nicole since I’d had to do a paper on her. I’d got a C because I’d said she was being used as a football by both sides, and it would be the greatest happiness of the greatest number just to give her back.” -Daisy/Nicole, Chapter 8

Then again, I did watch the Hulu TV show and Offred’s baby was named Nicole by the Commander’s wife. So I can’t blame Atwood too much–my assumptions were ingrained from the false narrative of the series.

It felt similarly predictable with the secret behind Agnes Jemima. Although she is not named in the original novel until the epilogue, it’s almost impossible as a reader not to wonder if Agnes is Offred’s daughter pre-Gileadean revolution. Like Daisy (Nicole), Agnes mentions that she suspects her mother is not her biological parent, and a girl at school, Shaunammite, hears the truth from her Martha (a nanny/maid) and calls Agnes’ mother a slut. 

Aside from discussion amongst the girls, there isn’t much talk about Handmaids. Appreciating that Handmaids are likely the most socially inexplicable part of Gilead, it was actually nice to read about the society from the perspective of those who willingly partake in it. The novel has strong themes of faith and friendship, particularly in the case of Agnes Jemima, who was indoctrinated as a child and has a strong connection to Gilead despite her reservations. She and her friend Becka share a kindred relationship that puts your faith back in true friendship and loyalty. While the girls are resentful of the rules of Gilead, they pray to God and willingly abide by the rules of the totalitarian regime. Similarly, Aunt Lydia is entirely complicit in her participation as a founder but maintains that this position is integral to her eventual plan to overthrow Gilead.

Unlike The Handmaids Tale, the overarching sexual tones of the novel are replaced with a feeling of revenge, friendship, puberty, patience, and revelation. The Testaments is the ultimate feminist novel because it diminishes the role of powerful men to pawns in Aunt Lydia’s plan, to torturers in Agnes’ childhood and to absence in Daisy’s life. It takes the coming-of-age story that we know all too well and places it within the confines of an anti-woman, totalitarian regime. 

Atwood’s character arcs are brilliantly developed, the plot flows effortlessly, and I’m left wanting more. Once again, her stories critically mirror our own society, depicting a world that could foreseeably exist. The 39 year wait was well worth it. 

“War is what happens when language fails.” -Margaret Atwood