Margaret Atwood is definitely in my top five favourite authors. Her writing style draws you in to the stories you read, and have you hanging on the edge for what will come next. I had read her novel The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, and was both terrified of and mystified by the dystopia of Gilead. For those who have not read The Handmaid’s Tale, I would highly recommend it. It’s the haunting story of a dystopian America, where a religious power takes over the country. In this “new” country called Gilead, women are left with little to no rights, being sorted into one of three roles: Wives, Handmaids, or Marthas. We hear the perspective of a handmaid named Offred, as she survives through this new life forced upon her, and eventually becomes involved in a Gilead opposition called “Mayday”.
The TV series brings the story to life on a whole new level, expanding past the first novel greatly. I would definitely recommend it as well, although as a disclaimer, it can be very disturbing. With the final season recently airing, I decided to pick up The Testaments, the sequel written more than three decades after The Handmaid’s Tale was published. It occurs years after we were first introduced to the characters, and details how their lives become intertwined in a plot to take down what has become a “corrupt” Gilead. This time around, the story takes the perspective of three individuals, which we soon find out are the infamous Aunt Lydia, and Offred’s two children: Agnes and Baby Nicole.
The style of the writing is interesting, as it shows each character’s story as a series of secret letters and testimonies – hence the title of the book. The reader is looking at these stories as if they were the thing of the past. The final chapter shows a university lecture examining these characters’ stories as if they were artifacts of an ancient civilization. Similar to this final chapter, I wanted to talk about the fascinating and distinct development of each of these characters:
The Ardua Hall Holograph
I found the perspective of Aunt Lydia’s life extremely fascinating. Any time her character as mentioned in the first book, it gave me chills – she was a cruel, heartless antagonist obsessed with deploying the backwards ideals of Gilead. This new perspective of how she came to be the most respected Aunt in Gilead from an arrested judge shone a light on the most important human instinct: survival. What a person will do to survive obviously has no boundaries. In the end, her motivation for justice and truth shone through – the higher cause of the survival of others outweighed the importance for her own survival. This in turn placed her as the main figure in the epicentre of the eventual takedown of Gilead. The reveal of this double-agent life really had me contemplate the character – is Aunt Lydia the good guy, the bad guy, or both? Can you even assign labels to characters living in a dystopian world whose only choice is to play along with some wicked game, or be faced with great suffering?
Witness Testimony 369A
Next, there is Agnes – the first daughter of the character Offred. Agnes is unique in that although she was born before the onset of, yet all her memorable life occurs in Gilead. It was interesting to see such a dismal society through the eyes of someone who has not known anything else. Because of this, there is a sense of pureness and truth to Agnes’ character and outlook. Although she has known nothing else, she questions her prospects in Gilead, dreading the outlooks which the society has created for her as a young girl. Fortunately, Aunt Lydia acts as her saving grace, giving her a chance to become an Aunt instead. The bravery it must have taken to leave the only world she would have known is immense, not knowing how exactly any other society could be run. Agnes’ story revealed an interesting question to me – when faced with a dismal reality, can we have the strength to imagine anything else? To be brave enough to take a chance on the unknown? In reality, millions of people are faced with this question very single day.
Witness Testimony 369B
The final character, differs from Lydia and Agnes, as her story starts out in Canada. Similar to Agnes, she is unaware of her true identity, and has been kept under a watchful eye her entire life. The alias given to her by her “parents” is Jade. Jade has grown up in a society determined to bring an end to the disaster that is Gilead. She is exposed to propaganda of a missing “Baby Nicole” who is the face of Gilead. For those who have seen the TV series, we know that this is June’s second daughter who was smuggled to Canada. With this knowledge, it is a bit easier to put together that “Jade” is in fact Baby Nicole. It is incredible how she managed to escape the public eye for 16 years while being the most-wanted person in Gilead. Jade has a rebellious nature about her, and a longing for an understanding of her truth. Upon discovering who she is, she is set up as a major player in the Gilead resistance – being trained and sent to Gilead with the “Pearl Girls”. Nicole shares the same experience as Aunt Lydia where she knows a reality different than Gilead, and must quickly learn to adapt to their customs, in order to fit in. Although the execution may have been flawed, it is remarkable how such a young person can be faced with this type of situation. Nicole becomes resilient and brave, fighting for both her and her half-sister’s lives in the end.
In what was a thrilling series to say the least, upon completing the novel, it was touching to see the success of Nicole and Agnes returning to Canada, meeting with June, and helping in the demise of Gilead. I loved this page-turner, and would definitely recommend picking up this novel – or any other Margaret Atwood novel as a matter of fact.
Lots of love,
Atwood, Margaret. The Testaments. New York, McClellan & Stewart, 2019