Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in Late 2020

Like many others in my age demographic, I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood through the television series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. After watching a thrilling season finale during 2018, I went to a local bookstore and bought the book for myself.

I was in Oxford at the time, so I paid for my copy in pounds instead of dollars. Either my accent, my pace counting coins, or a combination of the two made me instantly recognizable as American. In Atwood’s signature work, the United States is no more.

The storekeeper who handed back my change told me, “I used to think highly of your country. Now I pray for it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale paints a grim picture of a worst-case scenario, but the patriarchal society in the book did not emerge fully-formed or without warning. Gilead was built one brick at a time, just like any other country. Atwood’s work encourages readers to avoid making a critical misconception: “Something that bad could never happen here.”

Atwood only included events and crimes against humanity in her imagined dystopia that have occurred in our reality. Although The Testaments came out in 2019, Atwood’s sequel is eerily similar to the state of the U.S. in late 2020.

Separation of church and state is threatened, far-right groups are emboldened, and democracy itself is endangered. Comparisons are made even more unsettling by newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett having ties to People of Praise, where she served as a “handmaid.” In 1986, Atwood stated she pulled inspiration from a “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect,” that labeled women “handmaids.” Although Atwood has yet to confirm or deny People of Praise influencing Gilead’s radicalized society, the connection still — and should — raise concern.

The Testaments speak to the slow and steady process of becoming morally compromised. The sequel begins 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale concludes and is told by three narrators, one being the notorious Aunt Lydia. Lydia describes the order of Aunts, where women vie for power through oppressing other women and continually choosing the lesser evil. Aunt Lydia is a compelling force in the sequel, just as complex as she is detestable.

But there are two other narrators in The Testaments: Agnes and Daisy, two young, brave women. Atwood’s later witnesses are constrained by circumstances and aren’t unstoppable heroines. Their goal is more small-scale than leading a revolution, as is the objective of protagonists in other dystopian books. Simply put, Agnes and Daisy want to survive.

The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985, and its sequel shows small marks of its creation during the 21st century. News is referred to as “fake,” and insults like “slut” make their appearance known. Such subtle nuances embedded in Atwood’s work remind the reader that although Gilead is fictional, the comparisons between the country and the United States ring as startlingly familiar.

The Testaments does not place the reader in a comfortable position. Instead, the book challenges its audience. Aunt Lydia says, “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself never have had to.”

In this sequel, Atwood takes back the world she created and demands introspection and critical thinking, whereas the television show risks leaning into entertainment value and escapism.

Atwood’s The Testaments calls readers to bear witness to events, to speak out against oppressors, and not take anything at face value. The timing of such a work being readily available in paperback form could not have been better.

Read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments here.

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