Five Challenges from Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments
Christine Hedlin

What does it mean to say a book is challenging? When I say this to students in my literature courses, I usually mean the book’s language is unfamiliar; its form, experimental; its plots, complicated; and its conflicts, ambiguously or entirely unresolved.

None of these is true, I’d argue, of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019). Co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize and the sequel to Atwood’s best-selling novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Testaments feels—as some of the novel’s important reviewers have noted—almost simple. We follow three narrators, each offering a first-person, past-tense account of her experiences in Gilead, a near-future dystopian society set within what was once the United States. Gilead is governed by a theocratic, patriarchal, white nationalist regime. Its leaders use the Christian Bible to reinforce women’s inferiority to men and establish their purpose as essentially child-bearing vessels. The oppressive order is upheld through a combination of violence and extreme censorship: most women are not allowed to read, for example. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Gilead’s social order is the role of the female handmaids, who serve as sexual partners and surrogates for infertile couples in the top echelon of society. 


In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), we’re following one such handmaid. What defines her narrative most is its limitations: her story is one of closed doors, closed eyes, and closed options. In The Testaments, we get a more expansive view of Gilead: from the top, the outside, and in hindsight. The first narrator, Aunt Lydia, is a top-ranking leader in Gilead who recognizes the regime is in decline. The second, Agnes, is an aunt-in-training, raised in Gilead as the privileged daughter of a Commander and now uncovering dark secrets about her family’s past. The third, Nicole or Jade or Daisy (she goes by several names), believes she is a native Canadian but learns she was actually smuggled out of Gilead as a baby. Through these women’s testimonies, we witness a vexed flow of people and information between Gilead and the outside world. The effect is that Gilead feels smaller than in The Handmaid’s Tale and also less shrouded in mystery. As the narrators uncover truths about themselves and the regime, they end up resolving many of the unknowns that gave The Handmaid’s Tale its signature, haunting quality.

Yet, for all that—the familiar language, the conventional form, the straightforward plot—I do think The Testaments is a challenging book. Its ideas are challenging: they push us to confront realities we might rather ignore. I’d like to spotlight five ideas I think The Testaments is challenging us to consider right now. I draw out these threads to honor what I see as the urgency of the novel’s message—to suggest why this book matters in the present age.

1. The Testaments is about our history.

Despite being set in the future, this novel is fundamentally about our past. Atwood has famously said in interviews that no event in The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments is original; everything has already happened somewhere. Probably my favorite single line in The Testaments is Lydia’s reflection at one point: “How tedious is tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot” (143). I think about the shock with which readers in the 1980s responded to The Handmaid’s Tale, and I picture Lydia raising an eyebrow. The plot Lydia is living—the plot Atwood is writing—should be familiar to us. It’s as if Atwood is saying, through Lydia, “Shock, really? Have you no sense of history?”

We might name countless ways that Gilead’s and the United States’ histories elide. I’ll offer just one example. When Gilead is being established, Lydia strategically pushes for women to have a separate “women’s sphere,” governed solely by women and in charge of overseeing all so-called womanly duties. She knows this sphere is still ultimately under men’s authority. But, she reasons, at least it carves out a little space for her to exercise some autonomy. Lydia’s efforts to maximize her political power by claiming dominion over a separate “women’s sphere” harken back to a nineteenth-century strategy. Largely barred from participating in the public sphere, some nineteenth-century women opted to lean into their authority over all matters domestic, including religion, the household, the family, and their children’s education. Lydia repurposes that social dynamic to navigate the gender limitations before her.

2. The Testaments is about the present.

This is a story about the past, but it is also a story about us—the twenty-first-century United States. Atwood has referred to her novels as examples of “witness literature”: the kind of literature you write when you are being a keen observer of the world around you. In a review of another author’s novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2008), Atwood argues, “This is a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly” (173). I think we can say the same thing of The Testaments. If we feel uncomfortable with the sexual abuse, the violence, the corruption that the novel portrays, it may well be because, like a tinted glass, this text reflects back a dark vision of our own world.

The second of The Testaments’s three epigraphs speaks to exactly this point. Taken from Russian author Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (1960), it reads, “When we look at one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate—no we’re gazing into a mirror…Do you really not recognize yourselves in us?” In Grossman’s novel, this question is posed from a senior leader in the German Nazi party to a Jew in a concentration camp. The implications of his words are disturbing. “Don’t you recognize yourself in me?” the member of the SS asks the prisoner. “Don’t you think that you would do the same thing?” It is at once a dangerous justification of the Nazi leader’s actions and a terrifying proposition about human nature, about how quickly we just might choose to be the oppressor to avoid being the oppressed.

In The Testaments, the question, “Do you really not recognize yourselves in us?” ultimately extends from characters to readers. Lydia poses almost the same question to us at the end of her narrative: “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 will never have had to” (403). I find Lydia’s narrative intriguing here for a couple reasons. First, she uses the second person address to make “us” part of her fictional world; we become the “you” she imagines as she writes. The narrative also, in this moment, takes on “our” imagined voice. To say, “We would never have done such things!”—that sounds like “us” defending us, a technique known as free indirect discourse. The text anticipates our quickness to distance ourselves from the violence Lydia has enacted and challenges us to resist that name-clearing impulse. Yes, the social and environmental conditions that gave rise to Gilead should sound familiar. Lydia recalls experiencing floods, fires, hurricanes, climbing unemployment rates, falling birth rates, and decaying infrastructure (66). But Gilead’s rise out of those conditions also depended upon individuals, like Lydia, who chose to silence, to threaten, to kill in order to preserve their own lives. One of the novel’s great, chilling questions is: Who becomes an oppressor in oppressive regimes? What are their motives? We are to recognize Gilead’s conditions of possibility not just within our society but within our psychology.

3. The Testaments challenges us to allow women’s motives to be complex.

One of the novel’s other epigraphs—this one from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) speaks aptly to this point. The epigraph reads, “Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster.”

In taking up this concern about women’s motives, I see Atwood responding to a way some readers of The Handmaid’s Tale have interpreted its female protagonist, Offred. Especially in recent years, Offred has become something of a feminist icon. You can see people dressed in her likeness at women’s marches and rallies for Planned Parenthood, for example. Such visual statements have political potential. The thing is, when it comes to Offred in particular, The Handmaid’s Tale actually offers very little evidence of her stance on women’s rights. She is a victim of oppression, yes, and a survivor of it. But is she moved by emancipatory values? We don’t actually know—and we explain away a perplexing ambiguity in the novel if we assume her politics by default. Turns out, women—even oppressed refugee women— are capable of a whole range of character traits between hero and villain.

Lydia in The Testaments makes that point abundantly clear. I am captivated by the difficulty of this character. Lydia is a victim of Gilead’s violence. She recalls the horrors she witnessed as the Republic of Gilead was being established, and her realization that she had a choice: to be among those shooting or those shot. She also recalls committing, in that moment, to avenge the choice she felt forced to make—to work her way to the top of Gilead’s hierarchy and use her insider’s knowledge to help take Gilead down.

And yet. To maintain that high rank, she also participates in the oppression she condemns. Lydia lies. She threatens. She kills. She blackmails her associates into doing her dirty work and has them take the blame. She supports the practice of a public ceremony in which a mob of handmaids rips a man accused of rape limb from limb as a form of emotional release. These actions appear only euphemistically at the edges of Lydia’s narrative, which she records secretly inside a copy of Cardinal Newman’s A Defense of One’s Life (1864). The title of Newman’s tract reminds us that Lydia’s narrative, too, is a “defense of her life,” one she explicitly sets down for post-Gileadian readers who she suspects already know and judge her for what she has done.

Yet the results aren’t a sob story, as we might expect. To the contrary, we see in Lydia’s narrative all the ways she has steeled herself against confronting the ethics of her actions. Listen to this line: “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it—formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere: even in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow” (32). Lydia is self-aware and even-tempered to the point that her narrative feels unnatural. “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it”—who says that about themselves? But it strikes me Lydia’s narrative feels unnatural because Lydia speaks about herself almost as if in the third-person, as if she’s evaluating herself from the outside. I’m convinced, by the narrative voice, that the steps she’s taking within the regime do feel inevitable to her at this point—like she is no longer even the one taking them. Other than the “perhaps” in “perhaps it is too late,” there are notably no qualifiers in Lydia’s reflection here. No “I wonder if” or “I think that,” as usually denotes interiority. We don’t see Lydia caught up in usual human moral deliberations or uncertainties.

As readers, then, we must ask ourselves: Do Lydia’s motives justify her actions? Can we even be sure, based on her narrative, what her motives are? She is at once victim and villain, oppressor and oppressed. Surely, she is more active in the resistance than Offred. Yet we can hardly call Lydia a hero; it’s hard to picture readers adopting her as a feminist symbol. The Testaments pushes us to resist easy “good guy, bad guy” (or “good woman, bad woman”) binaries.

4. The Testaments challenges us to listen to women’s stories of abuse and assault.

This is explicitly a book of women’s testimonies in the era of #MeToo. It has something to say to us about how we, as a culture, respond to women’s firsthand accounts of their experiences of sexual assault and abuse. That challenge is not a call to #BelieveAllWomen. As Atwood expressed in an interview with People magazine, “Believe all women? I don’t think you should believe all of anything.” Atwood’s point should not be confused with skepticism. Rather, she sees that to “believe all women” on principle is a convenient way out of actually listening to individual women in practice. Scrutiny—genuine scrutiny, not tied to skepticism a priori—is a generosity we extend to those who entrust us with their stories. It is a sign of our serious attention.

In The Testaments, women’s stories of sexual assault do not receive serious scrutiny. Here in Gilead, Lydia explains, “four female witnesses are the equivalent of one male” (252). Young women learn that code early. As Agnes relates, “The Aunts at school taught us that you should tell someone in authority…if any man touched you inappropriately, but we knew not to be so dumb as to make a fuss, especially if it was a well-respected man” (97). What Agnes articulates, with childlike directness, is that she has learned one lesson from her leaders’ words and another from their actions. She lays bare the contradictions in her culture’s discourses on assault. The satire here, the commentary on our own culture, could easily feel heavy-handed. Yet, expressed as the partially-comprehending observations of a child, it just feels honest. We benefit from the same childlike perspective as Agnes describes learning about women’s “nature.” “We were snares and enticements despite ourselves,” she recalls the aunts teaching. “We were innocent and blameless causes” (10). In the explanation, we hear Agnes repeating back logic that, as a child, she had internalized. Its blatant contradictions—that women could cause something beyond their control, that they could have no agency except over the violences they suffered—were beyond her capacity, at that age, to question. Victim-blaming is indeed a conspicuous part of Gilead’s culture, as when, in one of the most disturbing scenes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids are made to practice chanting, “Her fault, her fault,” upon hearing of a woman’s abuse.

This is Atwood’s social commentary at its most incisive, and some reviewers have found the lack of subtlety off-putting. As for me, I’m here for it. It reminds me of an anti-smoking campaign I remember from my childhood. The series of ads featured animals with cigarettes in their mouths with the tagline “It looks just as stupid when you do it.” I like to think something of the same logic applies here. If we read and think, “Oh, please! That logic is absurd,” yes—and do we really not recognize ourselves?

5. The Testaments challenges us to resist systems of oppression.

One risk of dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale is that they may, instead of inspiring action, lead to hopelessness or despair. Readers might think, “What’s the point? There’s nothing I can do.” We cannot know whether Atwood thought about that risk as she was writing The Testaments. We can, though, choose to read The Testaments is something other than a dystopian novel—as I would indeed advocate that we do.

Anytime we categorize something as a particular genre, we are choosing to draw certain traits of that text to the foreground. Genres help set our expectations as readers, even as they are also always fluid and overlapping. With that in mind, I’d advocate for reading The Testaments as a work of speculative fiction. Works of speculative fiction take our existing reality and ask “What if?” What if potatoes were the only available food? What if a theocratic regime seized control of the US government in a coup? The general conventions of reality stay the same; we’re just playing with a couple of key variables within that reality. In The Testaments, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re speculating a particular configuration of an oppressive regime. But—and this is different than in The Handmaid’s Tale—here we’re also speculating a hopeful response to it. What if, amidst oppression and against all odds, people unified? What if they imagined their reality differently? I would argue this is ultimately the challenge the novel presents to us. Can we be creative enough to imagine the social order differently? When I reflect upon the purpose of the humanities or of reading fiction in particular, I often think about the urgency of this question. Fiction gives us a means of imagining alternative realities—the first step, arguably, toward enacting them.

We can see characters modeling that imaginative work within Atwood’s novel itself. Part of how the regime maintains its power is by actively preventing its citizens from encountering other worldviews or experiences of reality. It controls the media, so they never see messages from the outside. It controls the church, teaching people that the status quo is God’s plan and that to question the regime’s decisions is to sin against the divine order. Most importantly, it outlaws reading for all women and lower-class people. This choice to forbid all reading, as opposed to just censoring some offensive-seeming material, suggests the powers-at-be recognize the act of reading itself as a threat to their authority. I’m reminded here of arguments that authority figures in the eighteenth-century United States made against the novel, when it first rose to popularity. Religious and government leaders warned that novel reading would corrupt people’s moral compass and lead to the disintegration of a cohesive society. They saw the novel as a challenge to their centralized intellectual authority; they didn’t want people encountering new ideas and forming interpretations on their own.

In The Testaments, we witness Agnes and a fellow aunt-in-training, Becka, experience the worldview-expanding effects of reading. In several instances, the characters read the Bible, and realize, as Becka puts it plainly, “It doesn’t say what they say it says” (302). We might expect reading the Bible to challenge the characters’ perspectives, given they live in a theocratic regime. What I find perhaps more striking, then, is how Agnes’s worldview expands upon first learning to read from the classic “Dick and Jane” primers. Agnes shares:

The most astonishing thing about these books was that Dick and Jane and Baby Sally lived in a house with nothing around it but a white wooden fence, so flimsy and low that anyone at all could climb over it…. Baby Sally could have been abducted by terrorists at any moment and smuggled to Canada…. Jane’s bare knees could have aroused evil urges in any man passing by. (292)

What we get to witness here is how reading introduces Agnes to a different possible experience of the world—and in the process, turns her questioning gaze back on what she takes to be “normal.” That move—to turn our questioning gaze back on what we take to be normal—is the same one for which I think Atwood has won the Booker Prize this year. The Testaments is to us what “Dick and Jane” is to Agnes: it challenges us to see what could be different.





Christine Hedlin is a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow at Valparaiso University, where she teaches in Christ College and the English department. This essay was adapted from a talk she presented as part of Valpo’s Books and Coffee series.

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