This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
In The Testaments
, Atwood finally explores what happened after Offred was trundled into a van by... well, for 34 years it's been a mystery. Undoubtedly the literary event of 2019, The Testaments
is a feminist masterpiece by speculative fiction’s grand dame. — Moses M.
In a 2018 reflection piece in Literary Hub, Margaret Atwood writes about The Handmaid’s Tale
, “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.” Still, reading the novel in the mid-’80s and ’90s, even up through 2016, it was easy enough to shudder at Atwood’s proximity to the most draconian American positions on female autonomy and flirtations with theocracy without feeling too threatened. Even offences that had been committed within living memory, like separating children and parents and suppressing minority access to voting and banking, were far enough removed from the life of the mainstream reader that they too could skirt by unconsidered. As horrifying as the people and events in The Handmaid’s Tale
are, part of the book’s pleasure derived from the unconscious privilege of discounting it as speculative fiction.
Obviously, it’s less easy to do that today. And while many readers’ chief real-life association with The Handmaid’s Tale
has been the fight for reproductive freedom, in 2019 it’s impossible to read the novel without understanding that Atwood is also baring the Achilles’ heel of American self-identity (or maybe American hubris?): We don’t like to think of our liberal democracy as a fragile and amoral institution, and so we fail to protect it by pretending otherwise. The Handmaid’s Tale
is just one vision of what it looks like when people take their civil liberties for granted while others take them away, but it is a startlingly prescient one rooted in America’s Puritan roots and our lingering, naïve belief that the Constitution and democratic norms will preserve our freedoms without our involvement.
, Atwood’s newly published follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale
, is unsparing in its interrogation of this idea. Trump has given the author much to work with (emoluments and graft, Brett Kavanaugh, family separation, white nationalism), and she pursues the logical end-points of these policies with almost wincing relish. Atwood is aware that the idea of Gilead has grown scarier because it is less remote, and in response she uses The Testaments
to explore what resistance to a totalitarian regime can look like and, more interestingly, what motivates it. Through the novel’s three main characters — Aunt Lydia, whose complicity in Gilead’s violence against women is well known to readers; Nicole, a smuggled Handmaid’s child who has been raised by resistance fighters in Canada; and Agnes, an upper-class Gilead daughter, who is also a Handmaid’s child — Atwood examines what resistance looks like from without and from within, as well as from different socioeconomic tiers. Importantly, all three characters downplay the weirdness of their respective choices and experiences. As Offred notes in The Handmaid’s Tale
, even the most alien situations swiftly become ordinary. And as the pragmatic Aunt Lydia protests in her hidden memoir, normal ideas of moral behavior do not apply under totalitarianism; at least, they are not the primary route to survival. When faced with violent oppression, do you fight or survive? Is it possible to do both at once?
In Atwood’s own words, “There are no sure-fire formulas [to topple totalitarianisms], since very little in history is inevitable.” The uncertainty of how to destroy a vicious regime, and the unlikelihood of prevailing, magnifies the bravery of women like Offred, Nicole, Agnes, and, yes, even sticky Aunt Lydia. Though there is much in The Testaments
to frighten the reader, Atwood’s underlying optimism — driven, characteristically, by historical precedent more than faith in humanity — is girding. Totalitarian regimes crumble, if enough people choose to be part of the fist crushing them.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here