Will Evans provides the first outlook on Atwood’s latest release, The Testaments
The Testaments, Atwood’s newest novel and highly anticipated sequel to her 1984 release The Handmaid’s Tale, was released earlier this season to much celebration and acclaim. The regime of Gilead has been enjoying renewed attention as a set text for A-Level students, an ongoing television series and the analogy used by many contemporary feminists for the problems that women are still facing today. Atwood could not have picked a better time to revisit her unique vision of dystopia with three new narratives and a broader insight into the world that she has created, but does her feminism hold up?
The novel itself explores three new narratives set fifteen years after the events of Offred’s, providing the insights of women who have grown up inside Gilead and know nothing else. Agnes is the adopted daughter of a high-ranking commander; Daisy is the daughter of two members of the resistance against Gilead in Canada. Punctuating these two primary stories is the testament of the iconic Aunt Lydia who played a core role throughout the first novel as a powerful and looming authority of the new regime. Of the three narratives, Aunt Lydia’s stands out. The character is complex and serves as a vehicle to illustrate the ways that paranoia and indoctrination operate even at the highest levels of the dictatorship. Agnes’ narrative is the most faithful to the style of the first novel, exploring the mundane normalities of life in Gilead which is all underlined by the fear that is instilled in subjects of the state. The story outside of Gilead, following the resistance in Canada, is the weakest feeling at points as though it is dramatic and thrilling for the sake of it without truly contributing to Atwood’s vision of dystopia.
“Of the three narratives, Aunt Lydia’s stands out. The character is complex and serves as a vehicle to illustrate the ways that paranoia and indoctrination operate even at the highest levels of the dictatorship.”
Overall, the novel is successful in that the lens is broadened. Offred’s story was passive and limited while the combined narratives of these three new characters intertwine to elucidate Gilead as a fully functioning, multifaceted country. Gilead is no longer a hypothetical “What if?” but exists in a complete world, in our world.
Atwood’s attempts at bringing Gilead into the real world make the novel feel strikingly relevant considering the use of iconic imagery from the series being used in feminist protests and the Pro-Choice movement. Marchers wearing the red cloaks and white hoods of the Handmaids protested the Abortion Bill in America earlier this year. However, the claiming of The Handmaids Tale for Western feminism is perhaps short sighted and overlooks what Atwood’s feminism does truly foreground. Of course, parallels can be drawn between the extreme reaction against abortion in Trumps US and the laws of Gilead but a much more unsettling comparison can be made between the novels and women who do not exist in the Western World. It was only in 2018 when the first driving licenses were issued to women in Saudi Arabia; laws still exist throughout the world to prohibit women from leaving their home without their husbands permission; an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of facing female genital mutilation yearly in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The questions to be asked are not then whether Atwood’s feminism is something we want to claim but whether we, as feminists in the Western world were right to claim it in the first place.