On the eve of the publication of The Testaments, the much-anticipated sequel to the now-classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, in an interview with The New York Times candidly declared, “I’m too old to be afraid by much.” It was not so much the case the first time round.
Contemplating the making of the forbidding story that is The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood confessed in an essay in 2017: “By 1984, I’d been avoiding my novel for a year or two. It seemed to me a risky venture … Was I up to it? The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonise, a veering into allegory and a lack of plausibility. If I was to create an imaginary tale, I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”
Yet, the making of The Handmaid’s Tale was touched by the ancient storyteller’s providence of ancestry — a kind of divination that carved the way for the crafting of that work.
Sometime in the mid-17th century, a widow in Massachusetts by the name of Mary Webster was charged with witchcraft and accused of inducing a gentleman, described in records of the time as “righteous” to a state of being “valetudinarious”. The gentleman was said to have died on his good bed having been stricken by a curse. Mary Webster was hung from a tree and left for dead. She was discovered alive the next day, however, lived a further decade and a half and came to be known by those around her as Half-hung Mary.
The accused witch, an ancestor on the maternal side of Atwood, was plausibly a shadowy progenitor to Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Here, we are ushered into the Republic of Gilead — Gilead in its biblical reference in the Book of Genesis is a “heap of stones of testimony” — a totalitarian, puritan futuristic impression of the New England of witch hunts replete with ritual rape, hangings, servitude, shaming, barrenness, forced pregnancies, appellations such as Sons of Jacob and Unbabies, and a menacing misogyny, hovered over always by the ominous presence of the Aunts, and the particularly harrowing Aunt Lydia. It is a place of “sad and mutilated stories”, a place of a heavier and heavier suffocation played out in the life of its protagonist Offred, bundled at the end into a vehicle never to be heard of again, leaving this dystopian morality tale in a despairing suspension.
As Offred said in The Handmaid’s Tale: “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
The Testaments takes off a decade and a half following her disappearance. Where The Handmaid’s Tale thrived on intense allusive narratives and a world ever closing in, The Testaments adopts a more linear strain and abounds with surprises. It would be odd to speak of hopeful openings in a dystopian novel, but there is an undulating “reaching out” in The Testaments where The Handmaid’s Tale offered only an asphyxiating closing in.
Where Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale offered testimonies that sought an anonymity which assured a certain kind of freedom, the protagonist in The Testaments turns out to be the harrowing Aunt Lydia, still torturing but with a twist. Hers is a testimony of justifications — the moral explication of the amorality of a survivor.
Working surreptitiously in a library late into the night, Aunt Lydia offers a testimony of the route to her own survival. The journal contrasts with the testimonies of “hope” and “love” by two young narrators — Agnes and Daisy — that provide a sense of rebirth even within the suffocating confines of the Republic of Gilead.
The confessional in Aunt Lydia is where the artfulness of The Testaments really rests. Within the directness of her address is that element so absent in its antecedent work — humour. “Dear Reader …” is the refrain throughout The Testaments, and the chilling realisation, ever more evident in this age of moral relativism, that the one true thing which escapes us and always kept the tight hold over the Republic of Gilead firm was the absence of any real sense of justice. “Innocent men denying their guilt, sound exactly like guilty men”, may well be the moral encapsulation of our age.
The interweaving of journal narratives, of reflections and recollections, of the daring and often innocent longings of its younger protagonists in contrast to the distant narrations of Aunt Lydia are a brilliant structural device. The novel ends with notes on an academic symposium reflecting on the “historical” experience of Gilead, replete with plans for a television series and bursts of laughter. Parody, perhaps, but also a reflection on the ways formal language lead to the normalisation of any experience.
Much has always been said of the feminism of Atwood, of her timely dystopian visions, of her bleakness, but little is said of her testimony of language. False news pervaded The Handmaid’s Tale, fake news permeates The Testaments, and ever louder is the realisation that the perversion of truth and its corollary, justice, is rooted in the abasement of language. At the end, Aunt Lydia addresses, again: “Our time together is drawing short, my reader. Probably you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens with words.”
There is no better or worse of The Testaments in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale. In giving what has long been anticipated at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has created, in The Testaments, not so much a sequel as a companion. One, cannot be read without the other, now.
From Mary Shelley to Aldous Huxley to J G Ballard, the question was always asked: Can it actually happen? In 1984, writing The Handmaid’s Tale in Berlin amid a decaying Communist world of secret whisperings, informants and double lives, Atwood replicated the suffocation of closed societies struggling from freedom’s breath. In The Testaments, against the backdrop of the Age of Trump looming, with its fakery and loose language, in Aunt Lydia she carves a language, the manipulation of which can justify anything. In both books, Atwood created the dystopias that defined an age.
This article first appeared on Nov 18, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.