During Christmas break, I spent the long drive to family in Iowa listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed immediately by the Audible of The Testaments.
A confession: although I read science fiction “religiously,” I sometimes skip the “literary” science fiction out of a kind of reverse hipster mentality. I’m more into the geek sci-fi. The mainstream stuff that everyone reads I snub my nose at. Perhaps “snub” is the wrong term. I just find I don’t get around to it.
However, the rise in attention to The Handmaid’s Tale, from its adaptation as a television series, to its adaptation as a graphic novel, to the across-the-world observation of the 30th anniversary of its publications, has meant it’s been even more in the zeitgeist, so I decided, up the release of The Testaments (the sequel) to listen to both.
The novels do not disappoint. HT reads exactly as I had imagined it to read, assuming a basic premise through a variety of book reviews, television series previews, and personal conversations.
Sometimes it’s this “as advertised” quality that dampens my interest in reading popular novels. I feel like I already know them.
However, I still wasn’t prepared for the parlor-usque quality of the novel. Because handmaid’s know very little outside their tightly confined domain, and are so psychologically distanced from their past it seems like forever since they had been other than handmaids, the reader is left knowing very little about Gilead other than the very tight experience they have living in it via the tale of the handmaid.
Of course, there is the surprise ending, which widens the scope. But all this ending does is call a lot of things into question, and pop the bubble of superiority I (and maybe others) had blown while reading the novel.
The Testament, therefore, arose out of hundreds of conversations over 30 years, with Margaret Atwood being asked the questions all readers have when they finish HT: What happens to Gilead? What about the aunts? What does the rest of the world think?
On this level, The Testaments satisfies readers’ curiosity while also exercising admirable restraint. Much like the series of novels written by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, ironically, followed by Home), you get the same story told a second time, this time from the perspective of those who were lesser characters in the first novel.
The testimony of the powerful Aunt Lydia.
The testimony of young girls raised in Gilead.
The testimony of baby Nicole, secreted out of Gilead to Canada as an infant.
And of course, you get three additional important items along the way. A more robust history of how Gilead began, a hint of how it will end, and a second academic colloquium in Gileadean Studies, as pedantic and unwittingly conceited as the first.
Having listened to the two novels back-to-back, I confess I have trouble thinking of them any other way. There’s probably not one right way to engage these classics of literature, but I would argue (if readers are willing to be persuaded) for this approach.Anyone who has never read The Handmaid’s Tale, I recommend reading both back to back. For those re-reading for the 30th anniversary, I recommending re-reading first, then reading The Testaments. The two now that they exist serve as one long novel (perhaps like the two volumes of Don Quixote) rather than as a first novel and a sequel.
And this is the golden age of television, the almost golden age of audiobooks, and a great age for graphic novels, so you can’t really go wrong with any of the adaptations.
There are many reasons to love the second novel as much if not more than the first, and for my money, the primary reason is Aunt Lydia. Rarely in the history of literature have I encountered such a sympathetic person who has made such horrible choices.
Of course, we have to keep in mind that Gilead is founded on a horribly rigid interpretation of Christian complementarianism which, once enacted, self-fulfills by editing its own religious texts, always in the self-interest of the captains.
Like every totalitarian system, religion is used as a tool, although self-aware Christian readers will need to engage Atwood’s critique of the abuse of Christianity in their own practice of it.
Finally, one last thing The Testament does that HT rarely gets around to: it illustrates how hard it is to find oneself untethered from the worldview we have, because even if that worldview is terrible, it is still “ours.” This evokes yet more sympathy in us as readers, and perhaps can help us understand the kind of Stockholm syndrome many across the globe feel as they defend the very systems that oppress them.