A Gripping, Limited Call to Arms: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Reviewed By

For years, Margaret Atwood resisted the notion of writing a sequel to her feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale. She first began considering the possibility after 9/11, when, as Atwood told The Current, the political climate radically changed. “Instead of going away from Gilead, we turned around and started coming back toward Gilead,” she said. Still, Atwood kept her creative focus elsewhere for more than fifteen years. What finally pushed her to write The Testaments was widespread public curiosity, spawned in no small part by the Hulu adaptation of the novel, over “how Gilead falls.”

As venerable as any writer working on the planet today, Atwood has never shied away from direct engagement with fans. At eighty, she remains tech savvy and fascinated with new media platforms. The Testaments, then, which has broken sales records in Canada and sold more than ten thousand copies the week of its release in the UK, can be seen as one of the largest-scale “response pieces” in history: to both the Hulu series and its fan base, yes, but also to the cultural zeitgeist at large. “It put wind in my sails, let’s put it that way,” Atwood has said of the Trump administration.

The Testaments has met with an overwhelmingly positive critical reception and even co-won the prestigious Booker Prize in October. But some critics, including Julie Myerson in The Guardian, have noted issues with the sequel that differentiate it from the rest of Atwood’s oeuvre, ranging from an excessive reliance on fast-clipped plotting that lacks subtext to its pre-determined “happy endings,” presented, as Myerson states, “like a straight antidote to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Like Myerson, I read The Handmaid’s Tale on its original go-around; it was, as for so many readers, my “gateway drug” to Atwood. Soon, I began devouring earlier Atwood and I’ve read every new novel she’s released since. (I even had the anxiety-provoking pleasure of interviewing her for this venue some years back.) Like any devotee, I thrilled to find certain patterns at work in her fiction and thereby her brain, noting the commonalities she circles around across her body of work.

For starters, Atwood has long been interested in her novels as documents—or “testimony”—by her characters. She favors text as explicit creation: in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is recording tapes; in The Blind Assassin, Iris includes pieces of a novel she has passed off as written by her dead sister and writes the parallel narrative to her granddaughter; in Alias Grace, Grace is telling her story directly to her would-be shrink. But Atwood is also fascinated by women who hold secrets, and who ultimately con the patriarchal system through the stark schism between what they reveal and their inner lives and intentions. An Atwood protagonist is usually secretive, often a bit of a liar, and always the smartest person in the room.

In these ways, The Testaments is vintage Atwood. Literal “testimonies” of two young women, as well as the secret memoirs of the now-notorious Aunt Lydia, comprise the text, and in The Testaments Atwood presents in Aunt Lydia (a more minor character in the original novel) her biggest secret-keeper yet, in possession of the most important secrets: those that could prove the first blast in the ultimate explosion of Gilead. Like so many Atwoodean characters before her, Aunt Lydia is formidably intelligent and subversively funny, though usually when only the reader is listening, and one step ahead of the men who believe her to be their subordinate and tool. As in The Blind Assassin, Atwood also continues her fondness for old ladies who bust “grandmotherly” stereotypes. But Aunt Lydia is also basically a war criminal, whose atrocities in pursuit of an ultimate victory take her far beyond the moral realm of Atwood’s usual secret-keepers. In both The Handmaid’s Tale’s text and Hulu series, Aunt Lydia commits seemingly sadistic atrocities against other women. In The Testaments, the reader is asked (perhaps for the first time, really, in an Atwood novel) to suspend our disbelief that anyone who has behaved as Aunt Lydia is not a vile sociopath, and to believe instead that she has bided her time—for decades—in the hopes of bringing down not only Gilead but, in particular, one man at its helm who once forced her to murder her friend in the earliest days of Gilead’s coup.

The double agent is, of course, a common trope in fiction (think of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, who likewise witnesses and abets numerous atrocities for his greater cause, which is—like Lydia’s—less ideological than personal). Still, the long stretch of time between the original Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments suggests that Atwood had no initial intention of transforming Aunt Lydia into any kind of heroine, and was, for thirty-five years or so, content with what the reader knew and disliked of her in the first novel. (I can’t help but wonder whether the weak backstory the Hulu series gave the character served as a catalyst for Atwood—the show pitifully implies that Aunt Lydia turns evil long before the full rise of Gilead as a result of… well, not being able to score a husband. To say that this is not the kind of motivational fodder usual in an Atwood character would be putting it mildly.)

There is much to like about The Testaments, and I dare you, if you are a fan of either the original novel or the show, to be able to put it down. But The Testaments is a novel that, both aesthetically and in its critical reception, is more about political activism and our currently apocalyptic cultural zeitgeist than about strict literary merit, and it will not hold up to history under the same scrutiny as other Atwood novels for a few very clear reasons.

Chief among these (and this may be what Myerson meant by “lack of subtext”) is that none of the main characters of The Testaments provide any psychological surprises. We know early that the Aunt Lydia we’ve previously been presented with is now actually trying to bring down Gilead, and for the rest of the novel—despite her having originally chosen to comply rather than face torture and death—she never falters in her aims, presumably because she is now old and “ready” to die. Similarly, the two much-younger protagonists—Agnes, the privileged daughter of a Commander, and Daisy, a Canadian “orphan”—prove to be unerringly heroic and utterly disinclined to either run away in fear or save themselves through complicity as Aunt Lydia once did. Another young girl proves so selfless and purely good that she almost gratuitously sacrifices herself for their mission. There are so many happy endings that dystopia and utopia become almost indistinguishable by the novel’s end.

It’s not my intent to argue that girls and women are not usually “heroic” or “good.” My quarrel is that Atwood doesn’t generally write morally binary characters, and that in particular when she throws groups of young women together, psychological mayhem usually ensues. One of Atwood’s greatest strengths as a feminist writer is that she has never failed to consider that fear of male violence, exclusion from power, and ingrained misogyny leads women to sabotage each other under patriarchy, fucking each other up out of helpless sport. In The Testaments, by contrast, there is scarcely any tension between the girls. Another young classmate of Agnes’s, originally shown as ruthless and striving, likewise becomes sympathetic, cared for even by Aunt Lydia, who has seen thousands of women die without batting an eye. The one female “antagonist” in the book—another Aunt—is a minor character without complexity or a point of view.

Why, then, would our literary priestess of the ways women psychologically struggle with one another decide to put out a novel—one that seems destined to be her widest read yet—in which all the important female characters are singularly pure of intent and do nothing to cause one another even middle-school-levels of consternation? Why is the once-monstrous Aunt Lydia abruptly kind and even comforting to her young charges, without using fear and intimidation to coerce them? Why is every woman on the pages of The Testaments exactly what she seems to the reader to be? What happened to the variability and complexity of women in The Testaments, and why must it be sacrificed if Gilead is to ultimately fall?

It is for this reason that I think of The Testaments less as one of the last great novels Atwood will give us (she is eighty, and I join her many fans in hoping she will live and write for another twenty years) than as an earnest political entreaty she is using her considerable platform to make. In this sense, The Testaments is less a sequel to the original novel than a megaphone to those legions of women dressing up as sexy Handmaids for Halloween or wearing the red robe and white bonnet as a form of protest at political marches, and the megaphone is less concerned with our individuality—the way a great novel is—than with our common goals. If Atwood is calling for a wide-scale resistance to Donald Trump by women… well, she can’t exactly portray any of the women who bring down Gilead as duplicitous, uncertain, waffling, or—most of all—unsuccessful. The Testaments, for all its signature Atwoodean darkness (a couple of creepy pedophiles, bodies hanging from the infamous Wall), is less important as a literary novel than it is as a call to arms for its massive numbers of woman readers. You can do this, Atwood seems to be cheering from her sane perch in Canada. You can take down this seemingly un-take-down-able man. But you have to join together, and you have to trust one another, and you cannot take your eyes for one second off the cause in favor of your petty personal concerns.

It is almost as though, in today’s climate, Atwood cannot bear to portray any woman in the book negatively. And fuck, after these past four years of watching women abused everywhere from the border to Congressional hearings for a SCOTUS confirmation, who can blame her? Likewise, in an era when even Barack Obama recently gave a speech against cancel culture, it’s easy to understand Atwood’s potential desire to move away from infighting among potential comrades in arms and to err instead in favor of anyone falling under the banner of Woman. Released one year before the 2020 election, The Testaments perhaps implores women to ally with a simpler sisterhood than ever before portrayed in any of Atwood’s novels, even if only until the Orange Menace has been evicted. While it would be grossly reductive to say that The Testaments is only a piece of pro-woman propaganda, it might be true to say it is also that—and that critics and prize committees are reacting to the novel in that vein as much as they are to its literary merit.

As a lifelong Atwood fan who will continue to read every book she pens until one or the other of us has drawn her last breath, I am both down with this message and highly suspicious of it. Atwood illustrates a whitewashed homogeneity in Gilead, where all the people of color (called “Children of Ham”) have been relocated and “disappeared” from the narrative—which does not remotely reflect the racial makeup of the United States. I would be interested to know, given The Testaments’s impressive sales figures and the Hulu show’s popularity, how many readers and viewers are people of color. My sad guess is not many. As Noah Berlatsky writes in The Verge, “Because fictional tyrannical dystopias are primarily envisioned as affecting white people, it can be harder to see negative policies that oppress others.”

This truth seems to echo throughout The Testaments. While Atwood may well have done more to integrate feminist and commercial literature than any other living writer, she is still, well, an eighty-year-old white Canadian lady, and as such, her call to arms has limited applications for the complex and dynamic brew of intersectional American feminism. Gilead is not a mirror for Trump’s America because in Gilead, all the suffering is white suffering. By contrast, in Trump’s America few white people have faced ramifications of his presidency that are anything like those faced by people of color, who have been locked in cages, shot by police, had their children taken away, or been prohibited from entering the country at all even if they’ve lived here their entire lives.

As a fiction writer myself, I do not believe that all novels necessarily need to be “for and about everyone” at all times. Atwood has every right to tell the stories she feels most authorized and informed to tell, and she has told most of these stories brilliantly. But their political application is limited if the world they reflect is a world only of whiteness. Though Atwood’s choice to make Gilead a white nationalist country in the original novel is an acknowledgement of explicit racism and the way people of color are always the first to be othered, this acknowledgement is cursory in The Testaments. (While PoC do appear with frequency in the Hulu series, the world seems freakishly colorblind, as if racism went out with fertility even as sexism, homophobia, and classism blew up on steroids.)

I’ll admit this much: if white women read The Testaments en masse and get our acts together to resist at the polls in 2020, Atwood will have done the job she seems to have set out to do. After all, we’re the idiots who failed to vote in sufficient numbers for the most qualified Presidential candidate of our lifetime. But it’s going to take more than white women’s remorse to topple our own metaphorical Gilead and heal the nation. We need to acknowledge that the “horror” elicited by depicting white women enduring what women of color have endured in our country’s past and endure even now is itself a form of racism that defines white suffering as more important and infinitely more shocking than the suffering of “anyone else.” Only then will the metaphor of the red-uniformed, white-skinned Handmaid lose its power, and the unilateral sisterhood of The Testaments reflect our united direction rather than a utopian dream. Although Atwood can tell a story like nobody’s business, The Testaments reduces its women characters rather than complicates them, and is written towards a reductive audience as well. But complication is our intertwined future, and only a glorious and willing complexity can set those most at risk free.

Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down. Her novel A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014) is currently under development by Netflix as a series produced by Charlize Theron’s production company, Denver & Delilah. Her most recent novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint 2016) was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including Chicago Magazine’s and The Chicago Review of Books’. She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, and as the faculty editor for both TriQuarterly Online and The Coachella Review. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, the LA Times, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and in many other magazines and anthologies. After two decades of teaching at many universities, including UIC, Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies, UCLA Extension, the University of California Riverside Palm Desert, Roosevelt University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago, Gina is excited to be a student again at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers, where she has returned to complete the PhD she left unfinished twenty years ago. More from this author →