Review: The Testaments – Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

Janine, a Handmaid, in series three of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Sophie Giraud/Channel 4

Susan Watkins, Leeds Beckett University

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains plotlines and details from Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Testaments

When Margaret Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, she felt that the main premise seemed “fairly outrageous”. She wondered: “Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?”

How times have changed. The connection the novel makes between totalitarianism, reproduction and control of women is now legible to most of us. The image of the red-and-white-clad handmaid has become a symbol in the wider culture of resistance to the restriction of women’s reproductive rights and to their sexual exploitation.

Read more:
Why women are dressing up as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids

Partly this is a consequence of the immensely successful TV series, the third series of which has just concluded. Series one was directly based on Atwood’s novel and subsequent episodes over two years have continued the story of Offred beyond the ambivalent ending Atwood imagined for her, in which her fate is uncertain. Now, in her eagerly awaited sequel, The Testaments, Atwood makes a series of dizzying creative decisions which move away from, but also develop out of, both novel and TV series.

Next generation

The action of The Testaments takes place 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The claustrophobic first-person narration of Offred is widened out to incorporate the stories of three narrators. These narrators are Aunt Lydia – the most senior of the Aunts in the first novel, who trains and manages the handmaids on behalf of the Gilead regime – and two young women.

It is in the identity of these young women that Atwood incorporates elements of the TV series. We discover that both are Offred’s daughters. One, Agnes, is the daughter she was forced to give up when she became a handmaid. The other, Nicole, is the baby she is pregnant with at the end of the novel and gives birth to in the second series of the TV programme.

Agnes has been brought up as a privileged daughter of the Gilead regime; Nicole – and the name choice here, as well as aspects of the story, draw on the TV series – has been smuggled out of Gilead by the May Day organisation and raised in Canada.

The inventiveness of this choice of narrators, plus the time shift, allows Atwood to do all sorts of exciting things. She explores what it actually means to be a mother. The Gilead regime has to keep records of bloodlines to avoid the genetic conditions attendant on incestuous couplings. Genealogical information is kept by the Aunts in folders organised by the male head of the family, but paternity will always be more uncertain than maternity. We never find out for sure who Nicole’s father is, although there are hints.

More broadly, though, can the same uncertainty be attached to the mother figure too? As one of the Marthas (the domestic servant class in Gilead) says to Agnes when she finds out that the person she believed to be her mother was not her birth mother: “It depends what you mean by a mother … Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” How do we define a mother when conventional family structures have been upended?

Making a difference

The interplay between the three women’s stories also allows us to compare how individuals make decisions about what constitutes ethical behaviour in a totalitarian regime. In the world of The Testaments, unlike in The Handmaid’s Tale, later period Gilead is on its uppers. It struggles to control its leaky borders and there is internecine in-fighting and betrayal within the upper echelons of the Commanders.

Change of heart: Aunt Lydia is now working for the downfall of Gilead.
Sophie Giraud/Channel 4

Unbabies – defective births – continue to be born and the resistance is growing. Lydia begins to plot Gilead’s downfall, but in retrospect we also get her account of her earlier collaboration as the regime was established. Do her attempts to destroy Gilead cancel out her previous decision to collaborate? If she had not survived, she would not have been alive to work to bring down the regime, but can the master’s tools ever dismantle the master’s house?

Casualties of the resistance efforts abound. Becka – a friend of Agnes and a survivor of child sexual abuse – sacrifices herself for the greater good of what she believes to be the purification and renewal (rather than the destruction) of Gilead. Nicole (who engages in an undercover operation in Gilead vital to the resistance) remarks that she “somehow agreed to go to Gilead without ever definitely agreeing”. The novel asks readers to think about the extent to which exploitation of idealism and naivety are appropriate as means that justify the end of Gilead’s potential destruction.

Judgement of history

The Testaments ends with the Thirteenth Symposium of Gilead Studies – an academic conference taking place many years after the regime’s destruction. This is the same framing that concludes The Handmaid’s Tale, although the emphasis here is different. In her book, In Other Worlds, Atwood claims that the afterword to the first novel was intended to provide “a little utopia concealed in the dystopic Handmaid’s Tale”.

But, for most readers of the original novel, the effect of encountering the afterword is the opposite of optimistic. Reading it diminishes and undermines our emotional investment in Offred’s narrative, as historians debate whether or not her story is “authentic” and a professor warns us that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgement on the Gileadeans”.

Dystopian vision of everyday oppression of women.
Jasper Savage/Channel 4

The same historians make similar comments in the Thirteenth Symposium that ends The Testaments, but here they are fundamentally convinced of the witness transcripts’ authenticity. The postmodern uncertainty about the status of Offred’s narrative in The Handmaid’s Tale could be seen as characteristic of the mid-1980s (with its suspicion of narrative authenticity and reliability), as characterised by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”.

Now, in 2019, Atwood replaces that incredulity with a much clearer sense of the validity of women’s stories. I believe we can relate this change of emphasis to the different times we find ourselves in – where the notion of the equal status of all versions of the past and indeed the present has been abused explicitly by Trump and others who make accusations of “fake news”.

Read more:
How The Handmaid’s Tale is being transformed from fantasy into fact

In Gilead, women are not allowed to read or write – unless they are Aunts. Agnes therefore struggles to become literate as a young woman. The description of her slow and painful acquisition of literacy reminds us of the vital connection between words and power and how important it is to validate women’s words in particular. A testament is a witness after all.The Conversation

Susan Watkins, Professor in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities and Director of the Centre for Culture and the Arts., Leeds Beckett University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One skill that doesn’t deteriorate with age

Reading and writing can prevent cognitive decline.

Roger J. Kreuz, University of Memphis

When Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, the world lost one of its most influential literary voices.

But Morrison wasn’t a literary wunderkind. “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s first novel, wasn’t published until she was 39. And her last, “God Help the Child,” appeared when she was 84. Morrison published four novels, four children’s books, many essays and other works of nonfiction after the age of 70.

Morrison isn’t unique in this regard. Numerous writers produce significant work well into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s. Herman Wouk, for example, was 97 when he published his final novel, “The Lawgiver.”

Such literary feats underscore an important point: Age doesn’t seem to diminish our capacity to speak, write and learn new vocabulary. Our eyesight may dim and our recall may falter, but, by comparison, our ability to produce and to comprehend language is well preserved into older adulthood.

In our forthcoming book, “Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging,” my co-author, Richard M. Roberts, and I highlight some of the latest research that has emerged on language and aging. For those who might fear the loss of their language abilities as they grow older, there’s plenty of good news to report.

Language mastery is a lifelong journey

Some aspects of our language abilities, such as our knowledge of word meanings, actually improve during middle and late adulthood.

One study, for example, found that older adults living in a retirement community near Chicago had an average vocabulary size of over 21,000 words. The researchers also studied a sample of college students and found that their average vocabularies included only about 16,000 words.

In another study, older adult speakers of Hebrew – with an average age of 75 – performed better than younger and middle-aged participants on discerning the meaning of words.

On the other hand, our language abilities sometimes function as a canary in the cognitive coal mine: They can be a sign of future mental impairment decades before such issues manifest themselves.

In 1996, epidemiologist David Snowdon and a team of researchers studied the writing samples of women who had become nuns. They found that the grammatical complexity of essays written by the nuns when they joined their religious order could predict which sisters would develop dementia several decades later. (Hundreds of nuns have donated their brains to science, and this allows for a conclusive diagnosis of dementia.)

While Toni Morrison’s writing remained searingly clear and focused as she aged, other authors have not been as fortunate. The prose in Iris Murdoch’s final novel, “Jackson’s Dilemma,” suggests some degree of cognitive impairment. Indeed, she died from dementia-related causes four years after its publication.

Toni Morrison published her last novel, ‘God Help the Child,’ when she was 84 years old.
AP Photo/Michel Euler

Don’t put down that book

Our ability to read and write can be preserved well into older adulthood. Making use of these abilities is important, because reading and writing seem to prevent cognitive decline.

Keeping a journal, for example, has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of developing various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Reading fiction, meanwhile, has been associated with a longer lifespan. A large-scale study conducted by the Yale University School of Public Health found that people who read books for at least 30 minutes a day lived, on average, nearly two years longer than nonreaders. This effect persisted even after controlling for factors like gender, education and health. The researchers suggest that the imaginative work of constructing a fictional universe in our heads helps grease our cognitive wheels.

Language is a constant companion during our life journey, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s interwoven into our health and our longevity. And researchers continue to make discoveries about the connections between language and aging. For example, a study published in July 2019 found that studying a foreign language in older adulthood improves overall cognitive functioning.

A thread seems to run through most of the findings: In order to age well, it helps to keep writing, reading and talking.

While few of us possess the gifts of a Toni Morrison, all of us stand to gain by continuing to flex our literary muscles.

Richard M. Roberts, a U.S. diplomat currently serving as the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Okinawa, Japan, is a contributing author of this article.

Roger J. Kreuz and Richard M. Roberts are the authors of:

Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging The Conversation

MIT Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Roger J. Kreuz, Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.