The Power Of Women’s Testimonies In Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’
September 21, 2019
Offred, the mysterious and unreliable protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, ensconced herself inside my mind when I read the book in 2011. She began to appear periodically as I witnessed the world through a character who represented dystopia, socio-political oppression and chaos. She appeared during discussions around abortion laws; she walked across courtrooms where sexual harassment allegations were debated; she became visible when the refugee crisis began. Canadian author, Margaret Atwood’s Offred was meant to be omnipresent and singular. She was a protagonist, who went on to become an allegory for global women’s rights.
Readers of The Handmaid’s Tale had made their peace with not knowing Offred’s fate at the end of the book. The nebulous conclusion of the novel left readers gasping for breath, but Offred had also become a symbol of triumph for women everywhere- she became a sign that perhaps there was hope, freedom and solidarity in the years to come. In November 2018, however, Atwood announced that there would be a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments. To her fans, she wrote in a press release, “Dear Readers. Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” This was a bolt out of the blue for readers – after not having known Offred’s destiny for about 35 years, were we finally being let in on the secret? Over the course of several months, the book became, for readers, a sequel that we did not need but wanted. On September 10, 2019, Atwood unleashed The Testaments onto the world.
The Story So Far
The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is the story of Offred, and others like her, and their struggle to survive in a dystopian future where America has fallen, and the Republic of Gilead has been formed. This is a place, where though women uphold the socio-political structure of society, they possess very few justiciable human rights, are not allowed to read and write, and their value in the world is determined by their ability to bear children. The novel is told in Offred’s own words, and is based on her view of Gilead, its practices and what occurred before the totalitarian state was established. It ends on a bewildering note with Offred being placed in a van that would take her towards freedom from Gilead, while the epilogue narrates a professor’s lecture on the authenticity of her story in the year 2195, based on a few tapes he discovered in Maine.
Atwood’s The Testaments is set 15 years after the final scene featuring Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, and contains the testimonies of three other female characters, who have lived and experienced Gilead’s oppression in various ways. The sequel is not connected to the televised series by Hulu, which seems to have extended beyond the 1985 novel and continues with Offred’s story.
She does not feature in The Testaments, and yet Offred’s spirit looms over the book. The reader does not know what becomes of Offred – did she head towards doom or freedom? Did she survive or die? Is she still harbouring secrets of the totalitarian state? Did she flee to Canada or stay back in the oppressive Gilead? There is no firm answer, and yet Offred is everywhere in The Testaments, as the reader turns pages excitedly, nervously, furiously. Atwood uses this feverish anticipation with the glee of a writer who knows her readers much too well.
Writing Dystopias Through Lurid Testimonies
In Atwood’s own essay titled ‘Writing Dystopias’ in her book Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, she says – “All fictions begin with the question What if. The what if varies from book to book . . . but there is always a what if, to which the novel is the answer”. The magic of The Handmaid’s Tale was that Offred spoke to us, from within the dystopia – as she walked from room to room, ritual to ritual, with her secrets at her fingertips, the readers moved with her. We knew dystopia because we knew Offred, and though, the book set her up to be an unreliable narrator, we believed her. Atwood, through Offred, was setting us up to experience what she believed was already happening – a blatant misuse of power, freezing of constitutional rights, and women as breeding vessels. According to The Cambrigde Companion To Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale was an “explosive conjunction of elements include widespread environmental catastrophe, high incidences of infertility, the rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism as a political force” through the perspective of one woman.
35 years later, Atwood registers a different aspect of our popular anxieties – she builds the world of dystopian Gilead, through the voices and testimonies of three women. In an interview, Atwood says that – “’[i]nstead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it”, while explaining both her new novel as well as the current state of affairs. Through the three narrators, Atwood focusses less on the brutality of Gilead’s oppressive regime, and more on how each narrator’s past experiences and disposition shape the individual characters’ reactions and responses to their circumstances. The interaction between the three testimonies gives the readers a glimpse into the psyches of the characters, and how they make decisions about what amounts to ethical behaviour in an autocratic regime, where the individual ceases to exist and the community looms large. Should one negotiate with Gilead for better conditions? Should one start a revolution? Or should one sometimes condone the totalitarian state just to be able to live? These are questions that Atwood takes us through.
As The Testaments allows us to see and understand what created the monstrosity that is Gilead, it also upholds the power of the female testimony, and borrows from the events of the #MeToo Movement, where women from all over the world spoke up against serial perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In the book, Atwood takes us through the testimony of three women – unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, where there was just one – in order to acquaint us with the horrors of Gilead.
The multiple perspectives in the book intermingle with each other and create a tapestry of historical memory of the violence and destruction subject by the Republic of Gilead. It also compares to the experience of The Handmaid’s Tale where Offred’s lone testimony seemed unreliable at the height of Gilead’s power, and readers take the three testimonies in The Testaments at face value.
The Cryptic Language Of A Dystopian Subject
A central motif of The Handmaid’s Tale was the metaphorical slicing away of the mind and the spirit from the body by the state since this was how Gilead could keep its power upon its people. In the book, the female body is abused, and this makes the subject of the female body very vulnerable and extremely significant. An illustration of this is when Offred describes a routine check-up at the government doctor as an “disembodied experience”, where her mind remains separate from her physical body. She narrates, “at neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so that the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only.” The sheet symbolises the separation of her identity as a silent rebel in Gilead from her identity as a subject of Gilead by virtue of her fertility. It is also a deliberate detachment – in a world where she is defined by her body, she takes a free hold of her own thoughts and protects it from Gilead. This is the definition of rebellion for Offred.
In The Testaments, Atwood brings the concept of the body and the mind together. The personhood is no longer disembodied, and there is a fusing together of the mind and the body to create complete identities. Physical bodies become the rebellion, with the body also becoming a vehicle for the cause. As all three female protagonists speak their truths, their bodies and their spirit can no longer remain separate even if Gilead still holds power. With each testimony, the characters begin to own their bodies again, and unite them with their minds.
Atwood indicates subtle subversions in Gilead when she uses the cryptic language of the subjects of a dystopian state. She shows that rebellions and revolutions need not be a physical battle between the powerful state and its subjects, and could be through thoughts, feelings and autonomy of the subjects.
Before The Testaments came out, I asked myself whether a sequel is really necessary. And then when I read it, I realised why Atwood wrote it – she wrote it to instil hopefulness in a world where it is increasingly felt as if the quest for political power usurps important voices. The book is also about a collective of extraordinary women who speak their truth, and rebel against Gilead in their own ways. It does feel less honest than The Handmaid’s Tale, but so do all real and mundane stories. Atwood’s most recent work does not exist to puncture our fantasies about freedom, but to become a vehicle for aspirations in a world that, in the future, might not allow them.
Deya is a human rights lawyer by day, and by night, a book nerd, who is constantly running out of shelf-space. Her small apartment in Bangalore, where she is based, has already been swallowed by her meandering bookshelves. Truth be told, this might also be her ultimate plan to avoid all human contact. Deya tweets about feminism, women's rights and (mostly) all things books at @LadyLawzarus.
Read her articles here.