Amelie Lee ’23
When I first finished “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, I closed the novel desperate for more. The ending, while hopeful in its own way, left me wishing for a less obscure conclusion in which the reader found out what happened to Ofglen and learned exactly how Gilead would fall. Yet, after a couple years of contemplation, spent rereading the book and watching far too many episodes of Hulu’s TV show adaptation, I found myself increasingly satisfied with the way Atwood ended the story. I decided that life, and surely complex dystopias based on religious oppression, are more complicated than fictional happy endings, and leaving the reader to interpret what happens to each character is a far more realistic and nuanced ending to such a heavy and storyline. And for 34 years, Margaret Atwood seemed to agree with me. Yet, in September of 2019, riding the coattails of season 3 of the TV show, Atwood released The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale set 15 years after the original novel.
As usual, Atwood is a phenomenal writer. The characters she creates in the sequel are vivid, with three new female perspectives intertwining to illustrate a deeper portrait of Gilead. We hear from Agnes, a young girl brought up in Gilead’s elite, freshly groomed to become a happy domestic wife to a commander. Daisy, a teen living in Canada, allows the readers to see Gilead from an international perspective, a heavy-hitting representation of how the world views America’s failures and radicalization. Lastly, we hear the voice of Aunt Lydia, a surprising reintroduction of a character we thought we knew and hated.
No longer focused on the plight of a singular handmaid, readers can see Gilead’s corruption from a broader viewpoint. Atwood’s worldbuilding is incredible, with details about Gilead’s formation allowing readers to fully understand how a religious dystopia could be implemented even in modern gender expectations of independence and equality. Agnes’ perspective in particular explores religious indoctrination from a young age and how a world of enforced sanctity leads to perverted abuse under the guise of purity. Together these three characters tell us about Gilead’s eventual demise, and how women work together against the odds to overcome years of religious malignance and institutional power.
Once I started the book, I could not put it down. Finally, I got to know what happened to the characters we had seen struggle for so long. After years, I got to know how Gilead’s reign was eventually shattered, due, of course, to girl power and internal connivings of now redeemed Aunt Lydia. Yet, as much as I enjoyed this new exploration of Gilead and the satisfaction of seeing such an overtly evil organization finally come to an end, I finished the book unsettled.
While “The Handmaid’s Tale” was beautifully obscure, “The Testaments” seemed unrealistically hopeful. Every loose end was tied up in its conclusion, every character perfectly contrived to bring an end to Gilead. “The Testaments” is hopeful, but it doesn’t speak to readers in the same way as the realistic nuance of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” For those who see oppressive dystopias reflected in today’s political climate, the uncertain ending of the novel allows us to see the complications of institutional oppression as it is, not an easily solvable problem that a couple of go-getter rebels can get together to solve.
By simplifying the storyline, the thematic message of the sequel feels confusing and manufactured. As Aunt Lydia was revealed to be working against Gilead, I was absolutely confounded as to what we were supposed to take away from the story. Am I supposed to believe that Aunt Lydia, who just last book forced a room full of girls to yell “her fault” at a rape victim, was secretly supporting female empowerment this whole time? Does Atwood want us to blindly trust authority in hopes that they eventually will take down the system from the inside? As much as I’d like Mike Pence to suddenly reveal himself to have been advanving LGBTQ rights all along, destroying the Republican Party from the inside, Atwood’s dramatic ending no longer feels like a reflection of the complexity of radicalization and power. Instead, it feels as if current events made Atwood feel so hopeless that she needed to write herself a happy ending, one where oppression can be neatly defeated through a detailed plan of attack.
“The Testaments” isn’t a bad book; for my past self hoping for a neat happy conclusion, it was a perfect sequel. But now, as tens of thousands of readers and viewers look to the story of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a representation of social oppression, it feels like Atwood took the easy way out, reducing the complex world we know so well to a simple fight between good and evil.
Illustration by Jasmine Sloan ’23