It seems as if some literary masterpieces — the kind that propel their writers to dizzying fame — are inspired by events that have happened in real life to real people at some point in time. Or, at least, that’s what Margaret Atwood claims about her widely acclaimed and iconic work, The Handmaid’s Tale. Published back in 1985, the book has since been adapted for television and cinema and become a quite powerful visual symbol in the struggle for women’s rights in the United States.
The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a dystopian future where parts of the US have been taken over by the Republic of Gilead — an authoritarian, theocratic state where fertile women are enslaved as ‘handmaids’ and forced to bear children for Gilead’s elite and childless couples. It is a repressive world where the women are nothing more than voiceless and nameless human incubators, with no rights or desires of their own. Any minor insubordination is punishable — and indeed, is punished — by death. There are clearly defined and colour-coded roles for women: red for the fertile Handmaids, sky blue for the Wives of Commanders, dull brown for the more educated and scholarly Aunts, dull green for the domestic servants or Marthas and striped robes for the manual labourers or Econowives. We are introduced to Gilead through our narrator, Offred — literally “of Fred” — formerly known as June. She serves as a Handmaid in the house of Fred, a high-ranking Gilead official, and his wife. In order to survive, Offred must either produce a child or die.
Atwood’s much-awaited and Booker Prize-winning sequel, The Testaments, picks up 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, where we last saw Offred being taken away by two men either “into the darkness within; or else the light” — readers had no way of finding out. However, this time round, there are three storylines instead of one. The first is that of Aunt Lydia, one of the foundational members of Gilead and the instructress in charge of keeping the Handmaids in line. The other two narrators are situated on either side of Gilead’s border; one is Agnes, a young girl growing up in a privileged household as the daughter of a very powerful Commander and the other is Daisy, a teenager living a seemingly normal life in Canada — the most popular destination for Gileadan refugees.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her iconic The Handmaid’s Tale may not live up to its prequel, but is remarkable for its prescience, its play with words and its ability to blur fact and fiction
The story alternates between the accounts of these three individuals, the most riveting of which is Aunt Lydia’s. I found myself gorging on her chapters, partly because of her enigmatic character and her toxic relationship with the Handmaids and partly because the prequel provides little in the way of a background story. Especially chilling are the accounts of Aunt Lydia’s past and her induction as an Aunt into this regime. Her former career as a “lady judge” and her horrifying confinements in the “Thank Tank” mean fear and starvation are all it takes to break her: “They were reducing us to animals ... They were rubbing our noses in that nature. We were to consider ourselves subhuman.”
So effective is her indoctrination that she reflects how she had “believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that, as if on a magic charm.” But Aunt Lydia is not just a servant of the state. She is also a survivor. She has been through it all, she knows everything and, in a totalitarian regime, knowledge is power.
I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous. What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. — Excerpt from the book
Where previously readers knew her as a self-righteous, sadistic and stick-wielding tyrant who was willing to use any means necessary to keep the Handmaids compliant, here Atwood casts Lydia as an extremely powerful cog in Gilead’s machinery, privy to the dirty secrets of members in every tier of the regime’s food chain. “I pride myself on the fact that I can keep one jump ahead of you. But why only one? Several. Topple me and I’ll pull down the temple,” Lydia writes in her secret manuscript. Where previously she was an agent of the regime, here she turns into a scheming and vengeful woman with an agenda of her own. Using her Pearl Girls — missionaries-slash-spies sent by Gilead across the world — she leaks classified memos to a terrorist organisation known as Mayday that rescues people from Gilead through the Underground Female Road. However, her true motivations are a big question mark; it is unclear whether she really wishes to bring Gilead down because of what it represents, or because she wants to rid the system of corrupt rulers and reform it according to her own vision.
This complexity is missing in the other two narrators. Though they are instrumental to the plot, their accounts offer little beyond showing how starkly different a childhood in a totalitarian society is, compared to that in a seemingly ordinary place. The pious Agnes and daring Daisy are nothing more than foils, cast into the mould of classic Young Adult heroines: grumpy, inexperienced, but clever teens musing about life, love, sex, boys and marriage. Unlike Offred, they don’t know what the absence of pleasure, casual flirting and mobility in their lives means. Agnes even comes to develop a toxic fondness for her family: “I hope you will remember, too, that we all have some nostalgia for whatever kindness we have known as children, however bizarre the conditions of that childhood may seem to others.”
The plot of The Testaments is well-paced, but it doesn’t take an acute observer of history such as Atwood to know that all totalitarian systems are bound to crumble. Will Gilead meet the same fate? It is this hope that keeps one turning the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale and it is with the same conviction that one picks up and rifles through The Testaments. Though the story fails to live up to its prequel, it is all the more remarkable for its prescience, its play with words and, more importantly, its ability to throw into question what we know as fact and fiction, so cleverly are the two woven into each other. In the book, Aunt Lydia remarks, “Such excellent embroiderers, women are.” So indeed, is Atwood.
The reviewer is an undergraduate student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences
By Margaret Atwood
Chatto and Windus, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 8th, 2019