Viewers of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale might be disappointed to find that Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Testaments, is not a continuation of Offred’s narrative, but a three-handed narrative of Gilead, fifteen years later. The end of both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments include a transcript from an academic symposium set in 2195 and 2197. Professor Pieixoto presents both Offred’s recorded journal in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the written accounts of Agnes, a young woman raised by a commander and his wife in Gilead and who later becomes an Aunt; Daisy, a young Canadian woman who is sent to Gilead on a mission; and Aunt Lydia, a perpetrator who features in both novels.
Atwood has employed the device of a three handed narrative in earlier works such as Life Before Man (1976) and The Robber Bride (1993). In The Testaments, Professor Pieixoto explains he with his colleague Professor Knotly Wade have taken the three narratives of Agnes, Daisy and Aunt Lydia and have ‘interleaved in an order that made approximate narrative sense to us.’ He jokes that ‘You can take the historian out of the storyteller, but you can’t take the storyteller out of the historian.’ Pieixoto is inclined to believe that the sources are not fakes, much as he was inclined to believe the same of Offred’s account in The Handmaid’s Tale. This neat tidying at the end of the novel provides support to the coincidences throughout Atwood’s text, which sometimes requires the reader to suspend disbelief.
In Atwood’s earlier novel the character of Offred is not an active protagonist because she is fundamentally restrained by her position as a handmaid. The characters in her sequel are much more active agents, particularly Aunt Lydia, who uses knowledge as power to protect, survive and eventually reach out to the resistance movement. Some reviews have been critical of Atwood’s portrayal of Aunt Lydia in The Testaments and have claimed that Atwood attempts to redeem her character as a victim of the totalitarian estate. However, this is not so. It is not Atwood who attempts to redeem Aunt Lydia, but Aunt Lydia herself. Her description of how her rights are removed as a family court judge, and her torture and incarceration are indeed harrowing, but viewing her narrative as a whole, her acceptance as the role of Aunt can perhaps be explained by her canny ability to foresee the situation she is presented with, rather than being broken by the regime. The reader must question whether she is a reliable narrator, at least in terms of her own self portrayal. She certainly has a misanthropic trope when it comes to the other characters, particularly the Aunts whom she regards with contempt, and in the case of Aunt Vidala, pure hatred born out of an ongoing power struggle. The reader must also question her part in the resistance movement and ask whether she is motivated by revenge, survival or even vanity. She writes ‘I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if, that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was.’ This self-awareness leaves it to the reader to decide if Aunt Lydia’s actions negate her complicity in facilitating the subordination and murder of women in both novels.
One of the surprising elements about Atwood’s novel is the use of dry and often dark humour, which doesn’t feature in The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia’s voice is enigmatic and conspiratorial; Agnes’s voice, as a second generational Gileadean is naïve, and this is juxtaposed with Daisy’s voice, which as a green haired teenager from a fairly liberal Canada creates much scope for comedy in a clashing of cultures as the two girls meet. The three-handed narrative makes the novel quite episodic: as you read one character’s account you yearn to get back to the other character’s narrative. It is in fact quite a page turner and a quick read. From a literary point of view it might be considered an unnecessary sequel, but considering the zeitgeist of the moment it does seem necessary, particularly in a world where Populism is dominating world politics and in light of the #MeToo movement. Atwood’s Gileadean novels remind us that progress balances on a knife edge, and legal and social rights are removed much more quickly than they are gained. Ultimately, the novel is optimistic rather than pessimistic, because we know that Gilead eventually falls, but we should be aware that progress is never a purely upwards trajectory in any nation’s history. Be aware of bumps and U-turns ahead.