Margaret Atwood never intended to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. When asked about the possibility previously, she always said she wouldn’t even consider it, and the final line of the novel backs up the idea that it’s supposed to be open-ended, and we’re supposed to have many lingering thoughts we have to sort out for ourselves. As the lecturer at the end of the book asks: “Are there any questions?”
In fact, in her many interviews since the release of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood has argued that it isn’t really a sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, not a continuation of that story, but another story set in the same world, several years later. She wanted to tell a different tale, in this world that has become symbolic shorthand for women’s oppression, at a time when bigotry and oppression are on the rise.
The Testaments is narrated by three characters, but the figure who looms the largest is Aunt Lydia, seen in The Handmaid’s Tale as the leader of the centre to “rehabilitate” handmaids, and the character that most strongly represents women oppressing women in this new world.
This look into Aunt Lydia’s head cements her as the most fascinating figure in the novels, if not in Atwood’s entire universe. I think it’s natural, as a reader, to expect to see a character as sympathetic once we’re inside their perspective. I was certainly prepared to be converted, to see things from her point of view, to find her understandable if not likeable, but of course Atwood does not make things so easy.
So, for me, the early chapters of the novel are something of a battle between the knowledge that is a despicable person, and the expectation that the book will show us why she isn’t. We see hints of rebellion in her, of disbelief in the Gilead system, and those are intriguing. Then we see what happened to her during the transition of the US into Gilead, and that is, at first, sympathetic and gripping too. Lydia is just a normal woman, highly successful, highly educated, working as a judge. Through her eyes, we see the horrors that educated women endure as they are rounded up and “processed.” And when we see Aunt Lydia’s determination to survive, we’re inclined to share her feelings.
But that isn’t the end of the story. I love how Atwood builds on this inclination towards some sympathy and understanding, and then pushes it, and pushes it, until you’re forced to finally realize that no, actually, Aunt Lydia is a straight-up monster. Or maybe you don’t. Some readers may still find her sympathetic. Aunt Lydia certainly calls out her assumed privileged reader, sitting in a library, working on her dissertation, telling her that she cannot possibly say she would not have done what Aunt Lydia did, when she’s never been forced to face that situation and find out.
But still, Atwood pushes. When we see Aunt Lydia agree to help Gilead after her experience in the Thank Tank, we can understand why she is willing to comply. When she agrees to shoot other women to ensure her own safety… it’s very questionable, but, well, she’s had a traumatic experience, and they will die anyway. Then she agrees to shoot her own friend to ensure her safety. Then she agrees to set up how women live from now on. And all that time, I was thinking, “yes, but…”. Trying to see things from her sympathetic point of view. But then, about two thirds of the way through the novel, the line, for me, is crossed. She is the one who establishes all the oppressive rules against women. The nightmare suffered by the handmaids comes from her own head.
Aunt Lydia is looking out for herself, and only for herself. As long as she can continue to read and study, and as long as she is not oppressed, she will happily weave a society where endless cruelties are inflicted on other women. She asks for utter autonomy in Gilead, and she receives it. Then she uses that autonomy to create the situation seen in the Handmaid’s Tale. Not the commanders. Her.
It’s a compelling and disturbing choice. We are never told that she is good or that she should be sympathetic, but our inclinations as readers encourage us to work and try and see that sympathetic side of her. But as the book peels back more and more layers and truths, we see the truth: she is utterly, unsympathetically ruthlessness. But by that point, it is too late for us. We are already in her head. We have spent hours seeing things from her perspective, and viewing her as potentially sympathetic. We cannot escape her or dismiss her again now.
By the end of the novel, however, Lydia has clearly lost her drive to survive at all costs, as she brings about the destruction of Gilead, and kills herself to make sure no-one can hold her accountable. She plays many cards that it took years and much careful “compliance” to obtain. Her actions are key not only in her surviving this long, but also in bringing about Gilead’s fall. She could not have achieved it if she was not so deeply entangled in it, and so trusted by its leaders. Were, then, all her actions necessary for the greater good in the end? Is the cost of her ruthlessness worth it?
From the beginning to the end of Gilead, she continues to act as a judge — a judge of other women, a judge of who should live and who should die, a judge of what punishments people must face.
Aunt Lydia’s perspective is joined in the novel by two teenage girls — Agnes, who grew up in a supposedly privileged position inside Gilead, and Daisy, who grew up outside of it, not fully understanding what it was.
Contrary to what we might expect from a narrator, these girls — and, in fact, almost every girl in the novel — lack agency. They are forced, brainwashed or manipulated into every step they take. Aunt Lydia ensures that the characters she wishes to use become aunts. She makes sure certain information becomes available to them at the right moment. She convinces them to sacrifice themselves, or to trust her. She is the master manipulator, and Agnes is her puppet, although she does not realize it. And it’s incredibly easy for her to turn Agnes and her friend Becka into her willing puppets, because the world Aunt Lydia helped build is so horrific without her support. There are no good choices open to them, and they need a protector.
Meanwhile, our non-Gilead character, Daisy, is still manipulated, this time by the “good guys,” Mayday. Daisy has no idea who she really is, then she finds out in a traumatising way, is removed from anything familiar, moved around a lot, and convinced to join the cause. Daisy’s experiences before risking herself for Mayday somewhat echo Aunt Lydia’s experiences at the start of Gilead, but Daisy is a high-school student, and much more easily manipulated. She is convinced to attempt an incredibly dangerous mission with high odds that could lead to either her death or to her living under the oppression of Gilead forever. Once she is in Gilead, meanwhile, she’s similarly used by Aunt Lydia, nothing more than a physical thing to smuggle information across the border. She almost dies from sepsis after being forced to literally carry information in her skin. Agnes and Daisy do escape, but every step of their escape relies on others. They have no control at all.
I always found the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale strange. Initially, the novel has an ambiguous ending, leaving us unsure whether June managed to escape or whether it was all a trap. It’s an oppressive-feeling ending, and one that forces us to remain in June’s terrified shows. But that ending is then followed up by an epilogue at an academic conference, confirming that June survived. Was that, I always thought, not going against the theme of those final chapters?
Atwood returns to the academic conference setting here, and one line in particular stands out to me, as the male conference presenter makes a joke about women “usurping leadership positions” and promises not to make more of his “little” jokes this time, to muted applause. The Testaments seemed to end with about as happy an ending as it could do — the young protagonists both succeed, and Gilead falls. In the setting of the conference, we see that Gilead has become academic, a thrilling mystery for researchers to puzzle through. But with that one comment, so familiar in our world too, we see Atwood’s hint that thought Gilead is over, lessons have not necessarily been learned. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.