“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” -William Congreve.
Although this time it’s not about love; it’s about her freedom. Take away someone’s freedom, their choices in life – especially from someone who has already experienced their own liberty prior – and they’ll fight back. Patience is a virtue, after all. Thirty-five years after the original The Handmaid’s Tale was released, the infamous and erudite Margaret Atwood returns with The Testaments, the long gestating sequel that continues the narrative more than 15 years after Offred’s tales.
The three narrators provide us with fascinating views of the world of Gilead: Agnes, who grew up inside; “Daisy”, who grew up outside; and Aunt Lydia, who helped found crucial parts of Gilead from the very beginning. Each of the perspectives provides us with more insight into what women are capable of, if pushed to the brink. Even in the Particicutions, the evidence of the rage the handmaids feel is quite evident as they become Maenads, followers of Dionysus, who were known to tear a person apart. There’s an underlying current of rage running throughout, and we see the end result of it.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia was a horrible figurehead, one who terrorized the other handmaids into behaving, stripping them of their former identities. She was a devout leader, her faith never wavering. Or so we believed, based on Offred’s narrative. When we come across her in the sequel, something has changed. The elements of her character are still there, but we get a peek behind who Aunt Lydia really was before Gilead, and how that lead to her reasoning for her actions in the current one. Is it enough to mollify her actions? That’s for you to decide.
But that’s what humans do when they have a choice – survive. During Aunt Lydia’s narrative, we discover what was really going on behind the curtain, which was really fascinating because there are so many moving parts necessary to uphold an idea like Gilead. And Aunt Lydia is the spider in this tale, her web spun so large that if anything were to twitch in the far corner shed know of it immediately.
I came to empathize with Aunt Lydia, something I thought I could never do. I hated her character in the original, and despised her even more when I watched Hulu’s TV series. Here, she is the pivotal piece and we finally come to realize what her motivation is. It was refreshing to see this tyrant wasn’t solely a religious zealot but someone you could actually relate to. This frightened me somewhat — does that mean I could be a cunning religious zealot? Either way, Aunt Lydia’s accounts helped to provide a deeper look into the inner workings of Gilead, with its top officials all coming to her for advice.
The web Aunt Lydia weaves is quite impressive as she did it patiently and from the beginning of her initiation as an ‘Aunt’. But she did it because she knew she would need it to survive. What would you do to survive? What lengths could – or would – you go to? Could you go back on your own beliefs, as long as you could climb to the top of the ladder and wield power most women in Gilead couldn’t?
To me, Gilead is a world that seems so far from reality it’s laughable. Yet, with the current political climate in America, the possibility is slowly becoming more concrete. Can an idea like Gilead be avoided? I can’t answer that based on what I’ve seen the past few years. But can Gilead be sustained? Definitely not. When the core values hidden behind religious enthusiasm are rotten, it provides a lot of ammunition for characters like Aunt Lydia, who hoards information only to disperse it at the appropriate times. There are many witnesses who hold the key to the downfall of an authoritarian regime. The only question is: will they do something about it?
The Testaments breezes right by – I finished it quickly not only to answer my many questions after reading The Handmaid’s Tale, but because I absolutely adore Atwood’s sumptuous writing. Was it the best possible sequel to its predecessor? No. Two of the main narrators were, in my opinion, completely unnecessary, the ending a bit too neat, and it left me with more questions than I had began with. But reading about a fictionalized place so reprehensible may distract you from what is really happening in the world. In a way, that might be the most dangerous idea Gilead really suggests.