Notes on ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Think of me as a guide. Think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood. It’s about to get darker.

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments

Reading The Testaments, published last September, was an exciting experience. I felt part of an audience who had enthusiastically read The Handmaid’s Tale and watched the recent TV series. I longed to know what had happened to Offred, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale and how the Gilead regime had ended. The answers to my questions and expectations where all in that thick book with a dark blue and acid green cover full of promises. The Testaments was published thirty-four years after the previous novel and the story occurs about fifteen years after Offred’s escape from Gilead. The novel won the 2019 Booker Prize jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Unfortunately, this caused some criticism as according to the Booker rules the prize cannot be split, but I think it is well deserved.[1]

I was mesmerised by Aunt Lydia’s firm grip on me. I read the novel quickly. She held me in her hand that was disguised ‘in a leather glove in a woollen mitten’ and I was emotionally engaged in the Pearl girls’ story of commitment and sacrifice. I found Aunt Lydia’s constant dialogue with the reader, which interweaves storytelling and witnessing, deeply engaging as she describes a world not far from our own. In the ‘Acknowledgments’, Atwood claims that the novel ‘was written partly in the minds of the readers of its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale, who kept asking what happened at the end of that novel’. The ending of The Handmaid’s Tale was considered to be too open and ambiguous; therefore, the audience needed closure and a more hopeful and certain destiny for Offred. Differently from The Handmaid’s Tale, and most of Atwood’s novels, The Testaments has closure. All the loose ends are tied up when the novel concludes: people live or die, some of them move to a freer country, the oppressive regime of Gilead collapses, guilty and corrupt people are punished, and innocence is finally rewarded or sacrificed for the cause. In this way, Atwood gives hope that there is a possibility of a more equal and just world, not only in fiction but in reality too. Significantly, the last words of Professor Pieixoto in ‘The Thirteenth Symposium’ at the end of the novel are ‘I will close’, an ending that is final and is sealed by the inscription that summarises what has occurred in the story as well as the main characters’ destiny:

IN LOVING MEMORY OF
BECKA, AUNT IMMORTELLE
THIS MEMORIAL WAS ERECTED BY HER SISTERS
AGNES AND NICOLE
AND THEIR MOTHER, THEIR TWO FATHERS,
THEIR CHILDREN AND THEIR GRANDCHILDREN.
AND IN RECOGNITION OF THEIR INVALUABLE
SERVICES PROVIDED BY A. L.
A BIRD OF THE AIR SHALL CARRY THE VOICE, AND THAT WHICH
HATH WINGS SHALL TELL THE MATTER.
LOVE IS AS STRONG AS DEATH.

The inscription is a will; it is evidence and a witness and relates to the multiple meanings of the word ‘testament’, to what has occurred in the novel and to its agents, meaning that future generations will remember these agents and will refer to them to renew their hopes and ideals each time they do so. The quotations from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 10:20 and from the Song of Solomon 8:6) at the end of the inscription seal the agreement, pointing to the path to follow. I was intrigued that the title of the novel points to different meanings of the word ‘testament’ as well as to the multiple ‘testaments’ present in the narration. Testaments refers to the Bible, the Old and New Testament, and to the biblical quotations present in the narratives. In fact, the word ‘testament’ is connected to a promise and witnessing that refer to life and to a will and sacrifice that refer to death.

The articles and interviews released after The Testaments was published point to Atwood’s concerns about environmental issues, the risk of a backlash against various women’s rights in Trump’s presidency and the hope for a more equal future. In fact, in The Testaments the counter-attack on depravity and corruption is paramount. This seems to encourage a more hopeful view of a possible better world. It also implies that the reader acknowledges the evidence of the novel and takes a stand that is similar to that of the Pearl girls, whose works are commemorated and summarised in the inscription that closes the novel.

In the novel, the Gileadean world is rotting and its narratives are corrupted and depraved. In order to survive, Aunt Lydia has been complicit with them to the point of killing her own friend, Anita. The new generation that was born and brought up in Gilead seems instead to be innocent and unflinching in its courageous, idealised vision.

While I was reading the novel, I often asked myself whether Aunt Lydia’s double-crossing behaviour and her support of the Mayday organisation cancel out her previous crimes. Does her drive for survival justify her attitude? Does her final sacrifice amend her abuses as described in The Handmaid’s Tale? In the novel, moral judgement is temporarily suspended, as Aunt Lydia remarks when she describes her ideal reader, the bright and ambitious young woman who ‘would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.’ The novel’s priority seems to be to focus on a wider view that implies hope for future change by endorsing women’s stories. From 2017, we have been in the time of #MeToo, when women have finally had a voice against abuses and oppression and can prosecute their abusers. In this perspective, we can read Aunt Lydia’s thirst for revenge as legitimate and the idealistic vision of the Pearl girls as achievable. Atwood’s hopeful perspective is also seen in her trust of young people’s idealism and positivity compared with that of adults. She refers to the MeToo and Extinction Rebellion movements as the places where changes can happen. In an interview with Jessica Townsend, she called Greta Thunberg the ‘Joan of Arc of the environment’,[2] showing her support for the Extinction Rebellion movement. Furthermore, in an interview with Lisa Allardice, she spoke of ‘the casket moment’, referring to The Merchant of Venice; as citizens we need to make a choice and decide which door we are going to open.

In The Testaments, the acknowledgement of the authenticity of women’s stories, which are endorsed by Professor Pieixoto in ‘The Thirteenth Symposium’ at the end of the novel, validates women’s words and gives them power. This is in stark contrast with what the same professor said in the ‘Historical Notes’ of The Handmaid’s Tale when he in part denied the validity of Offred’s story. The evidence and witnessing allow the apparently pure state of Gilead to be exposed and cause its collapse from within. This is similar to what has occurred in the real world, where women have accused Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein of abuses and harassment, women’s voices are heard and their evidence is validated, helping to bring down patriarchal totalitarianism. Furthermore, in order to be effective, witnessing and evidence imply the acknowledgement of the listener or reader, as Pieixoto does in the story. As Atwood claimed in a podcast for The Irish Times, ‘[T]here is not just one future, there are multiple futures, it depends on our choices now.’[3] She argued that we are not doomed as she does not believe in predestination but in choices. She said she was hopeful that although we cannot reverse what has already happened, we can make the right choices for a more equal world and an environmentally friendly attitude. But there are some controversial opinions; for example, Deborah Friedell writes from a different perspective, concluding her review in the London Review of Books by remarking that ‘[i]f The Testaments were truly a novel for our times, after Aunt Lydia and her allies had succeeded in getting the documents out, … journalists would write about them; and nothing would happen’.[4]

Women’s storytelling is fundamental in this novel and is symbolised by the women’s practice of embroidery, one of the few acceptable means of expression for women in the male-dominated society. Aunt Lydia gives her farewell to the reader at the end of the story and refers to Mary Queen of Scots’ motto (In my end is my beginning) and to the design on the queen’s needlework that shows ‘a phoenix rising from its ashes’, which is linked to Lydia’s hope that her story will be revived by her readers. For Queen Mary, her embroidery was not only a way to spend her time, as she was kept in custody for more than eighteen years by her cousin Elizabeth and spent most of her time indoors, but she also expressed her feelings through the patterns. For example, she used symbols that subverted traditional iconography, as in the phoenix, a symbol of immortality, and in the representation of a ginger cat (Elizabeth) playing with a grey mouse (Mary).[5] For this reason, Aunt Lydia speaks of women as ‘excellent embroiderers’ capable of using the apparently innocuous visual elements of their needlework to criticise and expose. This also refers to the most famous weaver of ancient times, Arachne, whose myth is narrated in Metamorphoses by Ovid at the beginning of Book Six. Similarly to Arachne, Lydia is the weaver of the plot, a narrative that exposes the flaws of the gods of Gilead, their rapes and abuses disguised by manipulated biblical quotations, marital arrangements and supposed purity. The ‘City upon the Hill’ is rotten to the core, and although Lydia has been complicit with it and is in a position of relative power, she intends to fight for justice and attain it, as shown via the execution of Dr Grove, the paedophile.

There are interesting connections and harrowing stories in the novel; they highlight and comment on what happens in Gilead and refer to what occurred and is occurring in some parts of the world. One of them is the biblical Levite’s Concubine’s story (Judges 19–21). The story reveals the connection with the Handmaids, as the concubine has no name and is a sexual partner or a wife with a secondary status, and shows, in a general perspective, the women’s status in Gilead and in modern society. They are totally subordinated and traded like animals. Their sexual violation is considered unavoidable in certain situations, though it will be avenged afterwards, which, in the concubine’s story, is a pretext for a war against the Benjaminites who committed the crime. Significantly, once the Pearl girls Becka and Agnes are able to read, they discover that what the Bible says is different from what the Aunts taught them at school. The horrible biblical story shows that Gileadean narratives are deceitful, so the two young women take action against the regime. Their shared view and commitment are reinforced by their bond of sisterhood that clarifies their position as women in an oppressive society where they might be used as scapegoats or cattle, traded or raped to death and cut into pieces. Becka and Agnes take a stance not only against the regime but also against their role in society which exploits women and uses them as animals. As Aunt Lydia remarks, ‘[m]en must make sacrifices in war, and women must make sacrifices in other ways’.

Interestingly, Atwood also refers to two very different historical figures, Cardinal John Henry Newman and Thomas Cromwell, who lived in different times and were, for different reasons, both considered heretics. Aunt Lydia shares with Cromwell the mix of an idealistic, realistic and ruthless vision that will eventually make her plans successful. The allusion to Cardinal Newman is linked to the quality of his oeuvre, Apologia pro vita sua, the book in which Aunt Lydia hides her holograph. It is an apology and a testimony of his life and career that is similar to Aunt Lydia’s writing. Both chose the most common route, described by Aunt Lydia as the road ‘most travelled by’, then opted for ‘the one less travelled by’.[6]

Reading The Testaments was engrossing. I especially appreciated its relevance to what is actually happening in our reality; this is expressed in a masterly way in the fictionalised world of Gilead. The novel reveals Atwood’s concerns for the political situation of the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments has a hopeful closure that is related to Atwood’s view of our world. The speculative and fictional quality of the text inscribes the story in a world of language that could become more or less ‘real’ according to different situations in different parts of the world. Therefore, as Atwood often claims, everything that is in the story has already happened or is happening somewhere. The reader is guided to acknowledge the ‘testament’ of the narratives as witnessing, evidence and will and consequently to take a stance if this is not the world they would like to live in.


[1] See Conceptión de León, ‘Bernardine Evaristo: “No Single book is the best book in the world”’, Jack Garratt, 9 November 2019, < https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/bernardine-evaristo-booker-prize-2019-girl-woman-other-the-testaments-a9187461.html> [accessed 11 February 2020], and Dave Kavanagh, ‘The Testaments V Woman, Girl and Other’, The Blue Nib, < https://thebluenib.com/the-testaments-v-woman-girl-other/?fbclid=IwAR29byy3vDpWPQh7VhVUGS4lmOoJUkA69Py7Hk8JjTNKUf4Dp9XjybQVyyM > [accessed 11 February 2020].

[2] Jessica Townsend, ‘When writers rebel: Jessica Townsend meets Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood’. Hourglass, Issue 4, January 2020, p. 6 <https://hourglass.news/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/The-Hourglass-Issue-4-Digital-Edition.pdf > [accessed 10 February 2020].

[3] The Irish Times Women’s Podcast < https://soundcloud.com/irishtimes-women/ep-247-margaret-atwood?fbclid=IwAR0mLmRwQkCdsHxLn-ADoPHFOCoVFeOb9axSSz0uAJtIZCz8fnI7AHifPjk > [accessed on 10 February 2020].

[4] Deborah Friedell, ‘I love her to bits’ London Review of Books, 7 November 2019, Vol. 41, No. 21, p. 12.

[5] See The prison embroideries of Mary, Queen of Scots, V&A, <https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/prison-embroideries-mary-queen-of-scots> [accessed on 10 February 2020].

[6] Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken> [accessed on 10 February 2020].

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