Last fall, bookstores welcomed the arrival of the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 best-seller, The Handmaid’s Tale. Both novels are works of feminist “speculative fiction” — meaning, This sort of thing could happen because this sort of thing has already happened! At the time it was published, The Handmaid’s Tale was considered to be a blistering takedown of Reaganite social conservatism. And the new release, The Testaments, set 15 years later in the same dystopian patriarchal future, is, according to one overexcited reviewer writing for the Guardian, “a powerful symbol of resistance to the misogyny of Donald Trump and the Christian rightwing.” Oh, is that all?
It would be unfair, of course, to blame an author for the simplemindedness of her readers. And tempting though it may be to dismiss the novels for pushing some of the drearier claims of feminism, it would be a mistake to brand them as propaganda merely because they advance a political message with which conservatives disagree.
The plot of The Handmaid’s Tale is interesting enough. Set in the Republic of Gilead — a deranged male-dominated theonomy, formerly known as the United States of America — the story is told by a young woman, Offred, who provides us with a detailed account of her life as a Handmaid (a fertile woman owned by an elite couple for the purpose of producing children for them). Offred explains her involvement in the resistance movement, “Mayday,” to overthrow Gilead’s tyrannical regime. An epilogue makes clear that this effort was ultimately successful — that Gilead fell, and Offred’s testimony survived as crucial historical evidence.
The Testaments seeks to fill in some of the gaps about how, exactly, this occurred. The novel traces the narratives of three women: Aunt Lydia, the highest-ranking female working for Gilead; Agnes, a young woman born and raised in Gilead; and (spoiler alert) Nicole, a young woman raised across the border in Canada who, having been smuggled out of Gilead in infancy by her mother, who was herself a Handmaid, becomes an unwitting symbol of the resistance. Agnes and Nicole turn out to be long-lost sisters, which serves as a useful device. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest successes is the steady increase in momentum. Curiosity sustains the reader’s interest — it has the pace of a successful Netflix series.
Agnes’s experience growing up in a wealthy family in Gilead is — after the death of her adoptive mother and her father’s hasty remarriage — predictably cold and loveless. She is hardened by the death of her household’s most recent Handmaid, who died in childbirth — “They’d cut [her] open to get the baby out and they’d killed her by doing that” — and by a sexual assault at the hands of her middle-aged male dentist. She is later traumatized by the sudden discovery that she was not biologically related to the woman she had thought was her mother. Nicole has a similar experience, though she grows up in a freer land across the border, noticing that her adoptive mother “had a distant smell.”
The characterization of the sisters is well — if predictably — executed. And the moral of the story is self-explanatory. Some feminist theorists have argued that Atwood has a fundamentally tragic view of gender, believing that the biological asymmetry between the sexes inevitably translates into the social and physical abuse of women and that there is very little that can be done to prevent this. Female strength is not a sufficient answer for women in The Testaments. As Nicole observes, “it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.” The female brain is like “warmed-up mud,” she fears, and the female anatomy an exhausting liability:
If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it.
This mindset is what progressives would lament as the effect of “internalized misogyny.”
Other than an authoritarian “patriarchy,” Atwood’s main target is a hollow and loveless Christianity. The religious literature Atwood concocts is bizarre and clunky, though she seems to acknowledge this. Having shared a particularly dull and cringey hymn, our narrator, Aunt Lydia, writes: “Banal and without charm, those words: I can say that, since I wrote them myself.” In fact, most of Aunt Lydia’s words would fall in this category.
Aunt Lydia is the novel’s fatal flaw. She appears to be little more than a plot device used to demonstrate female “agency” (another feminist buzzword overused by progressive reviewers). We are supposed to see her as self-aware and morally complex. “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,” she says early on, referring to the fact that she also appears in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments gives Aunt Lydia more backstory, with the intent of complicating her image as an oppressor. But the result is an immensely irritating narrative voice, tedious and psychologically contrived:
I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it — formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere: even in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?
What does she mean, she is “everywhere and nowhere”? What sort of person, attempting to provide a historical account for future generations, writes in such a coy fashion?
In striving for profundity, Aunt Lydia is pointlessly confusing: “The flame of my life is subsiding, more slowly than some of those around me might like, but faster than many realize.” Such cryptic statements read more like the diary of a teen girl who is hoping that someone will be interested in her musings on the meaning of life than the record of a woman fighting for survival under a tyrannical regime. Elsewhere, the writing suffers from the opposite flaw: instead of imprecision, lurid messaging. For instance, Commander Judd, a high-ranking male oppressor, tells Aunt Lydia: “Loyalty to a higher truth is not treason, for the ways of God are not the ways of man, and they are most emphatically not the ways of woman” (emphasis added). When Atwood tells instead of shows, the magician’s technique is seen, and the trick is ruined. When we hear Atwood’s voice — when she hits us over the head with her political motive — her characters are reduced to cardboard cutouts.
The novel isn’t a failure, exactly. It’s just that, throughout The Testaments, Atwood takes her reader for granted. She can afford to, clearly. Her political message is ripe for plucking in the age of Donald Trump. And there will always be plenty of Guardian freelancers scrambling over themselves to praise smackdowns of the Christian patriarchy. But for those who open a novel hoping to find in its pages depth, color, surprise, and beauty — don’t bother with this one.
This article appears as “Tales from the Resistance” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.