The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: Spoilery Discussion

Power of the Pen

My non spoilery review of The Testaments is HERE. This post will comment on the book in detail and assumes readers have already finished reading it.

This is going to be a series of observations and analysis, in no particular order, rather than a straight review. I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks and if you agree or disagree with me. There are minor spoilers for the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

How fabulous does Aunt Lydia turn out to be though? Watching the TV series, I’ve always wondered if she might be secretly helping the resistance. They are planning to make The Testaments into a sequel series after Handmaid’s Tale finishes, so we’ll get to see something similar to the events in the book play out.

Lydia as the queen of the Aunts and thus a Catherine de Medici figure, the power behind the throne, while also ruling her own shadow kingdom, is a brilliant way to go with the character. (Catherine de Medici also developed a network of female spies who were loyal only to her, similar to what Lydia does in the book.)

Lydia as a former family court judge is a much more satisfying background than what the TV series did with her. I’m generally happy with the show, but they do stumble at times. Lydia’s background episode was one such time.

I have mixed feelings about Lydia killing herself at the end, because of the current overabundance of dead female lead characters, but her death as a suicide at that moment ultimately makes sense for her fate. It’s a classic way for a master spy to go, which she would enjoy acting out, and it’s a fun nod for the reader. The only thing better would be if she could have found the Cold War spy’s suicide staple, a cyanide pill. Her death allows her to remain in control of her story and deprives her enemies of the possibility of interrogation, torture and revenge.

As a former judge, it also allows her to sentence herself to the punishment she knows she chose to earn in the beginning, when she became a Gilead collaborator and accepted the rifle that shot her work friend Anita. It was part of the deal she made with herself when she decided to survive in order to ultimately help bring down the people who ruined her life, along with everyone else’s lives and the entire society.

She knew already she’d have to become as awful as the people she was dealing with in order to do it, and that few other people would have the strength and ability to bring down Gilead from the inside. But she also knew that those excuses can only only take you so far, when it comes to the level of crimes against humanity she’d have to commit. She sacrificed herself, became the darkest of dark mother goddesses and accepted that ultimately her death would be the price she’d pay.

Aunt Lydia should go down as one of the great literary figures of all time, stubborn and complex to the very end.

Did anyone else think that Ada and Elijah would turn out to be June and Nick? I was sure of it for a while there. Ada, in particular, was given quite a bit of face time for a character who ultimately was just an ancillary figure. I’m rooting for her to be one of the narrator/warriors in the third book I’m also rooting for. (My other two picks are June and Shunammite. Maybe the ghost of Becka as an omniscient observer.)

It didn’t makes sense to me that Nicole was in hiding with the people who were also receiving Lydia’s coded messages, hand delivered by her Pearl Girls. I hate to criticize Margaret Atwood’s decisions, but I don’t get why on earth Nicole would be left with people Gilead would be watching so closely, when they were otherwise going to such great lengths to keeps Daisy/Nicole’s identity secret.

Surely they’d find a way to shift the secret communications to another location and set of operatives. Otherwise, why not leave Nicole with June, or find a way to move her back with June, if June’s so deep undercover? And why wouldn’t the Guardians who killed Melanie and Neil stop to consider their daughter, maybe to use her for leverage or kidnap her to Gilead?

Maybe the attack on Melanie and Neil was actually instigated by Lydia to set off the chain of events that followed, and I missed it.

I felt bad for both Agnes/Hannah and Daisy/Nicole, both raised by adoptive parents who weren’t fully committed to them and basically kept in storage until the adults were ready to use them for political purposes. I really missed hearing June’s thoughts on why she was okay with being separated from her children, since she was safe in Canada. There had to be thousands of mother daughter pairs in Canada around the same age. She could have stayed inside for a year or two, then worn whatever disguise she’s already wearing. It would have been better than having Nicole raised by strangers who didn’t feel like her parents.

Agnes’ situation was just heartbreaking and similar stories probably happened all over Gilead. She’s the Cinderella of the Tale, ironically forgotten by everyone in Gilead but the semi evil godmother. She did at least, like Cinderella, have a few years of real parental love from June and Luke, and then Tabitha, before she was thrown to the wolves.

It seems like at the end of the book,  Nicole was resilient and ready to bounce back with Garth and her birth parents. But Agnes has lost her home (in actuality, 3 different homes over the course of her life), her culture, 3 loving parents, and her only true friend. I worry about her. Unlike TV Agnes, she has to cope with the fact that this June left her behind and didn’t try harder to rescue her. Unlike Nicole, she wasn’t saved by her birth parents. It was only Lydia’s political expediency that saved her from the life Shunammite lived instead. When all of that sinks in, and she realizes that she’s now free to truly feel and express her feelings, there could be trouble.

I have to wonder at the rate at which Gilead is still going through young women. Agnes and Nicole escape on a female underground railroad that’s well established, but they barely survive. Neither of Agnes’ two best friends give birth to a viable infant, and by the end of the book, one is dead and the other is in grave danger. While Agnes’ brother Mark survives his birth, the handmaid’s life is sacrificed, even though she might have been saved with better treatment.

That’s one healthy infant born from 5 women, and he’s a boy. There’s nothing wrong with baby boys, but they can’t give birth to more children. Was it part of Aunt Lydia’s personal conspiracy to keep a stranglehold on the number of fertile young women in Gilead? She had an influence on the practices that continued to keep fertile young women small in number, and then discouraged those women from wanting children: the frequent use of capital punishment, frequent escapes from Gilead, prenatal and childbirth care that are less than stellar, rampant pedophilia and rape, a cultural misinformation campaign about sex and childbirth, and of course, the overall oppression of women which keeps them ignorant and too depressed to be very interested in sex.

Almost all of these practices led to a high rate of suicides, attempted suicides and requests to becomes Aunts, the equivalent of a nun. I usually complain about writers resorting too easily to suicide as a plot device with their female characters, but it was necessary and appropriate in this case. It makes complete sense that the only way out for the wives and their daughters is suicide.

It also makes sense that there would be many unhappy wives. It’s something I’ve predicted in my recaps for the TV show, and have been disappointed that they haven’t shown. On TV, the Commanders’ wives, other than Eleanor and Serena, continue to be perfect little collaborators, which is very unrealistic.

Those educated, former professional women would be the first to rebel after becoming bored and unhappy. They’d be hatching plots against each other and Gilead all over the place. Murders, affairs, poison and an extensive gossip network are all to be expected.

Lydia could have argued for an even more gender stratified society in which an adult man was never alone with a woman or girl, other than a husband and wife, and for women’s bodies to be completely sacrosanct, so that the men would have been executed if they stepped out of line, yet she didn’t do that. Instead, Gilead is just loose enough with gender roles to allow men to prey on women and assault them at will, but to be assured that they will virtually never pay for their crimes. It’s nearly a worst case scenario.

This makes sense in a society created by and for men, but now we know how much of the women’s side of the culture was created by the four original aunts. Were the four original aunts powerless in this situation, naive or did they hate other women that much? Was it the aunts idea that no women other than the aunts should read, write or do math? On the TV show, we only see Fred come out of a meeting and give this news to Serena. We don’t see where the idea comes from.

Did Lydia decide that this was a fitting revenge on the women who helped found Gilead and that it would help hasten its end? She does think like a general when it comes to bringing about the end of Gilead and understanding the reality of acceptable loss of life in exchange for winning the war.

One of the hardest parts of the book was the loss of Becka. Lydia doesn’t directly tell Becka to “hide” in the cistern, but she, and we, know that suicide by cistern is what Becka will choose. She has nowhere to go, no other friends and and she’s a self sacrificing person. Lydia has been planning this for many years and chose her prey well.

The reveal of the statue of Becka at the end of the book, a counterpoint to the unveiling of Aunt Lydia’s statue at the beginning, is a lovely touch. They are two very different women, but Gilead was meant to be untenable for both. The flashbacks show how many of Lydia’s older, educated peers died in the stadium because they were no longer fertile and their education was a threat to the new social order.

Becka is a more traditional heroine than Aunt Lydia. She is the typical waifish victim who is unable to save herself and so must use death as her only escape from the evils of the world, lest her goodness be corrupted. It should be remembered that Becka had chosen death for herself before Aunt Lydia saved her from marriage by giving her a chance to be an Aunt.

She was a sweet, lovely girl, but she was too sensitive and delicate to survive adulthood in Gilead. Being an adult woman in Gilead requires constant vigilance and the ability to survive rape and beatings from one’s husband, among many other criminal acts. If Becka couldn’t survive her childhood, she probably couldn’t survive a marriage or her time as a Pearl Girl amongst the homeless and sinners in Canada. There’s just no protection for the delicate or frail woman in Gilead, as Tabitha’s death and all of Commander Judd’s dead wives were meant to teach us.

Becka’s whole story shows Margaret Atwood’s talent as a writer. We can tell there’s something wrong, even when Becka’s a child. Everyone ignores it, just as most people do in real life, since Dr Grove, like most pedophiles, also chooses his prey well.

Eventually the nuns Aunts save Becka and give her life back to her, but as it turns out, she’s destined for a higher purpose. Lydia asks no more of Becka than she asks of herself. Lydia isn’t one of the commanders, engaging in a decadent lifestyle while her girls suffer. She lives the life she’s sentencing other women to, and she dies the death she sentences Becka to, the suicide of your own choice, before the torture starts. Because Becka would have been tortured, then hung, in response to the disappearance of her two roommates with Baby Nicole disguised as her.

There are other, more subtle aspects to Becka’s death, however. Lydia wasn’t certain she herself needed to die right away, and Becka was a witness with potentially incriminating information on one of her schemes- the use of Aunt Elizabeth to frame Becka’s father, Dr Grove. On the off chance that Becka might go against type and lash out at Lydia, who had, after all, taken everything and everyone away from her, it was expedient for Lydia to get rid of her as a preventative measure.

There was also the unspoken possibility that Agnes and Becka could have eventually fallen into a love affair with each other. I can’t see Becka ever being willing to engage in sexual activities, but she confessed that Agnes was the only person she’d ever loved and she was willing to die for her. That doesn’t automatically make her a lesbian, but it does make her much too loyal to a another person instead of to Aunt Lydia, the Aunts and Gilead for Lydia to allow the relationship to continue or Becka to be left behind and live.

Aunt Lydia worked on this plan for decades and put the two girls together in order to foster that relationship. She probably went through a similar grooming schedule with several pairs of girls who she then sent out as Pearl Girls who were also spies. We know that Aunt Adrianna was one of her spies.

Lydia was waiting for many years for the right set of variables to fall into place- Commanders in power who could be brought down because of their misdeeds, hard evidence of those misdeeds, and a way to get the information to Canada. She seemed to strategically collect the daughters of certain important men as supplicants, both to keep them safe and to keep them as evidence. Agnes didn’t really realize it, but, like Becka, she could testify about crimes committed by her adoptive father and stepmother if necessary. It could be that getting her out safely was part of that plan. She may have overheard more than she realized.

Shunammite is a fascinating character, the one girl who, as far as we know, isn’t abused by her family, and so embraces the system and thinks she can make it work for her. She might have, too, as so many others did, if Lydia hadn’t intervened and sent her to Commander Judd in Agnes’ place. She would have been the kind of wife who pushes her husband to succeed and does everything she can to raise her own social standing, while plotting to lower that of the other wives within their circle. A queen bee and collaborator.

But she was so busy paying attention to gossip and social standing that she forgot to look for the truth of a situation. She assumed truth didn’t matter, that only what everyone decided was the truth would matter. Before her marriage, gossip and reputation were all that had mattered.

Aunt Lydia gave her some biblical justice and she learned that a man can appear to be an upstanding citizen in public while he is a monster in his home. Society will allow this injustice to continue as an open secret, as long as he keeps up the public fiction and doesn’t air his dirty laundry in public. Even then, smart men invoke the King David rule- apologize, reiterate that they are still the most chosen of God’s chosen ones, and refuse to step down.

Shunammite’s name comes from an unnamed woman in the Old Testament book 2nd Kings. She is referred to only by her place of origin, Shunem, making her the Shunammite woman. The Shunammite woman has interactions with the prophet Elisha in chapters 4 and 8 which suggest she is wealthy, intelligent and confident. She offers aid and respect to the prophet, but doesn’t always automatically bow to his supposedly superior wisdom. When her child dies, she takes him to Elisha, who brings him back to life. Later, she has left Israel during a famine and returns to ask the King to give her back her lands. She arrives just as a servant is telling the King her story. The King, impressed with the miracle, restores to her what was formerly hers.

Elisha and the woman butt heads each time they meet. She is forced to bow to his greater authority, but she also reveals the limits of his authority and has her own brand of authority.

Shunammite isn’t dead at the end of the book. I think Lydia wanted her alive and able to testify against Judd. Perhaps if there’s a third book, she’ll be one of the narrators. Her name implies that she’ll flee Gilead, but return once the war is over and demand that Judd’s possessions be returned to her. Maybe she’ll turn out to be pregnant and return with Judd’s child.

Within the book, she keeps herself separate from the other women, never forming true friendships, instead moving from person to person according to their current social status. She’s thrilled when Agnes gives up the chance to marry a high ranking man like Judd, because it means she gets the chance. It never occurs to her that Agnes might have had good reasons for want out of the marriage.

She assumes that because she’s better at playing the game, she’ll be able to manage her husband, unlike all of the wives who came before her. What surprises me is that she never found a way to poison Judd, but maybe it’s because she never found a replacement husband of the same stature. As the stories the girls share show, poisons are readily available in every household.

We learned in The Testaments that the children of handmaids carry a certain stigma as they grow older, but the need for handmaids within Gilead hasn’t lessened. The life of the handmaids themselves hasn’t improved any, at least from the school girls’ point of view.

The handmaids are quiet and keep to themselves, living short, lonely lives. They may still be forming their own networks for support and engaging in acts of rebellion. That’s not the kind of gossip that would be shared with a child or activity one would be party to, since handmaids don’t generally socialize with school children.

The Marthas, on the other hand, seem to form all sorts of alliances, with each other, their mistresses, children, shopkeepers, delivery men, you name it. They are gossipy chatterboxes who guard their territory and the accepted social norms well. They also keep secrets when necessary, probably continue to run MayDay and hold more power than anyone but Lydia realizes. Like the Aunts, they are in the perfect position to collect information. Lydia probably had a bribery network going to keep the information flowing from every Commander’s household. That’s the only way I can figure that she got some of her information.

She has spies everywhere.


Image courtesy of Penguin Random House and Margaret Atwood.

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