The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, much anticipated (possibly demanded) by fans of the TV series based on Ms. Atwood’s book. By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale we know that there is a resistance movement. It is modeled on the real and desperate escape route for American slaves, the Underground Railroad. This time it is called the “Female Road” and the magic rescue word offered to handmaid’s, who are virtually sex slaves, is May Day. Offred escapes Gilead through this underground route. But what happens after she escapes? Does she die? Does she find a safe place and live out her days in peace? Does she join the resistance?
Margaret Atwood is able to use her words to build scenes from both the past and the future that are vivid and that come to life in our minds. She builds the entire nation of Gilead. She does it like one of those artists who can capture the essence of a person or a place with just a few deft strokes. We find we don’t need every little detail. Because her new nation is similar to things we already know our mind fills in the blanks. The same skill is at work as we follow the resistance movement inside and outside of Gilead, and as a very surprising character engineers the demise of Gilead.
Gilead has besides the handmaids; the Commanders, their wives, the Marthas, the Econowives, the Aunts, the Guardians, and the Eyes. The Aunts are modelled somewhat on nuns. They live regimented lives, ruled by prayers and bells, they are the teachers of handmaids and of the daughters of Commanders, they are the only women in Gilead allowed to keep books and to read and write. Big mistake. In this male-dominated world men believe that women are now powerless, completely reliant on men, and that even the powers of previously educated, professional women such as doctors, lawyers, and judges have been completely defused. In The Testaments we find Commander Judd and Aunt Lydia basically in a respectful/hostile power struggle. Aunt Lydia was a force in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in The Testaments we learn about her secret powers (no magic is involved, just intellect). We learn that what Commander Judd cannot imagine will eventually bring him down.
We also meet a young teen who is living with a couple of resistance fighters who she almost believes are her real parents. We meet the Pearl Girls, missionaries from Gilead who are also unwitting partners in the resistance. When Gilead uncovers “Nicole’s” parents and blows them up Nicole (Baby Nicole was stolen from Gilead) is hurriedly trained to infiltrate Gilead as a captive of the Pearl Girls. Watching her reactions as she is introduced to this repressed culture and watching the reactions of the others to her is part of that charming skill that Margaret Atwood brings to her writing. Atwood successfully, but not exhaustively, wraps up the tale of the handmaids and offers us a new hero, a woman, of course.
As it had been many years since I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I wanted to read it again before I read her new sequel, The Testaments. The Handmaid’s Tale was written in times when women’s reproductive rights were a hot topic, although not at the height of the women’s consciousness movement. The birth control pill was greeted by women with relief and sighs for the freedom it gave women to avoid unwanted pregnancies. It also seemed to offer women the same sexual freedom that men exercised, although that freedom proved to be somewhat more illusory than women thought for a number of reasons, some having to do with the fact that we still live in a male-dominated society, some having to do with sexually transmitted diseases, and some having to do with social disapproval and the need to maintain a “good” reputation. The pill was greeted very differently by the church, especially the Catholic Church and the Pope. In 1973 the Supreme Court allowed for legal abortions in the United States in the now famous/infamous Roe v Wade decision and the reactions of women and the church were pretty much a repeat of the reactions to the birth control pill. I know – all this history – what a way to make a really good story really boring. The actual history is important, however, to any deep understanding of this very original tale. These women’s rights were always controversial although The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, when these new rights for women were less startling.
I like science fiction and The Handmaid’s Tale is, in a way science fiction and it is certainly dystopian. It predicts a time in near-future America when men of religious faith decide that the new freedoms for women are not what God intended. Women are not meant to be equal to men. They are meant to be wives and mothers and submissive to their husbands. These men stage a revolution against the United States of America. They manage to kill the president, scatter Congress and nullify the US Constitution. They win enough territory in the middle of America and most southern states, except Maine, California, Florida and Texas, to form a new nation, the nation of Gilead.
Offred is a handmaid in the new nation of Gilead. She used to be a free American woman who was having an affair with Luke, a married man, who later divorced his first wife and married her (I tried to find her original name but did not find it). They had two children. Venereal disease and a viral weapon against mumps had rendered many men sterile and women often had problems conceiving or delivering healthy offspring. Population was declining. Women who had borne healthy babies were very desirable to the new nation of Gilead. They would suspend women’s ID cards and credit cards and make them unemployable and then they would kidnap them and reeducate them to be Handmaids in Gilead. It is not easy to turn a woman who has experienced freedom into what is basically a sex slave in a distinctive red habit hemmed in by about a million rules and almost as many Eyes (spies). Offred is not a happy camper.
Of course you may have watched the TV series which I have not seen yet, but you really ought to read the book. It’s a classic. Choosing a name that would have fit right into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was not an accident. Here we are, almost 50 years after the Supreme Court made it legal to have an abortion, woman’s choice, and we still find concerted efforts, trickier but less militant, to overturn women’s rights to make important decisions about their own reproduction. We find many states passing laws that force clinics to comply with regulations that large hospitals can barely afford to comply with and when the clinics cannot meet the new requirements the clinics must close (TRAP laws), We find Evangelical churches that argue that even contraception is against God’s law. Federal courts are being stuffed with Conservative judges using as bait the overturning of Roe v Wade, and now marriage freedom. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has never been more relevant.
“Brush up on your Shakespeare”. Hogarth Press has commissioned modern authors to write novels based on Shakespeare’s plays. Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood is the famous Canadian author’s offering in this series. Her novel is based on The Tempest, a Shakespeare play that I have never read. I have no real excuse except that I just never got around to it. Now I’m glad that I didn’t. I think Atwood’s book would provide schools with a great precursor to this rather complicated play, although it is probably just as helpful if read after-the-fact. Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director at the Makeshiweg Festival and he gives new scope to Shakespeare by staging productions that are quite edgy and sometimes a bit over-the-edge. He has an assistant who he has perhaps given too much responsibility for all the nuts and bolts jobs that keep theater festivals afloat. Just as Felix is getting his new cloak (pieced together from stuffed animals) ready so that he can become Prospero, Tony breaks the news that Felix’s contract is not being renewed.
As it turns out the contract now belongs to Tony. Felix has lost so much. He lost his wife of one year when she died in childbirth, then he lost his daughter, Miranda (strange coincidence, Miranda is the main female character in The Tempest) to meningitis when she was three. This second huge loss happened very recently. Now he has lost the career he loves. He is old. He married late. He is fifty and is not likely to find another meaty job in theater especially after being let go. He is mourning and he is angry. He wants revenge and he is willing to wait until his main chance arrives to get it.
He goes to ground in a very bare sort of cottage built into the side of a hill with only an iron stove for heat and no indoor plumbing, but an outhouse. He spends nine years in self-imposed exile with only the ghost of his daughter to keep him company. He uses an alias. He is now known as Mr. Duke. In his new persona he takes a job as a teacher of literature at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where he teaches, you guessed it, Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, he works with minimum security prisoners and he has them act out the plays, records the productions, and then plays them for the entire prison population on closed-circuit television. His course is in great demand.
Finally he gets to put on the play he never got to direct. He gets to put on The Tempest and if you never understood this play you will by the time the inmates and Mr. Duke are done with you. This is a very enjoyable way to learn about or refresh your memory about a Shakespeare play that has a rather complicated plot and lots of deep things to say about humans and the human condition. And it is the perfect vehicle for Felix’s revenge, as if the universe delivered this moment to him because he deserved it. The parallels make the novel fun for those who enjoy symbolism, metaphor, etc.
Hogarth, as I said, has given very famous authors each a play that mates well with the kind of fiction they write. If you go to Google and type Hogarth Shakespeare Series in the search window it will take you to a list of who has been assigned to which play. Some of the books in the series have been written and some are not out yet. Great idea. I hope to eventually read them all. Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood was an excellent place to start.