This week Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited novel, “The Testaments”, arrives in print. A continuation of her 1985 speculative fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
The new book takes place fifteen years after and serves as a conclusion to this story. The Handmaid’s Tale struck a nerve with millions of readers.
Ms. Atwood has published several novels, children’s books, and poetry. The narrative poses a reality that has happened in other social orders around this world.
This discussion is only my opinion; interested in the political science of this story; it can happen here.
The title is meant to evoke Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. The total invisibility of women from the medieval record allowed us to reach this dangerous time.
A strong affirmation that men willingly blind themselves from the idea of women as human. Although America did not exist in Chaucer’s day, nobody even imagined a place like our USA.
In this tale women are solely vessels for reproduction. Nothing more. The terms used are fruitful or barren. A return to simpler days. Deceptively simple. A literal interpretation of The Bible.
The United States government is violently overthrown by a sect calling themselves the “Sons Of Jacob”. A new order based upon the books of Genesis in the Old Testament is imposed.
The University was a place of learning. Now the campus is confinement. The former Library is now the Headquarters of “The Eyes”—a secret police force. The dorms are still housing.
Strict caste groupings place women as servants to man. They are no longer able to vote, hold position, read nor write, and must procreate. Accept for brothels, drinking and smoking are off limits too.
The new Republic of Gilead is inspired by American Puritanism of the 19th century. Divorce has been outlawed. All women are considered adulteresses whom now must repent with their assigned “Commanders”.
All men no matter their rank wear some type of paramilitary uniform. They must serve in wars to expand Gilead as well as defend her from all enemies.
The women are Handmaids who take the names of their men. The central narrative follows Offred, “Of fred”, a pun on the word offered.
Their uniform is a red gown with white habit that restricts their peripheral view. They wear black boots and carry baskets.
Women can only travel in pairs. They are expected to police each other. Speaking of anything but the proscribed edicts may result in exile to the ‘colonies’ or death.
The outside colonies are toxic due to environmental disaster. Once in exile the life expectancy is three years.
The Aunts are akin to a religious order. They do not marry. Their position is considered a calling. They have limited reading privileges—the rules of Gilead; Handmaid etiquette.
The sequel novel pivots from the Handmaids to the Aunts’ power. We see Gilead from the outside.
The “Aunts” wear brown uniforms. They train the handmaids. Instilling in their charges how they can redeem their sinful ways. If a Handmaid breaks a rule an Aunt may beat them.
The new society is walled in by brick and barbed wire. Every Handmaid lives in utalitarian quarters. The image of the all seeing eye is inscribed in the ceiling of every room.
The “Eyes” are the secret police. Anyone who breaks the fundamental codes of Gilead are punished. The “Salvaging” is a communal ritual that features mass executions of law breakers.
Handmaid’s main function is to bear children for their Commander’s infertile “Wives”.
The “Marthas” are old infertile women of lower rank. They are domestic servants and wear green.
“Econowives” are non-elite maidens expected to be companions, child bearers and domestic servants. They wear all three colors to represent this status: green, blue, and red.
If women cannot bear children, are gay, dissident, nuns, and anything else deemed unworthy of the power structure of Gilead they are cast away into the polluted colonies. Forever known as “Unwomen”. Any child born unhealthy is an unbaby.
The chosen few, especially Wives of Commanders, can become “Jezebels” in the government sanctioned brothels.
Men who are not commanders are “Angels”, mostly young and old; mentally disabled. When they come of age they can become “Soldiers” to fight and die in battle.
The Jewish people are permitted to leave. Many board ships bound for Israel. Although the Mayday resistance reports many are thrown overboard.
People of color are sent away to their ‘homelands’.
In this new order everyone is a victim. Men die if they are unable to perform their roles, despite being in positions of power. The novel’s main focus, however, is on the loss of power women inherit.
Before the coup, women had been gaining power. This is no longer the case. The modern city state has been dissolved. Men describe the women as having a ‘witch odor’. Misogyny has enabled this fall.
Offred slowly becomes a dissident in the making. Serena Joy, a former television Evangelist cannot have children. She offers her driver, Nick, to Offred.
Her former husband is Luke, whereabouts unknown. Her best friend from college, Moira, is a lesbian who winds up serving in a brothel.
I felt like an outsider since the novel uses unreliable narrators to tell its tale. This reinforced for me how impenetrable Gilead was to those on the outside.
Walls are not just built to keep others out; it’s to keep its subjects in as defacto prisoners of a new order.
Oppressive regimes are real. All over the world we see the rise of Authoritarian leaders. The current U.S. is in the grips of a grinding crisis in its politics.
Speculating on the methods in which power preserves itself the book illustrates what can happen to those who deviate from their expected roles.
Offred on one of her walks with her required company sees bodies hanging from hooks on the wall. An example. You may not run.
The resistance is known as Mayday. Offred cannot be sure who is on the right side. Will she be found out? Scholars have placed this book next to Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ for its depiction of a dystopian social order.
The ‘Eyes’ certainly evoke Big Brother and the castes are similar to “Brave New World’s” vision. However, this is a woman’s unique point of view. I think centuries of ignorance has allowed us to lose a much needed female perspective.
The book concentrates on how this society operates. There are public gatherings. “The Ceremony” is a ritual in which Handmaidens and Wives copulate with their Commanders.
The two non-human female bodies act as one to redeem their Commander. This is one of the passages in the book that many groups in the U.S. object to reading.
For myself, this is a much warranted idea. Expressed in graphic terms, this ritual provides a terrible window into this awful new world. A caution to us all.
On her journey we see the allowance of shopping. Offred is taken to the Brothel. Dressed in clothes thought to have been burned.
The clothes of ‘showbiz’ with feathers and sparkle. Some of the women are dressed in the iconic Playboy Bunny uniform.
This objectification of the female form is now a function of government. A relief from her new reality only because vice is permitted. She knows only that escape must be possible; she hordes hope.
At the later portion of the story, Offred has been able to communicate furthur with resistance figures. Following this we get a glimpse into the systemic penalties inflicted upon men who fail to meet the new edicts of Gilead.
The ritual called ‘Particicution’ takes place inside of a yard at recess. The Handmaids are like school kids, waiting for the Aunt’s whistle.
The accused is a former Commander who has raped his maid. At the blow of the whistle the women are expected to tear him limb from limb. Offred does her part. Reluctant, she knows to not take part would lead to punishment.
T0 act or not to act; To Be or Not To Be. This becomes Offred’s existential dilemma. At the end of the story we do not know her future. It is left up to the reader.
The questions raised by this book I think are great political science topics. Groups that attempt to censor are missing the point.
We need ideas to be presented in the public square. If not the public square may disappear. And then we may find ourselves all living as victims inside the walls of our own Gilead.
- “The Handmaid’s Tale”, originally published in 1985.
- “The Testaments”, published September 10, 2019.
- Author of both novels, Margaret Atwood.
- A graphic novel treatment, adapted by Renee Nault, is also available.
In 2016, streaming service Hulu premiered a serial based upon the now classic novel. Starring Elisabeth Moss as June Osbourne (L); Samira Wiley as Moira Strand (Middle). (R) A scene from the series.
June 2019 the third season appeared on Hulu.
In July 2019, the television series was renewed for a fourth season.
In September 2019, it was announced that Hulu and MGM were developing a sequel series, to be based on Atwood’s 2019 novel The Testaments.