Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date Read: October 5, 2019
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in a scholarly essay a powerful metaphor for books:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.
This metaphor speaks to me so deeply. I often ask my students about the books that they have read and when they have found windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors. These can be fascinating and illuminating conversations.
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was seventeen years old. It was a terrifying plot that offered no hope to a young teen about to head off to university the following fall. I accepted that this book was only a window, even a sliding-glass door, into a world that Atwood had created– absolute fiction, not possible, especially not in my lifetime. (Read this timely essay by Atwood about the novel in the time of Trump.)
I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale last summer, and it suddenly looked much more like a mirror. The book, if you are unfamiliar, is classified as a dystopian novel set in a totalitarian regime called Gilead, and centers around a handmaid named Offred. Her name derives from the possessive form “of Fred”; handmaids are forbidden to use their birth names and must echo the male, or master, whom they serve. The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individuality and independence.
Many of the central plots of the novel are playing out simultaneously on the news. The book no longer seems fictional.
Women, and their bodies, are the objects of men in the book; likewise, in today’s political climate, rights over women’s bodies are argued over by (primarily) old, white men in government. Gilead came to be because the government instilled a fear of “others” in the masses. The same is now happening in much of the world. Aunt Lydia, the woman tasked with brainwashing the future Handmaids to perform their government-ordained duties, repeats part of a Bible verse to them over and over: “Blessed are the meek.” Offred points out that she never finishes the verse: “…for they shall inherit the earth.” Although not officially government-ordained, much of the opposition to homosexuality that exists in the world today — and especially in America— is supported by certain Bible passages. In Gilead, women are brainwashed to believe that any sexual assault they may have experienced was their own fault; a result of their dressing or acting a certain way. When female survivors of sexual assault attempt to report their attacks, now, in real life, more often than not they are questioned about what they were wearing or how much they drank.
The Testaments picks up fifteen years later in Gilead. One of the key players is Aunt Lydia– who tells the story of how she became a high ranking aunt and what she is prepared to do with that power. We also get the stories of two new young women: Agnes, who has grown up in Gilead and is preparing to be married to the Commander; and Daisy, a young woman who was smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada. It is a thrilling exploration of Gilead from within and outside of its borders, one many readers have long awaited. It is also immensely more hopeful, and in that way, it rests easier to be a mirror of our experiences. If you were left bereft as the van door slammed on Offred, pick up The Testaments and go back to Gilead with Margaret Atwood.