When my mother was a child growing up in central California, she would lie in the middle of the street and watch the stars come out. As evening settled in, the horizon over my grandparents’ ranch would darken from yellow to tangerine to fuchsia, and each pinprick of light would slowly appear in the night sky while the residual heat of the asphalt blended the aromas of tar, anise, oak, and earth in the dry summer air. “It was such a sweet, simple time,” she would tell me.
It’s something I hear more and more in conversation with people from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation—the lament for the comfort and security of close-knit communities that is rapidly disappearing from the American consciousness. In one sense, my mother is right—it was a sweet, simple time. She could lie on the middle of the street and not worry about getting run over by a car because she knew there wouldn’t be anyone on the road. She could spend eight to ten hours roaming all over the town and my grandmother would never wonder if she’d been kidnapped or killed, because everyone from the pharmacist to the gas station attendant would look out for her. From the time she was born, she was enveloped in the safety and security of being the daughter one of the town’s most prominent families. As the daughter of a respected family—not the town drunk or divorceé—she inherited a prestige and position that all but guaranteed a level of consideration that less-well-known families didn’t enjoy. Had she been their daughter, her sense of nostalgia might not be quite so pronounced.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Margaret Atwood said that, “When you change the structure of a culture—as happened in the 1960s with second-wave feminism—some people get nostalgic for the 1950s (or the 1850s) and want to go back there. If you change things, there’s going to be a push to change them back.” Whenever structural changes are implemented, whoever is at the top of that structure necessarily suffers a loss of some kind. If the change is sufficiently drastic, those who feel disenfranchised will almost certainly respond by attempting to implement drastic changes of their own. What if the Moral Majority of the 1980s had actually succeeded in legislating all the social reforms they proposed during the Reagan administration? What would happen if the theonomists had their way? The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s answer to that question—The Testaments is her account of how it would fail.
The story takes place some fifteen or sixteen years after The Handmaid’s Tale, with the Ardua Hall Holograph (Aunt Lydia, one of the co-founders of Gilead’s unofficial female leadership) describing her involvement with a Canadian non-profit organization to expose the political and moral corruption that has riven Gilead since its inception, and the testimony of Witness 396A (Agnes Jemima), the adopted daughter of a high-ranking Commander describing her life under the regime and subsequent induction into the Aunts. Interspersed with these accounts is the testimony of Witness 396B (Daisy), a young woman raised in Toronto, who joins Aunt Lydia and Agnes Jemima in Gilead and works with them to bring down the government.
The premise is compelling (if somewhat unoriginal): the newly-established puritan theocracy of Gilead has failed to keep its own laws and is in decline. As we see in the Chronicles and 1 and 2 Kings, a society based on God’s law does not create a godly society—Gilead has outlawed abortion, but has also reduced women to vessels for childbirth, stripping them of any independence and education that doesn’t relate to their work as wives and mothers. There is no no-fault divorce, but there is uxoricide when a husband no longer wants to be married to his wife. Biblical sexual mores are honored and upheld, but sexual abuse is rampant. Gilead will make no covenant with the nations (Ex. 23:32), but somehow, rare commodities like citrus and coffee end up making their way into the homes of the wealthy and powerful.
Atwood does an incisive job of illustrating the corrosive nature of religious perversion, and the short chapters create a rapid pace and engagement that leave the reader anxious to know what happens, but the characters themselves are distant and unsympathetic. Agnes Jemima is uninteresting, showing forth only occasional flashes of intelligence and ingenuity; Aunt Lydia is calculating and manipulative; Daisy is vulgar and coarse, all of which resulted in irritation on my part, as I was invested in these women and wanted to like them. However, on further reflection, this may be unfair. Atwood has (very truly) said that human beings are mixed bags; no one is angelically pure, and no one is utterly unredeemable. If Agnes Jemima is uninteresting, it’s because she was never encouraged to develop her abilities as a rational, creative woman. Aunt Lydia is calculating and manipulative because she’s the consummate survivor—she was astute enough to see that if she wanted to stay alive, she had to walk a fine line between making herself sufficiently invaluable to the Commanders that they couldn’t govern Gilead without her, but not so capable that they viewed her as a threat. Daisy may be vulgar and coarse, but she was raised by people who abhorred Gilead and the “holy living” they exemplified. Those who claim to be on the right side of history do not hold the monopoly on virtue, and perpetrators of oppression and injustice often have legitimate concerns that propel their deplorable actions. It’s this tension that Atwood is pressing in on and unpacking—when we weep for days gone by, what exactly are we mourning? The inescapable transience of life in a fallen world, or the loss of our own power and influence? When we work for change and revolution, what are we working for? The good of the city and the glory of the gospel, or the downfall of the tyrant and our succession to his seat?
In one insightful scene, Atwood describes the moment when Agnes Jemima reads the Bible for the first time:
“Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what has been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. [….] I told Becka some of what was taking place within me.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘That happened to me. Everyone at the top of Gilead has lied to us.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘God isn’t what they say,’ she said. She said you could believe in Gilead or you could believe in God, but not both.”
It is a testament to Atwood’s discernment and wisdom that she perceives this central principle of true worship: when religion is appropriated for political purposes, idols are born. History has shown us that godly law and political policy are rarely a match made in heaven. The prophetic books of Scripture are literally one big lawsuit brought forth by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, et. al. charging Israel (who received the law directly from the Lord at Sinai) with failing to obey the law. This doesn’t mean that the two cannot (or should not) work together, but it does mean that their relationship should be clearly defined and delineated. There is a moral law that can and should inform our policies, but when we try to legislate genuine piety and righteousness, we have forgotten where the scope of the gospel begins and that of just policy ends. Yearning for the good old days is natural and understandable—there is much that was (and is) beautiful and good in the past, and the change of ideas and social mores is a profound, unavoidable reminder that neither we nor anything we love on this earth will remain forever. The Testaments reminds us that the danger is not in remembering the way we were, it’s in not remembering who we are.
Brooke Ventura is a writer living in Ontario with her husband and two children.