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The Testaments is a modern masterpiece, a powerful novel that can be read on its own or as a companion to Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.
More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.
Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third: Aunt Lydia. Her complex past and uncertain future unfold in surprising and pivotal ways.
With The Testaments, Margaret Atwood opens up the innermost workings of Gilead, as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.
About the Author
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in more than forty-five countries, is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam; and Hag-Seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award. In 2019, she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature.
Date of Birth:November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:Ottawa, Ontario
Education:B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
Read an Excerpt
1 | The Ardua Hall Holograph
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
This statue was a small token of appreciation for my many contributions, said the citation, which was read out by Aunt Vidala. She’d been assigned the task by our superiors, and was far from appreciative. I thanked her with as much modesty as I could summon, then pulled the rope that released the cloth drape shrouding me; it billowed to the ground, and there I stood. We don’t do cheering here at Ardua Hall, but there was some discreet clapping. I inclined my head in a nod.
My statue is larger than life, as statues tend to be, and shows me as younger, slimmer, and in better shape than I’ve been for some time. I am standing straight, shoulders back, my lips curved into a firm but benevolent smile. My eyes are fixed on some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty, my determination to move forward despite all obstacles. Not that anything in the sky would be visible to my statue, placed as it is in a morose cluster of trees and shrubs beside the footpath running in front of Ardua Hall. We Aunts must not be too presumptuous, even in stone.
Clutching my left hand is a girl of seven or eight, gazing up at me with trusting eyes. My right hand rests on the head of a woman crouched at my side, her hair veiled, her eyes upturned in an expression that could be read as either craven or grateful—one of our Handmaids—and behind me is one of my Pearl Girls, ready to set out on her missionary work. Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser. This weapon reminds me of my failings: had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough.
As a group of statuary it’s not a great success: too crowded. I would have preferred more emphasis on myself. But at least I look sane. It could well have been otherwise, as the elderly sculptress—a true believer since deceased—had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of their pious fervour. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.
At the unveiling the sculptress was nervous. Was her renditionof me sufficiently flattering? Did I approve of it? Would I be seen toapprove? I toyed with the idea of frowning as the sheet came off, butthought better of it: I am not without compassion. “Very lifelike,” Isaid.
That was nine years ago. Since then my statue has weathered:pigeons have decorated me, moss has sprouted in my damper crevices.Votaries have taken to leaving offerings at my feet: eggs forfertility, oranges to suggest the fullness of pregnancy, croissants toreference the moon. I ignore the breadstuffs—usuallythey havebeen rained on—butpocket the oranges. Oranges are so refreshing.
* * *
I write these words in my private sanctum within the library of Ardua Hall—one of the few libraries remaining after the enthusiastic book-burnings that have been going on across our land. The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.
But among these bloody fingerprints are those made by ourselves, and these can’t be wiped away so easily. Over the years I’ve buried a lot of bones; now I’m inclined to dig them up again—if only for your edification, my unknown reader. If you are reading, this manuscript at least will have survived. Though perhaps I’m fantasizing: perhaps I will never have a reader. Perhaps I’ll only be talking to the wall, in more ways than one.
That’s enough inscribing for today. My hand hurts, my back aches, and my nightly cup of hot milk awaits me. I’ll stash this screed in its hiding place, avoiding the surveillance cameras—I know where they are, having placed them myself. Despite such precautions, I’m aware of the risk I’m running: writing can be dangerous. What betrayals, and then what denunciations, might lie in store for me? There are several within Ardua Hall who would love to get their hands on these pages.
Wait, I counsel them silently: it will get worse.
Reading Group Guide
The following questions are designed to enhance your discussion of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
1. Clothes play a dual role in the novel. They signal life stages as well as status and class: the pink, white, and plum dresses worn by “special girls”; the drab prison-like stripes of the Econofamilies; and the green dresses of the betrothed girls. Did this aspect of the novel strike you as odd? Or is it actually not very different from our own obsession with brands and logos that convey a certain level of wealth and status?
2. Aunt Lydia tells us that Gilead actually has “an embarrassingly high emigration rate.” Can those who manage to leave Gilead ever truly “escape”?
3. Daisy/Jade is, to say the least, a reluctant revolutionary. But if you were her age and were asked to absorb all of the shocking information she has to process in a very short period of time, would you have reacted any differently?
4. After Agnes is assaulted, she recalls other girls who reported such incidents having been told that “nice girls did not notice the minor antics of men, they simply looked the other way,” which is a troubling parallel between Gilead and reality. Do you think there will ever come a time when women will feel unashamed to speak out when they are sexually assaulted? Or has this time already arrived in the age of #MeToo?
5. When Aunt Lydia dons the garb of the female stadium shooters, she says, “I felt a chill. I put it on. What else should I have done?” What would you have done?
6. Agnes’s interpretation of “Dick and Jane” showcases Margaret Atwood’s trademark wit, but there is more to it than that. Discuss the ways in which the author cleverly builds the sense of suspicion and fear that informs the way Agnes processes the events in her life at Ardua Hall.
7. Several references are made to shortages of basic necessities such as food and electricity. Birth defects and juvenile cancer also seem to plague Gilead. What do you think has caused this? Possibly environmental issues? Or the ongoing war?
8. Agnes considers her admittance to Hildegard Library to be a “golden key” that will reveal “the riches that lay within.” But it is here that she learns the truth about the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces, as well as the truth about her half-sister. Is there any book that provided you with a similar pivotal and eye-opening experience?
9. When Aunt Lydia relays the Aesop’s Fables story of Fox and Cat, she reveals much about her survival skills. Which are you—Fox or Cat?
10. Did the book inspire you to take action so that Gilead remains fiction? Did you perhaps become more active in local politics or make a charitable donation to an organization that supports women’s rights?
11. The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale left readers with many tantalizing questions. Which of your questions were answered by The Testaments? Which were not?