There is never a time where Atwood’s writing is not relevant. But there could not have been a scarier time to read The Testaments after the tragic murder of Sarah Everard.
I was sceptical to read The Testaments at first, thinking it was only a marketing ploy given the release of the series and the rise in popularity of The Handmaids Tale. I also, at first read, did not appreciate the original novel, consequently discouraging me. But now that I am older and more aware of the struggles women face, both are so cleverly constructed.
The Handmaids Tale is a better-written novel. It is cleverly crafted and filled with symbolism and meta narration. But The Testaments is more accessible and impactful. Atwood spells out women’s struggles nice and clearly for anyone to recognise — because maybe we don’t have time to waste decoding her writing. Urgency is required.
The Aunt’s teachings are daunting. They use the ‘All men’ framework to build upon male superiority and power. Women have been programmed by these superior males to argue “The better kind have superior characters. Some of them have decent self-restraint”.
Not only does this prevent confusion among young girls about which men to trust and feeling guilty for blaming the whole gender, but it also dehumanises other men. It allows for the exploitation of those regarded as inferior. Equality is further removed. The issue is not that men are built in a different way than some, the issue is the way they have been educated in society. And it is, therefore ‘All men’ because they must teach one another about the way women should be treated. If they fail to do that, they have perpetuated the violence.
The Testaments explores these ideas more clearly than it’s predecessor. Maybe Atwood has had a chance to digest and understand the issues women face. Or maybe the feminism in the first novel has changed in the second. From the second to the fourth wave.
Atwood has stated time and time again that with these novels, and the series, nothing is placed into the writing that does not already exist to some degree in reality. That’s why when reading this novel it’s like a blow in the face. Everything a woman experiences within society is carefully and tactfully displayed in front of you.
Atwood also explores the blame that women face. That women tempt men — using allegories from the Garden of Eden to support them. And women are conditioned to believe this too. “The world was infested with men who were certain to be tempted by girls who’d strayed out of bounds: such girls would be viewed as loose in morals. I might not get much farther than the next block before getting ripped to shreds, polluted, and reduced to a pile of wilting green petals”.
There is a lot to unpack here. Again all of it true. The term “infested” is significant because it shows that the way men act is like a disease. It is not their natural state. They have been poisoned by wrongful ideology about women and their position in the world. It is something that can be cured. Something that can be overcome if treated correctly. The vaccine is there, we are just waiting for people to take it.
Likewise, the talk about girls morals is important. Women are taught to act differently from men. There are different set of ethical morals laid out for them during their upbringing. Don’t sit with your legs apart. Wear a bra. And the list goes on. These morals aren’t natural, they’re restrictive. And created by men who influence women to impress them upon children.
So if a woman decides to be bold. To take risks like going outside at night. Violence is the outcome. Whether that be murder or sexual assault. The woman dies for doing something outside the norm, or she suffers mentally for the rest of her life. She becomes polluted. With the male’s body and with degrading ideas about herself. So she wilts. She cannot blossom into the beautiful flower she wants to be. She is reduced to what a man thinks of her and cannot escape that single evening.
Atwood ends both novels with “Are there any questions?”. This is a call for us to question society. Question what we have been taught. If you are a male, question whether you are doing everything you can to help make society better for women. And if you are female, question whether what you are doing is because of imposing male ideology. Questioning the structure is the only way forward.
The Testaments is an ever-relevant book that will persist as a dystopia until society cured. Although sometimes clumsy in dialogue and the presentation of young characters, the narrative is wonderfully connected. It may not be Atwood’s best novel, but it is her most recent and consequently most important.