the aunt lydias of our generation | 2019.12.15

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood | Review

Atwood, Margaret_The Testaments

Original Publication: New York : Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, [2019]

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 419

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

Support Your Authors: Book for Purchase | Support Your Local Library: MCL

In this book, Atwood does not hold back her descriptions of child abuse, both psychological and sexual. Some of the scenes may be hard to stomach for real world survivors. Yet I was struck by Atwood’s bravery in portraying this nightmarish aspect of our culture with such raw honesty. As dismal as some of these depictions are in the novel, I don’t think Atwood was writing for the shock value. The agenda she is dealing with seems to go much deeper.

If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you might anticipate the abusive behavior in The Testaments, as well as the religious atmosphere that Atwood has set up in these books as the systemic stage on which these horrific abuses are allowed to rampage.

To fully understand this precarious stage within the speculative universe Atwood has created, we need to remember that in The Handmaid’s Tale society longs for a promise that will fix a specific societal “problem” (under-population due to a drastic drop in the rate of conception). Solving this problem is the primary objective of Gilead’s speculative religion-driven government.

Again, governments such as this should not be that shocking to our modern reader, especially if that same reader is familiar not only with current events but also with how a manifest-destiny-driven culture has over the last couple hundred years redefined the foundational goals of the United States of America. Ideas like being a nation blessed by an elusive god have proven again and again to lead to a forced “us versus them” perspective. Not to leap to conclusions, but history has unequivocally shown that wars are started by this type of thinking, abuse is left under the carpet of saving face, and the oppressed are told to be grateful in the midst of their suppression. Ultimately, these aspects of our cultural tendencies should scare us.

With all this set in the reader’s mind, Atwood presents her readers with an additionally challenging plot twist in The Testaments. Just as history is often written by the victors, it becomes easy to despise those same victors of the distant or near past, no matter what side we are on in the present, no matter where we likely would have stood if we’d been present at the time of the true story we can only speculate about while reading the history books. This usually happens because people are often quick to become disgusted at the sheer force that is needed to take power and proclaim control. The hatred we might feel for those we see as the oppressors can be all-consuming, especially if we originally thought these same oppressors should have been on our irrefutable side all along.

The example I’m thinking of from The Testaments is seen in the Aunt Lydia character. Through this character, Atwood paints a startling picture of the women within our society who have, unwittingly or not, obstructed justice for the more outspoken, the more ready-to-rage women of our expanding feminist culture. In The Testaments, Atwood makes the hard-to-swallow point that sometimes people like Aunt Lydia, those we long to categorize as advocates for justice merely by gender associations or other similarities of experience, commit their sins against humanity while in the throes of self-preservation.

Is this an excuse? I’m struggling here too. In the end (spoiler ahead), Aunt Lydia’s character tries to right her past wrongs by helping the book’s other female characters to escape the oppressions of Gilead. Whether Aunt Lydia is vindicated by her more altruistic efforts, and whether the audience can finally see her as an individual with relatable fears and goals, is left up to the individual reader.

This, then, begs a more pressing question: “Who or what are we really fighting against?” Are we fighting against literally anyone we perceive is adding to the oppression we want to demolish? Or are we fighting against the systemic injustice that started all this devastation in the first place? And do we have the bravery to see the difference?

Atwood’s newest novel should give us pause in its portrait of the Aunt Lydias of our society. Extinguishing the people in power may still leave us with the underlying poison of oppression and other abusive behaviors. History has proven that oppression, alongside the abuse that oppressive manipulation ever-so-subtly passes into the realm of “normal” for each new generation, is always ready to spring back to life unless we can not only root out its systemic cause. We must also replace the habit of oppression, manipulation, and abuse with something better, something healthier, something more noble than being “right” or being in ultimate control.

Through a broader view such as this, we might finally be able to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. Perhaps we’ll finally grow ears brave enough to truly listen. Perhaps we’ll have a chance at stopping the abuses and manipulations that have so violently permeated our history, and that have pulled our next generations either toward abject silence or rage-filled retaliation.