With eight Emmys and two Golden Globes to its name, it seems unsurprising that the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale ignited a love of Margaret Atwood’s work in the new generation, sparking the recent release of The Testaments. With the announcement that she would be releasing a follow-up to her 1983 novel, speculation sparked as to whether, and how much, the TV show would influence the book.
It must be said – and the Booker Prize seems to agree – that The Testaments is an incredible piece of literature. But as someone who read the source material, and then also watched the TV adaptation, it feels as though it was very much a product of the show.
Atwood’s executive production credit gives the plot of the sequel a bolstering, as it’s impossible to say just how much of the second and third seasons of the show were plotted with a potential book in mind. However, the character choice and development in particular seems very much the result of how the show has determined Gilead’s fate.
It is also soon apparent that these characters are not strangers, but rather characters in whom any viewer of the TV adaptation is already invested
The formatting of the novel, consisting of historical documents being reviewed after the demise of Gilead, deviates little from its predecessor. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, however, the narration is split into three ‘testaments’; the Ardua Hall Holograph, and the testimonies of witnesses 369A and B. The former is particularly confusing, bouncing around what is otherwise a linear trajectory to provide snippets of world building and supplemental context. It quickly becomes clear the testaments are anything but discrete.
It is also soon apparent that these characters are not strangers, but rather characters in whom any viewer of the TV adaptation is already invested: Aunt Lydia, the vicious matriarch of the handmaids in the show but a mere passing reference in the original book; Agnes (previously known as Hannah), Offred/June’s pre-Gileadean daughter; and Nicole, the baby fathered by Nick who was smuggled out at the end of the second season.
Would a sequel have arisen in this form had it not been for the television series? Undoubtedly not. Everything between its covers revolves around the expansion of Gilead the show provided. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It establishes the three narrators as characters in their own right instead of the extensions of June’s character they may have otherwise turned into. That said, there is a clear discrepancy between Aunt Lydia’s narrative and those of June’s daughters – so much so that I didn’t realise initially that they were two different narrators and instead assumed their narratives were a before and after of a Gileadean brainwashing.
On one hand, we have a woman who has known nothing but the warped teachings of Gilead but finds herself in an uneasy obedience, and on the other a girl standing on the outside of the glass house staring inwards in horror
It’s unsurprising that this is the case; Aunt Lydia has blossomed into a multifaceted, complex character beyond the trope of the domineering spinster (akin to Ms. Trunchbull in Matilda) as the seasons have passed. In fact, much of the rest of the novel is superfluous beyond attempting to reconcile Aunt Lydia’s apparent incompatibilities as a religious zealot in the age of Gilead and as a powerful, educated woman pre-totalitarian theocratic state. I say attempt because I would not argue that Atwood has entirely done so. This was perhaps intentionally to give room for such character development in Aunt Lydia between where we find the television series now and the events of 15 years’ time with her plotting the demise of Gilead, the rules of which she so abidingly and unwaveringly upheld.
The narratives of June’s daughters only really provide a study in contrast. On one hand, we have a woman who has known nothing but the warped teachings of Gilead but finds herself in an uneasy obedience, and on the other a girl standing on the outside of the glass house staring inwards in horror. As the novel progresses, they find an uncomfortable middle ground – Nicole accepting Agnes’ sincere belief but finding it nonetheless incomprehensible.
It’s metaphoric, almost, for the world we find ourselves in today. Although certain views are unfathomable to some, there is compulsion in those sincerely-held beliefs that must be accommodated without allowing them unrestrained, uncritical acceptance. Much like its predecessor and regardless of the extent of influence the TV adaptation had upon its creation, The Testaments can nonetheless be read as a reflection of the state of current society and will, as such remain a point of discussion for years to come.