Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Thoughts on Atwood's The Testaments

One of the books I've read so far this new decade is Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments.

It was interesting to revisit this universe, and its characters, 10 years after I initially read The Handmaid's Tale (and wrote about it here, at this very web-log), and I understand (or think I do) why Atwood herself would want to publish a sequel in this particular political moment, 34 years after she published the original.

[Note: this discussion contains plot spoilers]

The events in the sequel occur 15 or so years after the events in the original and lead up to the fall of Gilead. Two of the main characters are the two daughters of June (aka, "Offred"), one of whom was raised in Canada and one of whom, Agnes, was raised in Gilead. Another main character, whose account we read in the first person, is Aunt Lydia, a villain character in the original, which I'll discuss shortly.

My first thought about the sequel pertains to Agnes. With her, and her young female peers in Gilead, we saw how it took just one generation for previous cultural knowledge and female empowerment to be virtually eliminated. Consistent with fundamentalist Christian doctrine in Gilead, young girls were not taught to read, were taught to be subservient, and were taught that their prime duty in life was to become wives and mothers.

Cut off from wider knowledge and other cultures, that was their normal. They had no other ways of living to compare their own to.

To me that speaks to the reality, as I've said before, that liberation is something that every generation will have to contend with and fight for. We can help light the way, just as others before us have done for us, but it really is a constant struggle. Progress can absolutely be wiped out and reversed.

My second thought is about Aunt Lydia. In The Handmaid's Tale, we saw that the role of the Aunts was instrumental in maintaining order among, and indoctrinating, young girls and women into their proper roles in Gilead. I saw the Aunts, upon my first reading of the original, as unambiguous villains. They were, to me, obvious conservative gender traitors who were politically aligned with the male supremacists running the show.

In The Testaments, Atwood provides flashbacks into the Gilead "revolution" from the perspective of Aunt Lydia. In short, before the revolution, she had been a family law judge, and afterwards, was broken down through violence, imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, and threats of death. Her options were to either become an Aunt in this new society, or to be killed. So, she cast her lot with the oppressors.

Yet, in a twist, we learn that Aunt Lydia is instrumental in the plot to take down Gilead. When recounting her conversion to Aunt, and the objective detachment she felt when she was being beaten by the Gileadeans, she writes:
"This kicking and tasing procedure was repeated two more times. Three is a magic number. Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don't care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it."
Aunt Lydia did terrible things to women and girls as an Aunt, after the Gilead revolution. She was also playing a long game, born from her lived experience of her own oppression.

A truly putrid thing about patriarchal rape culture is how it stains everyone who lives in it by virtue of it, simply, being our all-pervasive environment. Aunt Lydia's is an extreme example, sure, but many of the choices we make in such a society are bad ones because, for any given problem, all of the choices we have available to us are bad ones.

The other lesson with respect to Aunt Lydia is that forcing people to "bend the knee" for one's political revolution is rarely a viable political strategy for the long-term, given that it mostly leads to a long-festering rage that will ultimately lead to vengeance.

Lastly, and on a more minor note, whenever I read Atwood, I remember how much I appreciate her sardonic wit, even in the smaller details of the worlds she builds. For instance, Gilead places the responsibility for executing various "criminals" onto the Handmaids, order which they carry out as a group. Atwood calls these events "Particicutions."

It seems like a word that could be repurposed to describe what often happens on Twitter nowadays, when hiveminds of bots and bad faith actors pile on users in the most dehumanizing ways imaginable.

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