Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
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