Note: This article is spoiler-free for both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood aside from a few vague references and descriptions.
Margaret Atwood is a highly renowned author in fictional, nonfictional, and poetic realms, as her work has been cherished for decades. A recent uptick in her popularity can be traced to her series The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. The series explores a world where misogynistic extremists take over the American government. This book shows readers an escalation of our patriarchal reality, which makes it feel more relatable and easier to grasp, as many sexist ideologies rule over our present lives.
Although film has become both increasingly accessible and popular, Atwood’s words still capture millions of readers. Literature maintains a hold over communities and provides a powerful source of entertainment and knowledge, so regardless of the role television has, books will always be just as relevant. Atwood contributes to the rising relevance of television and pop culture with The Handmaid’s Tale and its enticing sequel, The Testaments, as they have both become popular staples in America along with Hulu’s adaptation of this series.
Circling back to The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood puts women in different roles: Marthas, who do chores and kitchen work; Aunts, who act as leaders and teachers; and, of course, handmaids, who “work” for higher class families to produce children. Atwood mentions that all the ideas for Gilead, the name of the country the book is based in, are derivatives of historical events. I find it fascinating that Atwood includes a lengthy notes section at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale citing her research.
She constructs Gilead through the eyes of a handmaid named Offred. As readers, we see Offred’s internal struggles as she navigates through the drastic societal changes this new regime presents. Offred has flashbacks which help us contextualize how Gilead came to be, but what really strikes readers is not the action, but in fact Offred’s coping mechanisms and thoughts regarding all of this. She tries to focus on herself and have faith that her daughter is still alive, and hopefully her husband Luke as well. Handmaids are constantly told to forget about their past lives and the classes they take with the aunts essentially brainwash them into following the new ideals upheld by Gilead. Offred internally rebels by choosing to hold on to her memories and the hope that her family is still alive, thus an emphasis is placed on emotional rebellion as opposed to outward action in The Handmaid’s Tale.
A lot of attention is paid to small details; the inscription inside a drawer Offred finds, floral pillows, and rituals such as shopping with another handmaid and attending hangings. Sometimes they can be subtle but they all add to our understanding of Gilead and this new life women are forced into through the eyes of our sole protagonist. Atwood comes off as a sophisticated dystopian writer, or rather, The Handmaid’s Tale feels more complex than something like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and more mature than sci-fi fanfictions we used to rave over on Wattpad.
Published in 2019, The Testaments is the sequel to this series and takes a different approach to Atwood’s world building. The most notable is that there are three protagonists in this book, as opposed to just Offred. I will refrain from naming them for the sake of spoilers, but you can take my word for it when I say that they are from drastically different views of Gilead. The plot is much more action-heavy which I think is fair to attribute that it was published after the first season of the Hulu adaptation aired (2017). Television versions of books tend to change parts of the plots for the sake of being more visually engaging for the audiences; it is key to making it binge-worthy, which is essentially the film version of a page-turner.
The sequel follows the consistency of Atwood’s world building with regards to the characters and their interactions as well as Gilead’s stiff rules and ideology. There is more content on what life was like as the new regime overthrew the American government. It helps me contextualize what women went through when they were indoctrinated into these forced, new lifestyles.
Aside from this, everything else is completely different between the two books. The Handmaid’s Tale is a psychological journey through Offred’s acceptance and adaptation to Gilead in a personal manner. It feels like a conversation between Offred and the reader as she talks about her flashbacks, her thoughts as she lays in bed at night, and her various relationships with people she encounters. Atwood writes as though we are on this journey with her and can see inside of her mind. I couldn’t put the book down once I started reading for this reason.
To be completely clear, I also could not put down The Testaments once I started it. I loved both novels, but I immediately noticed the inconsistent writing style and structure in comparison to the first book. Atwood builds a more theatrical story in the sense that she balances three perspectives that later overlap, filling it with more drama, physical traveling, and action. There is an important scene involving a boat and traveling across the water, which felt immersive to read. The novel was truly engaging from beginning to end with all the visualization and suspense.
I think that film adaptations, particularly action-based cinema, have a noticeable impact on literature such as The Testaments. It is clear to me that Atwood is trying to appease both her book and television audiences with her style of storytelling. It is hectic and suspenseful to read, just as I can imagine the show is to watch considering that the fourth season is already airing. Literature has transcended centuries of historical development and these adaptations to a new age of film are necessary, thus they keep people caring about books, even with the rise of television.
Lola is a Latin American student based in New York City attending Smith College who loves to write about a variety of subjects. You can find their work in The Sophian, which is Smith’s newspaper, and Citrus, Smith’s fashion magazine. She loves to read as well, and currently loves memoirs like Broken by Jenny Lawson and Hunger by Roxane Gay. They are passionate about art history too, and are pursuing a bachelor’s degree double majoring in english and art history. She loves hugs, early mornings, YouTube binges, and fruit salads. Someday they want to publish their own book and you can always find them wandering around a museum in the city.