The Price Of Freedom:
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale got its second wind when turned into a acclaimed TV series, that indicated, rather disturbingly, that the author’s idea of dystopia, is the reality of many patriarchal societies, as far as women’s rights—or the lack of thereof- are concerned.
That novel was set at a time when a democratic government in the US is overthrown by a far right group calling itself “Sons of Jacob.” Using the power of religion they set up a theocratic state, the Republic of Gilead. Men who grab power and are called Commanders, reorganize society on ancient religious principles, that take away women’s rights to education, pursuing careers or owning property. Worse, they are categorized, like objects, according to age, reproductive ability and utility. The story was told from the perspective of a Handmaid named Offred—meaning belonging to Fred, since they were owned by men. Handmaids were forced to produce children for the Commanders and then give them up to the wives. Women were also given a strict dress code in keeping with their social status.
This year’s Booker co-winner, The Testaments, is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood said she wrote because fans of the original were still curious about Gilead. The Mayday resistance was introduced in the first book as an underground movement that helps women escape across the border to Canada. If they are caught, they are severely punished. The Mayday team has a bigger role to play in The Testaments, and though Offred is not at the centre of this one, she is omnipresent.
This novel is set fifteen years after Offred’s disappearance; there are three narrators, one of them is Aunt Lydia, who was also there in the first book. Using her intelligence and courage, she has become the leader of the Aunts (women who indoctrinate girls into the ways of Gilead) and has insinuated herself into the good offices of the evil Commander Judd. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander, who discovers, when her mother dies, that she is actually the child of a Handmaid. Daisy lives with her parents in Canada, and her life turns upside down when they are killed, and she learns that the used clothes chop they ran was a front for Mayday activities.
Gilead is as oppressive as ever, and tries to bolster its diminishing female population by sending “Pearl Girls” to recruit young women into travelling to Gilead, which, according to their brainwashed minds, is a righteous society, cleansed of sin. The men, of course, have no restrictions—Commander Judd’s wives keep dying mysteriously, and he marries younger and younger girls. Agnes escapes her stepmother’s plan to get her married to Judd, by claiming she got a call to become an Aunt, and entering Ardua Hall, where they live behind well-guarded walls. Circumstances bring Daisy there too, and after having lived free in Canada, she is shocked to see how women are subjugated in Gilead.
Aunt Lydia is the one pulling the strings in this book, and she is the kind of person who does whatever it takes to get what she wants. She has been tortured and brutalized like other accomplished women by the new male order, and knows if she has to survive in Gilead ruled by power-crazy men like Judd, she has to learn to be devious and subtly manipulative. As the story proceeds and Lydia’s complicated game plan is revealed, she turns out to be a very different kind of heroine—remarkable and despicable in equal measure.
The Testaments may not be as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but both show the reader what a civilized society can turn into if mad despots are not stopped. For women, their hard-won freedom is always just this close from being snatched away, which is all the more reason to protect it at all costs.
By Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A Talese/ Doubleday