Book report “The wills” by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s Testaments is a dystopian novel. It is set in the Republic of Gilead, the former United States and also partly in free Canada. Gilead has a strict regime based on the Old Testament of the Bible. Violations are punished in a gruesome way. Women are subordinate and only useful in producing children, usually the Handmaids. The other women are the Aunts, they teach the women or the Marthas who run the households of the Commanders. There are also the Wives of the Commanders, they are powerful, but subordinate to their husbands. Gilead is seen through the eyes of three main characters, the crafty Aunt Lydia, Agnes, the daughter of Commander Kyle and the Canadian girl Daisy who appears to have a close connection with Gilead. The three women each have to make a choice for themselves.
Book report content
- General information
- Summary The Testaments
- Symbols and motifs
- Title statement of the Wills
- Place, time and perspective
- About Margaret Atwood
- Original title: The Testaments
- Title: The Testaments
- Author: Margaret Atwood
- Date of Birth: November 18, 1939
- First edition: 2019
- First edition translated into Dutch: 2019
- Translation: Lidwien Biekmann and Tjadine Stheeman
- Publisher: Prometheus
- Cover illustration: Noma Bar / Dutch Uncle
- Number of pages: 448
- ISBN: 978 90 446 4188 2
Summary The Testaments
The book is a dystopian novel set partly in the Republic of Gilead in the northeastern former United States and partly in Canada. Gilead is governed by a strict totalitarian regime, the rulers based on the Old Testament of the Bible. Corporal punishment, hangings and deliberate mutilation are gruesome punishments that the entire population must endure. To supposedly protect the citizens, Guardians and Angels have been appointed, even spies (Investigators) who keep an eye on everything and everyone.
In Gilead, women are inferior, their jobs have been taken away, and they are completely dependent on their husbands and fathers financially. Increasing environmental pollution has made most women sterile, the women who are still fertile (the Handmaids) are forced to have intercourse with the Commanders of the household where they are housed during ovulation. The latter after the example of Rachel from the Bible, who could not have children herself and her maidservant Bilhah lent to her husband Jacob. The children that arise from this are taken and grow up in the households of the Commanders. The Handmaid, the mother, is then assigned another household with Commander. In addition to a Handmaiden, each Commander has one or more Marthas who make sure that the household runs smoothly for him and his Spouse.
The Origin of Gilead
After the coup in the United States, Aunt Lydia and other women in high-ranking positions are taken to a stadium. They have to stay there for a long time, without any privacy. There is no possibility to change clothes or shower, the toilets that are there are filthy and clogged. In case of disobedient behavior, the women are abused, many women are shot and Aunt Lydia has to prove her loyalty to the regime by also shooting women. The Aunts are instructed to teach and punish women in Gilead for disobedience, according to the rules of the Old Testament.
Reading and writing is reserved for the Commanders only, the Aunties are also allowed to read, but in the Bible. Aunt Lydia secretly keeps records of people and families in Ardua Hall, the place where the Aunties live, and collects information that she uses to manipulate those around her: before the coup, Aunt Lydia was a family judge.
Young girls are being prepared for marriage
The aunts tell the daughters of the high-ranking ones that they are precious flowers and chosen to marry the Commanders and their sons. From the age of thirteen, the girls receive a kind of crash course from the Aunts in preparation for the wedding, such as embroidery, gardening and interior design. Ordinary girls from the poor economy families receive simple sewing or learn to fold paper flowers in preparation for marriage. They marry an economist unless they are very beautiful.
When Commander Kyle’s wife dies, he remarries after a short time with Paula. They want daughter Agnes to marry Commander Judd, an older man and head of the Investigators. Agnes appeals to a higher calling, the marriage is called off and Agnes becomes a suppliante in the run-up to Auntie, as does girlfriend Becka whose father is a dentist. Her father harasses young girls in the dental chair and gets away with it. Who would a girl believe? When suppliantes have been successful in their missionary work as Pearl Girl in Canada and have persuaded other young girls to accompany them to Gilead, they can become Aunties. Pearl girls always travel in pairs, apparently for their safety, in reality they have to keep an eye on each other.
Nicole infiltrates Gilead and releases classified information
Daisy lives on the other side of the border, raised by Neil and Melanie. Neil and Melanie run a shop selling secondhand clothes and used goods. During a protest march against Gilead, Daisy can be seen on TV and from that moment on she has to flee. After the Gilead regime learns that Neil and Melanie work for Mayday, an organization that helps women escape from Gilead, Neil and Melanie’s car is blown up. Daisy turns out to be Nicole, as a baby she was smuggled to Canada by her mother. Gilead wants Nicole back and sends the Pearl Girls to track her down. Nicole allows herself to be found, she travels with the Pearl Girls to Gilead where Agnes discovers that she is Nicole’s half-sister. Aunt Lydia inserts a microdot of classified information into Nicole’s tattoo to be taken to Canada. Because Commander Judd wants to marry Nicole, Nicole and Agnes flee the country, disguised as Pearl Girls. As a diversion, Nicole writes a note stating that she is not suitable as Aunt and therefore ran away with an economist. After enduring many hardships, Nicole and Agnes reach Canada in a dinghy where their mother is waiting for them.
The information revealed from the microdot heralds the end of Gilead and also marks the end of Aunt Lydia who was prepared for this and always carried morphine: “Better this: if I allowed myself to stay alive, I would be breaking out too much truth Torture is like dancing: I’m too old for it. “
We see Gilead through the eyes of three main characters, Aunt Lydia, who manages to stay in power through manipulation, Agnes, the daughter of Commander Kyle who was raised in the tradition of Gilead, and Daisy, a girl from Canada who becomes deeply involved with Gilead. She turns out to be Nicole who was smuggled to Canada by her mother as a baby. In addition, the girlfriend of Agnes, Becka, the other Aunts and Commander Judd play an important role.
Symbols and motifs
Elements that are important in the book:
- the old Testament; a totalitarian regime has seized power and relies on passages from the Old Testament to justify its own actions
- baby Nicole; Nicole is used as a symbol by both Gilead and Canada. Nicole is the figurehead of Gilead and a symbol of freedom in Canada
- the system is crumbling; the totalitarian system, once conceived out of idealistic motives, is under attack from within: “I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I get on my plate in the meantime, but I’ll pay you for it.”
- choices have consequences; “You better blend in with the crowd, the god-loving, hypocritical, hateful crowd. You better throw stones than be the target of stones. Better for your survival at least.”
- precious flowers; the young girls are told they are precious flowers and chosen to marry the Commanders and their sons.
Title statement of the Wills
The book is the personal story or testimony of Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy (Nicole). The testimony of Aunt Lydia who writes her story in secret and hides it in a thick book is the testament of her life.
The book is intended as a warning. Acquired rights can never be taken for granted and can be taken from one moment to the next by malicious parties, which happens daily in the countries around us. In addition, betrayal, abuse of power and friendship are important themes.
Place, time and perspective
The story is a future novel and takes place in the former United States in the near future. This is especially evident in the beginning of “The Handmaid’s Tale” where men and women are equal, work and share responsibility for their children. That could very well be our society in 2019. “The testaments” takes place fifteen years later. The novel is told by three different storytellers who look back to their lives in Gilead and Canada.
A sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the book can be read independently, but the history is easier to understand if you’ve read the previous novel or followed the impressive series on Netflix. It is a special book, less heavy than the previous novel, because “The Handmaid’s Tale” was jet black. This novel offers perspective. The fact that a regime can seize power in no time is almost unimaginable in the Netherlands, but with the unrest in the world it is certainly realistic. The fact that women’s rights are regularly in danger of being curtailed is nothing new under the sun. That makes the book all the more disturbing and worth reading.
About Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939. She has received a lot of recognition both at home and abroad for her work as a writer. She is also a feminist and politically active. In 2019 she lives and works alternately in Toronto and on Pelee Island, Ontario. She gained great fame with her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), which was turned into a popular television series by Netflix in 2017, with actress Elisabeth Moss in the role of Handmaid. “The Blind Assassin” was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000 and was the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 with her novel “The Testaments”.