Atwood’s Comeback Expands the Gilead Universe

Laura Hennawi, Editor

Since Margaret Atwood’s release of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1985, the Gilead
universe was put on hold until Sept. 2019, when Atwood released “The Testaments.” The long-
awaited sequel to her feminist novel, “The Testaments” brings a new, fresh angle on a repressive
regime that took over the United States.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” stands as one of the most iconic, emblematic books for women’s
rights and female autonomy. Atwood’s dystopian, autocratic Gilead universe takes place in The
United States after a nuclear attack that left the population scarred, broken, and most
importantly: sterile. Therefore, fertility becomes an important asset in women, causing the upper
class in the regime to desire the fertile women for themselves. These women then became
handmaids who are forcefully impregnated for elite families—who can’t reproduce—to continue
the Gilead legacy. The first book follows Offred’s journey as she navigates being a handmaid in
the newly created regime, discussing her past life and her attempts to escape the confinement of
“The Testaments” arrives as a sequel about 34 years after the first novel, a staple today
during the #MeToo era–as seen by the countless women wearing handmaid costumes at The
Women’s March and protests for abortion rights. Instead of continuing Offred’s perspective and
picking up where the first book left the reader, “The Testaments” follows three different
perspectives: Aunt Lydia, an influential figure in the creation of Gilead; Agnes, the daughter of
an elitist Gilead family; and Daisy, a young Canadian daughter of anti-Gilead activists. The three
characters provide insight into the world within and around Gilead, demonstrating the inner
workings of the rigid autocracy, the sentiments about the regime within it and the influence of
the regime worldwide.
The different perspectives not only answer some questions found in the first novel, but
also created a suspenseful and exciting narrative structure. Atwood beautifully connects each and
every piece of character development, plot advancement and symbolic imagery through her
different points of view that allowed more insight to the broader plot and contributed to the
embodiment of confinement, conformity and rigidity that is Gilead. However, one notable aspect
of “The Testaments” that is different besides the manipulation of  is the tone, which is less
sinister and more hopeful than the first book, as there are more interesting subplots and
relationships that create a more optimistic atmosphere. The retrospective account in parts of the
book to before the regime also contributing to a greater sense of normalcy and optimism in the
novel that wasn’t as active in the first one.
The framing of Gilead by Atwood as a consequence of harsh political control and
conformity has been as applicable today as in 1985. Atwood’s versatility and talent will always
shine through her work, her skill to captivate the reader into her fictional dystopia never failing.