Margaret Atwood's 'The Testaments': The Real-Life Events That Inspired 'The Handmaid's Tale' Sequel

Margaret Atwood is throwing open the doors to Gilead once again. Thirty-four years after the publication of the lauded The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's sequel The Testaments—published worldwide on Tuesday—is another conversation-starting piece of work that will undoubtedly lead to a further three decades of discussion about totalitarian power, women's reproductive rights and national identity, just as the first book did.

The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale and is told through the perspective of three women, including one fans of Atwood's first novel—and the award-winning Hulu TV series it inspired—will know well: Aunt Lydia, the calculating matron who keeps Gilead's handmaids in check. Through Lydia, readers get a deeper insight into the inner-machinations of Gilead's religious autocracy. The other two narrators offer different perspectives—that of a young woman (Agnes) who grew up within the oppressive state, and another young woman (Daisy) who only knows of Gilead from the periphery, living across the border in Canada.

The themes in The Handmaid's Tale have continued to resonate with readers, thanks in part to the airing of the Hulu series in 2017 and the resurgence of right-wing politics, including President Donald Trump's election in November 2016.

Atwood's approach to her first book—which touched on reproductive rights, female genital mutilation and ritualistic rape to name but a few themes—was that anything included in its pages had happened at some point, somewhere, in history.

Though Atwood prefers to leave interpretations up to her readers, and thus in recent interviews has shied from overtly endorsing theories about plot points and characters, using the same logic that events in The Testaments are in some way inspired by real-life events, we can analyze what might have given Atwood food for thought while writing the sequel.

Here are just some of our theories.

Warning: This article may contain some spoilers about The Testaments.

margaret atwood's the testaments
Canadian author Margaret Atwood poses during a photocall following the release of her new book 'The Testaments' a sequel to the award-winning 1985 novel "The Handmaid's Tale" in London on September 10, 2019. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty

The idea of female testimony

The title of the novel, The Testaments, and the use of three narrators—compared to just the one, Offred, in The Handmaid's Tale—lends itself to the idea of female testimony and whether as a society we really believe women.

The testimonies of women who accused powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein and Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault and impropriety was the backbone of the #MeToo movement. Here, it's the testimonies of the three narrators that informs the reader about the horrors of Gilead.

The multiple perspectives in the book could also allude to how incidents described by the alleged victims of Weinstein and others took place years before they became public knowledge or were taken seriously—and it took multiple testimonies to reach such a point. The Testaments is stylized as a historical recollection of testimony by two of the narrators and the first-person writings of the other. Would they have been heard or believed at the height of Gilead's power and influence? Probably not.

The three narrators, too, could have conflicting stories, leading the reader to question their credibility. That sounds similar to what Christine Blasey Ford faced when she spoke out against Kavanaugh.

Reproductive rights

Just like the original novel, The Testaments focuses on women's reproductive rights. In Gilead, fertile women are forced to have babies for infertile couples and abortion is banned.

In interviews for The Testaments, Atwood has said she hoped that these themes that first appeared in The Handmaid's Tale in 1985 would no longer be relevant, but "that's not the turn that history has taken."

In the U.S. in recent years, certain states have attempted to restrict access to abortions, effectively rolling back the Roe v. Wade legislation that legalized abortion in 1973.

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Copies of 'The Testaments' are on show as Canadian author Margaret Atwood poses during a photocall following the release of her new book a sequel to the award-winning 1985 novel "The Handmaid's Tale" in London on September 10, 2019. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty

Immigration and borders

The theme of immigration and borders also draws parallels to the modern day, particularly refugees fleeing war-torn countries only to be denied asylum.

In The Testaments, this is the case when persecuted Gilead citizens attempt to flee the autocracy and seek refuge in other countries. Italy, New Zealand and Germany are all reluctant to take in the displaced.

Atwood even evokes familiar phrases, such as "Close the border," which could just as easily refer to calls for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Complicity of women

Not all women in The Handmaid's Tale or The Testaments are heroes, just as in real life.

In a world where women are subordinates to men and aren't allowed to read or write, there are some women in Gilead—like Aunt Lydia—who are complicit in the subjugation and degradation of other women.

In the book, we learn more about Lydia's backstory and how she chose to align with the rulers of Gilead as an aunt to save herself from a similar fate to the handmaids. "Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive," Aunt Lydia says.

Reading a recent interview with Atwood in British newspaper The Times, one might intuit some pointed commentary here about the state of affairs in the U.S., where women's reproductive rights have come under scrutiny, despite Trump's own daughter, Ivanka Trump, being a high-ranking member of his administration.

Asked by The Times' Lorraine Candy if Ivanka Trump could be "biding her time to help women worldwide...given her access and influence," Atwood responded: "No, don't be stupid. She isn't interested in saving you, she is interested in saving her money and situation in life."

That sounds like what Aunt Lydia is doing in Gilead.

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Aunt Lydia in "The Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu and Ivanka Trump.

Fake news

We all have the words "fake news" ingrained in our brains in 2019, but misinformation and media attacks are something that the totalitarianism in The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments thrives upon.

This feels all too recognizable in our own public discourse, where in the last week we've lived through #Sharpiegate and more attacks lobbied at journalists and news channels.

Atwood appears to make a crafty reference to this heightened climate when one character in The Testaments says, "Gilead news is saying it's all fake."

The Testaments is on sale now.