Vol 11 No 1 (2019)

“An Act of Hope”: Women's Resilience Through Literacy in Margaret Atwood's The Testaments

Megan White
Athabasca University
Published June 4, 2020


Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated 2019 novel The Testaments takes the torch from 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale with strength and bravery. The central thematic elements in the text – literacy and storytelling as inherently rebellious and hopeful acts – do more than describe a world in which women have been denied basic human rights. The novel is an expertly crafted tapestry that interweaves three first-person testaments of women during the fall of the Gileadean regime under which they have all suffered immeasurably. The women and girls of Gilead are denied access to literacy and thusly to the ability to tell their own stories. The Sons of Jacob systematically reduce women’s value to their ability (or lack thereof) to reproduce, making them genuinely believe that their biology precludes them from literacy. Atwood constructs a disturbing yet elegant representation of this process with a series of grotesque blood references, highlighting the ways in which Gileadean women’s bodies are regarded as simultaneously life-giving and repugnant. Literate women are dangerous to the Gileadean leadership because they can communicate their oppression, allowing them to contextualize their own lived reality both globally and historically. Greater understanding of their situation allows Gileadean women and girls to coordinate and mobilize intricate networks of rebellion to bring about the fall of the oppressive regime.