How does one of the masters craft a compelling opening scene that captures the heart and soul of an entire book, while also reveling in the simplicity of simple images?
Let’s take a close look at Margaret Atwood’s stunning sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale to find out!
When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her: freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over. Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.
* this summary was taken from Goodreads
My experience with The Testaments was distinctly surreal. I didn’t expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, as the dystopian elements of its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale, were enough to make any reader more than a little uncomfortable.
While The Handmaid’s Tale was difficult for me to finish purely because of its content, I found that The Testaments struck a different chord for me: one of variety, openness, and hope despite all the evils of Gilead that Margaret Atwood has built. My favorite difference between this book and The Handmaid’s Tale is the use of three different POV characters, which open up the story to a wide variety of personalities and perspectives.
My favorite perspective to read from is that of Aunt Lydia, a prominent antagonist in the world of Gilead. I’ve always been fascinated by characters who do bad things but for reasons that seem justified to them. If done correctly, as The Testaments has done, this morally grey character can quickly become the most interesting of the book.
The first chapter immediately sucks a reader into the perspective of Aunt Lydia.
“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already, I am petrified” (Atwood 3).
The word choice in this passage gives the reader insight into Aunt Lydia’s personality right off the bat: Lydia has been granted a special privilege in Gilead, and yet the tone suggests she is not happy with it. Indeed, the very fact that statues are meant for the dead serves as a means of suspense and makes the reader wonder if the statue for the “dead” means that Aunt Lydia herself could die soon.
The second sentence is, to me, even more telling. It’s short and succinct. The word “petrified” presents an image of Aunt Lydia in stone, but also of her current mental state while looking at her likeness—that is, being terrified, or “petrified.” This double meaning is especially clever, considering that the set-up in the preceding sentence brings the tone down to a certain solemnity. Something strange has happened that seems to be advantageous to Lydia, yet she is terrified of it. A reader can’t help but feel unsettled.
(And a writer like me can’t help but feel a mixture of excitement and glee at the fact that the story has already sucked me in. It’s often said that the first line in a book is important and should serve to lure the reader into the story, and Atwood does so perfectly.)
“My statue is larger than life, as statues tend to be, and shows me as younger, slimmer…than I’ve been for some time. I am standing straight, shoulders back, my lips curved into a firm but benevolent smile. My eyes are fixed on some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty, my determination to move forward despite all obstacles. Not that anything in the sky would be visible to my statue, placed as it is in a morose cluster of trees and shrubs beside the footpath running in front of Ardua Hall. We Aunts must not be too presumptuous, even in stone” (Atwood 3).
Here, Atwood uses description to plant more clues as to Lydia’s state of mind without having to tell instead of show. Aunt Lydia’s statue is “larger than life” and depicts her as “younger, slimmer” with a straight posture and a “benevolent” expression. The idea of she herself being larger than life is intriguing, especially in the context of the greater Gilead story, where all the characters around Lydia see her as a caricature of her true self, an Aunt of mythic proportions. It’s interesting that Lydia herself would see this in her statue, that she would be able to acknowledge that the idea of “Aunt Lydia” is itself larger than life, and therefore larger than her. In the statue’s shadow, she feels small. In a similar way, showing the statue as “younger, slimmer,” and “benevolent” highlights the fact that Lydia sees herself as older, heavier, and malevolent. In this instance, she is self-aware. And a self-aware villainous character is all the most interesting to watch.
Toward the end of this passage, we also get to see a bit of Aunt Lydia’s sarcastic side, ending with the threatening idea that even Aunts cannot rise above their assigned station, even when that station presents them with certain privileges, like their own stone likeness. This bit of description also hides a double meaning, with the idea of a “stony” Aunt being unprotected from the dangers of Gilead, just the same as any other person. Aunt Lydia feels just as unsafe as any other woman.
More description of the statue sheds light onto Lydia’s thoughts on her relationships with other, younger women who have been victimized by Gilead.
“Clutching my left hand is a girl of seven or eight, gazing up at me with trusting eyes…Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser. This weapon reminds me of my failings: had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough” (Atwood 3–4).
Lydia’s relationships with several other characters, who we as the readers and Lydia as a character will meet later in the story, is set up nicely here. The “trusting eyes” of the nameless little girl is especially haunting, considering what fate might await her in Gilead. This is a heart-clenching notion, even though the stone girl is not a character and technically doesn’t exist. She does, however, represent all the women and girls that Aunt Lydia’s decisions have impacted.
The image of the Taser is also very visceral, and Atwood adds just the right amount of telling to move the description along. The Taser’s representation of Aunt Lydia’s failings shines some light onto what she thinks of her weapon or her power over other women. Gentler tactics had not worked, so Aunt Lydia resorted to stricter tactics. The feeling of failure that goes hand-in-hand with these images makes Aunt Lydia all the more relatable.
As the scene with the statue comes to an end, there is one more bit of imagery that humanizes Aunt Lydia. Throughout the years, the people of Gilead place offerings at the foot of her statue, some of which are oranges, which are hard to come by in Gilead. Aunt Lydia has a special fondness for the fruit, saying that, “Oranges are so refreshing” (Atwood 4). Up until now, Atwood has used a plethora of double-meaning descriptions, so that when we do come across a simple character trait for Aunt Lydia, we as readers are also refreshed—and a little sad.
Aunt Lydia enjoys the simple pleasures in life. This begs the question: What could have gone wrong to put her in such a predicament?
This opening scene paints a wonderfully all-encompassing picture of the themes of The Testaments. Atwood carefully weaves character feelings, traits, and motivations into the description of a single statue, creating a somber mood for the journey to come. And by doing so, Atwood creates a truly intricate character for a reader to follow; and I, for one, was thoroughly engrossed.
If the opening scene of The Testaments strikes a chord with you as it did for me, you should definitely read the rest of the book! You’ll find many, many other instances of dual-purpose description, as well as a wide variety of examples of literary tools to keep in your writer toolbag.