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Highlights from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2019

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale published 30 years later, piggybacking on a successful TV adaptation? It could have been a disaster. The Testaments is anything but — it’s seen rave reviews (to which I will add my own) and won the Booker Prize. I read it over the course of the last month or so and wanted to share with you some passages I highlighted on my Kindle.

Having done this exercise with three books now (Normal People & In the Garden of Beasts were the others), I noticed that I highlight mostly ideas, passages that resonate with me personally, and beautiful writing. Spoilers are minimal…I weed those out.

In the case of The Testaments, obviously a lot of the book is about totalitarianism & fascism — see for instance how many of Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism you can spot in the excerpts below. #12 figures heavily.

Page 3 (great opening passage):

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Page 9 (You see this most obviously in contemporary religious countries & cultures — women’s bodies are dangerous and must be kept out of sight — but also e.g. in American offices and schools.):

Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us — of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge — The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff? — and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.

Page 14:

What a lot of lies she had to tell for my sake! To keep me safe! But she was up to it. She had a very inventive mind.

Page 24:

Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.

Page 31:

I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like.

Page 44:

I was the age at which parents suddenly transform from people who know everything into people who know nothing.

Page 46:

We’d had three modules in school on Gilead: it was a terrible, terrible place, where women couldn’t have jobs or drive cars, and where the Handmaids were forced to get pregnant like cows, except that cows had a better deal. What sort of people could be on the side of Gilead and not be some kind of monsters? Especially female people.

Page 57:

By this time I was feeling glum, which is one of the effects a birthday can have: you’re expecting a magic transformation but then it doesn’t happen.

Page 63:

“Dear Aunt Lydia,” he said, beaming from behind his enormous desk. “Thank you for gracing my humble office. You are well, I hope?”

He did not hope that, but I let it pass. “Praise be,” I said. “And you? And your Wife?” This Wife has lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.

Page 66:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

Page 73:

They didn’t make a big fuss over the funerals of women in Gilead, even high-ranking ones.

Page 82:

More alarmingly, my breasts were swelling, and I had begun to sprout hair on areas of my body that we were not supposed to dwell on: legs, armpits, and the shameful part of many elusive names. Once that happened to a girl, she was no longer a precious flower but a much more dangerous creature.

Page 83:

The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it.

Page 87:

Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women’s duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence.

Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.

Page 106 (This reminded me of the disturbing games invented by children in Nazi concentration camps.):

The most popular singing game among the younger girls was called “Hanging.” It went like this:

Who’s that hanging on the Wall? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

It’s a Handmaid, what’s she called? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She was (here we would put in the name of one of us), now she’s not. Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She had a baby in the pot (here we would slap our little flat stomachs). Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

The girls would file under the uplifted hands of two other girls while everyone chanted: One for murder, Two for kissing, Three for a baby, Four gone missing, Five for alive and Six for dead, And Seven we caught you, Red Red Red!

And the seventh girl would be caught by the two counters, and paraded around in a circle before being given a slap on the head. Now she was “dead,” and was allowed to choose the next two executioners. I realize this sounds both sinister and frivolous, but children will make games out of whatever is available to them.

The Aunts probably thought this game contained a beneficial amount of warning and threat. Why was it “One for murder,” though? Why did murder have to come before kissing? Why not after, which would seem more natural? I have often thought about that since, but I have never found any answer.

Page 124:

They said calm things like You need to be strong. They were trying to make things better. But it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.

Page 143 (another form of the banality of evil):

Hour by hour we watched vans arrive, discharge their quota of women, depart empty. The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards. How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.

Page 144:

All that was necessary was a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination.

Page 148:

You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.

Page 148:

Every once in a while there would be a scream or a series of shrieks from nearby: brutalization on parade. Sometimes there would be a prolonged moaning; sometimes a series of grunts and breathy gasps that sounded sexual, and probably were. The powerless are so tempting.

Page 158:

You must understand that I was not anybody in my own right — although of the privileged class, I was just a young girl about to be confined to wedlock. Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.

Page 212 (this made me laugh out loud):

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, as used to be said; though in the present day the idea of God laughing is next door to blasphemy. An ultra-serious fellow, God is now.

Page 215:

“Yes, the thought-experiment penises can get out of control,” I said. “They take on a life of their own.”

Page 226:

The Commander advanced, arranged his face into a jowly smile, and stuck his mouth onto my forehead in a chaste kiss. His lips were unpleasantly warm; they made a sucking sound as they pulled away. I pictured a tiny morsel of my brain being sucked through the skin of my forehead into his mouth. A thousand such kisses later and my skull would be emptied of brain.

Page 236:

This was comforting to me as far as it went, but I was on the verge of crying again. Kindness sometimes has that effect. “How?” I said. “How can it ever be well?” “I don’t know,” said Aunt Estée. “But it will be. I have faith.” She sighed. “Having faith is hard work sometimes.”

Page 272:

Standing on the tarmac there was a double line of men in black uniforms, and we walked between the lines, arm in arm. “Don’t look at their faces,” she whispered.

So I focused on their uniforms, but I could sense eyes, eyes, eyes, all over me like hands. I’d never felt so much at risk in that way — not even under the bridge with Garth, and with strangers all around.

Page 272 (a character’s initial impression of Gilead):

What am I doing here? I thought. This place is weird as fuck.

Page 279:

Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.

Page 316:

He has another kind of book, less respectable: vintage pornography, as I knew from having examined it. It is a genre that is tedious in bulk. The mistreatment of the human body has a limited repertoire.

Page 317:

And how easily a hand becomes a fist.

Page 343 (I thought “gang aft agley” might have been some sort of weird Kindle typo, but it’s a reference to a Robert Burns poem.):

I’d thought I had everything in order, but the best-laid plans gang aft agley, and trouble comes in threes.

Page 388:

I was buying time. One is always buying something.

And finally, a short passage from Atwood’s acknowledgements, in which she reminds the reader that all of the events in this book and in The Handmaid’s Tale have actually happened somewhere in the world before:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

That’s what makes these books truly chilling and essential.