Perhaps because some fans had complained that Atwood’s Offred was too passive, the TV writers have been transforming her, in Seasons 2 and 3, into a ferocious (and at times ruthless) warrior queen, willing to compromise her own morals if it furthers her ends; a committed member of the resistance whose quest has evolved from getting her own daughter back, to trying to evacuate dozens of children to Canada.
But while this makes for a more dramatic heroine who can grow and change over multiple seasons of TV, it’s worth remembering that the very ordinariness of Atwood’s Offred gave readers an immediate understanding of how Gilead’s totalitarian rule affected regular people’s lives. The same holds true of Agnes’s account in “The Testaments,” which is less an exposé of the hellscape that is Gilead than a young girl’s chronicle of her family life and education there, and the unexpected turn of events that lead her to play a pivotal role in determining the regime’s fate.
In a 2017 essay, Atwood described writing Offred’s story in the tradition of “the literature of witness” — referring to those accounts left by people bearing witness to the calamities of history they’ve experienced firsthand: wars, atrocities, disasters, social upheavals, hinge moments in civilization. It’s a genre that includes the diary of Anne Frank, the writings of Primo Levi, the choral histories assembled by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich from intensive interviews with Russians, remembering their daily lives during World War II, the Chernobyl accident or the Afghanistan war. Agency and strength, Atwood seems to be suggesting, do not require a heroine with the visionary gifts of Joan of Arc, or the ninja skills of a Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander — there are other ways of defying tyranny, participating in the resistance or helping ensure the truth of the historical record.
The very act of writing or recording one’s experiences, Atwood argues, is “an act of hope.” Like messages placed in bottles tossed into the sea, witness testimonies count on someone, somewhere, being there to read their words — even if it’s the pompous, myopic Gileadean scholars who narrate the satirical epilogues to both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments.”
As Atwood no doubt knows, one of the definitions given by Bible dictionaries for “Gilead” is “hill of testimony.” And in testifying to what they have witnessed, Offred, Nicole, Agnes and, yes, Lydia are leaving behind accounts that will challenge official Gileadean narratives, and in doing so, they are standing up to the regime’s determination to silence women by telling their own stories in their own voices.