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Brighton Journal | 22nd February 2020

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What happened to Aunt Lydia? A review of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’

What happened to Aunt Lydia? A review of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’
Henrietta Tinker

Margaret Atwood returns to the dystopian Gilead in The Testaments, thirty years after The Handmaid’s Tale was released. The Handmaid’s Tale’s prestigious reputation and the popularity of the Netflix adaption have made Atwood’s new novel highly anticipated. 

Before it was even on the shelves, The Testaments was listed for The 2019 Booker Prize. In its first week alone it sold 103,177 copies and it continues to top the best seller charts. However, this has also meant that readers expect it to be as good, if not better, than The Handmaid’s Tale. As soon as you open The Testaments, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be the same. Firstly, It’s set fifteen years later and Offred is gone, replaced with the voices of Agnes, Daisy and Aunt Lydia. However, it’s the changes to the character of Aunt Lydia that have been so controversial among fans.

How has Aunt Lydia Changed?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia is an enforcer of a totalitarian regime, committing violence against other women. Atwood comments in an interview in Esquire that she wanted to explore why people collude with these regimes. But the ending of The Testaments undermines this message.

Instead of representing how the oppressed can be complicit in oppression, it turns out that Aunt Lydia was working for the resistance all along. Her redemption is new and surprising, but Aunt Lydia was never designed to be a character of sympathy. In the original novel she is one of the primary villains and commits acts of atrocity, which are so frightening because we see them from Offred’s point of view. Now that we no longer see her from the perspective of the women she is oppressing, Aunt Lydia disturbingly transforms from villain to anti-hero.

Although some claim that this makes Aunt Lydia a more nuanced character, Atwood fails to answer the question: Why would a woman seek to oppress other women? Atwood often says that all her ideas come from real world events, but there are many real world Aunt Lydia’s who campaign against reproductive rights, self-define as ‘anti-feminist’ and enforce restrictive and outdated gender norms.

These changes to her character do not help us understand the motivations of these women. They are not all working secretly working for the resistance.


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