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Let’s Break Down the Most Mysterious Parts of The Testaments, With a Little Help From Margaret Atwood

13 minute read

When most people think of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic dystopian novel, they think of the color red. The long red robes and white bonnets worn by women forced into reproductive slavery in the Republic of Gilead have become a symbol of oppression, an eye-catching cue that represents both Atwood’s influence and the global problems she probes in her fiction. So fans took notice when her publisher revealed bright green cover art for The Testaments.

In recent interviews for a cover story on the legendary author, Atwood answered TIME’s questions about the most intriguing aspects of her highly anticipated sequel, the color of the cover included. For the latter, she has a surprisingly simple answer: “I colored it with my crayons and said, ‘I think it would look better green.’” She adds that the color, “spring green,” evokes hope.

Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale hits shelves today. Like the original, The Testaments strikes a balance between propulsive storytelling and dark references to both past and present. But while the new book answers some crucial questions about Gilead, it also leaves many open to interpretation — which is Atwood’s way. The author prefers to let readers come to their own conclusions. “I’m the person who’s against dictatorship, remember that?” she says. “I’m not going to tell the reader what to think.”

Margaret Atwood Best of Fall Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Mickalene Thomas for TIME

TIME’s cover story on Atwood avoided spoiling details from the The Testaments beyond the broad identities of its three narrators. This article draws on interviews with Atwood to answer a few of the most compelling questions about the book and analyze the meaning of those narrative choices. Do not read further if you have not yet read The Testaments and do not want to learn more details about its contents.

Here are Atwood’s answers to nine burning questions about The Testaments.

Does Offred survive?

Offred’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale ends with her stepping into a van that will take her “into the darkness, within; or else the light.” In an interview with TIME, Atwood says, “We will learn enough to know that it was more like the light than the darkness.”

So in a word, yes. Offred is alive in The Testaments. But this is Atwood we’re talking about, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Why is the book called The Testaments?

Atwood has a three-pronged answer to this question, drawing on the structure of the novel — which is told by three narrators — and the religious aspects of Gilead. “It has several different meanings: last will and testament, Old and New Testaments. And what does a witness give? A testimony, but also a testament,” she says. “So it’s those three: the witness, the will and ‘I’m telling you the truth.’”

Who are the narrators of The Testaments?

When she announced The Testaments, Atwood teased that the new novel is narrated by three women, but she revealed nothing of their identities. Fans who hoped Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, might be one of the three will be disappointed. The new book does not drop back into the mind of the woman who first described to us all the horrific customs of Gilead. One of the reasons Atwood waited as long as she did to write a sequel, she tells TIME, was because she felt re-creating Offred’s voice would be impossible. “She had said her piece, quite thoroughly,” Atwood says. But once she realized she could access Gilead through different characters, she knew she could write a follow-up.

So who are these women? One of the three narrators is someone readers already know: Aunt Lydia, a notorious villain in the original book. She’s since been brought to life by Ann Dowd in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. (TIME recently revealed that Dowd also reads the role in the audiobook edition of The Testaments.) In the new book, Atwood complicates readers’ long-held assumptions about Lydia, who trains women to become handmaids and often adds to their misery with her abusive tactics. To flesh out Lydia’s story, Atwood says she asked herself, “How do you get to be such a person? How do you act within that structure? What are your fears, what are your goals, when you’re in that position channeling J. Edgar Hoover, who collected dirt on everybody?”

Lydia’s narration comprises the meatiest third of The Testaments, the one most revealing of Gilead’s inner workings, because she sees — and records — everything. As Atwood points out to TIME, Lydia is a woman of secret yet significant power in the regime. Such women are rare, and dangerously underestimated, in Gilead. Through Lydia’s narration, Atwood allows us access to a mind far more complex, with many more shades of grey, than her original novel let on.

The second narrator is another person we know from the original, but not nearly as well. Agnes Jemima was too young when Gilead took power to remember what life was like before it. She’s growing up in a nice house with her mother and father, a powerful Commander, and learning the duties she will be expected to uphold as a wife. But when her mother dies, she learns that she once had another mother: a woman now serving as a handmaid. And she has vague memories of running through the woods with an unknown woman as a young child. If it sounds like she might be Offred’s daughter — the one who was ripped from her arms as she and her husband Luke attempted an escape to Canada — well, you might be onto something. (More on that later.)

The third narrator is brand new — again, sort of. Daisy is a teenager living in Toronto with oddly overprotective parents who run a second-hand clothing store. Gilead is a constant topic of political conversation in her school. Daisy wrote an essay on Baby Nicole, a child who was “stolen” by her handmaid mother and taken to Canada, and is now held up by Gileadeans as a symbol of the evil that exists outside its borders. One day Daisy attends an anti-Gilead rally against her parents’ wishes. The next day, her 16th birthday, they’re dead. And all their friends are acting like Daisy is in danger, too. Soon, they reveal the truth: she is Baby Nicole. Her “parents” were agents of the Mayday resistance, the campaign to overthrow Gilead, who were assigned to protect her.

Are the two young narrators related to Offred?

Readers of The Handmaid’s Tale will remember that when Offred stepped into the van at the end of the novel, she thought she might be pregnant with Nick’s baby. That was, according to Atwood, about 15 years before the action of The Testaments begins. And here is a baby — Daisy/Nicole — who was born to a handmaid 16 years ago and smuggled into Canada. Simple math suggests that this teenager could be Offred and Nick’s daughter.

A reasonable reader could then conclude that both of these young narrators — Daisy/Nicole and Agnes Jemima — are Offred’s daughters. Which would make them half sisters. And yes, in fact, we do eventually learn that these two share a mother, who was a handmaid.

Let’s call this theory reasonable, rather than certain, because again, Atwood prefers to let readers make up their own minds. Nowhere in The Testaments does it say that Daisy/Nicole and Agnes Jemima’s mother ever went by the name Offred. And the author herself won’t confirm. “We are pretty sure,” Atwood says. “But we don’t really know.” Their mother’s namelessness is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, since we never learn Offred’s real name. Her anonymity underscores the point that the horrors Offred suffers could happen to anyone.

But there’s another layer to this question: While the two books don’t use names, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale does. Atwood had everything to do with those names; she works closely with the team behind the show.

Up to this point in Hulu’s series, which has aired three seasons and has been picked up for a fourth, Offred (who is known as June) has two daughters. The elder, Hannah, is from her marriage to Luke before Gilead. She gets taken from her parents, just like in the book, before the events of the first season. Much later, June learns that Hannah has been given a new name in Gilead. June’s second daughter in the show is a baby she has with Nick. And what are these daughters called? Agnes and Nicole. The latter was Atwood’s decision. Bruce Miller, the Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, tells TIME that standing by for Atwood to name the new baby was like awaiting the announcement of a new pope: “I was waiting for white smoke,” he says.

So, we have Agnes and Nicole as June/Offred’s daughters in the show. And Agnes Jemima and Nicole/Daisy as the children of a handmaid in The Testaments. Which means that if you read the two books and the show together, then yes, the two young narrators of The Testaments are Offred’s daughters. I suggest to Atwood that readers can choose whether they want to include the show in their reading of the two novels. She offers a very on-brand response: “I love choices like that.”

So wait, what happens to Offred in The Testaments?

The story is really about Lydia, Daisy/Nicole and Agnes Jemima. But we do learn some things about the girls’ mother. If we conclude that Offred is that person, here are a few essential things about her life after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale.

First, she lives.

Second — no surprise — she’s working with Mayday somewhere in Canada.

Third, she follows the lives of her children from afar and hopes to be reunited with them.

Does Aunt Lydia turn out to be good?

Critics are already discussing the moral standing of Aunt Lydia, whose motivations prove so much more complex in The Testaments than they seemed in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood tells TIME that she didn’t think much about Lydia’s reasons for upholding the regime when writing the original novel. But she has tapped a timely nerve with her expansion of the character in The Testaments, probing the fraught territory of women’s complicity in the bad behavior of men and walking a line that leaves room for readers to debate. Atwood won’t be weighing in. “Let Aunt Lydia speak for herself, and make up your own mind,” she says.

How does The Testaments fit into the world of the Handmaid’s Tale TV show?

The show is a continuation of Atwood’s original story, set in the world she created, and the author advises on its story through regular conversations with Miller. There are elements in The Testaments that viewers of the show will recognize. But The Testaments picks up years after June’s current life in the show, so while they are closely tied, the stories are completely different. Atwood tells TIME it was important to her to avoid writing a novelization of the Handmaid’s Tale show while also making sure not to introduce contradictions between them. There are a few details that the most vigilant of fans might recognize as different between the new book and the show, but overall they work as companion pieces.

As for the on-screen future of The Testaments, TIME broke the news that Hulu and MGM are developing the new novel for the screen, working with Miller on determining how best to produce the material. It’s unclear at this stage what form the interwoven stories of Lydia, Daisy/Nicole and Agnes Jemima will take — whether they will be incorporated into the existing show or produced another way.

What do the letters on the windowsill mean?

This question only makes sense once you’ve read the novel, but it is a tantalizing one. As she did in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood ends The Testaments with a transcript from a Gileadean studies conference long after the regime has fallen. In it, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto discusses the recently discovered manuscripts that comprise The Testaments and analyzes their contents. He shares that the letters N, A, G, V and AL are carved on a second-floor windowsill in Roosevelt Cottage, which once functioned as a refugee center for escaped Gileadeans, and says Agnes Jemima and Daisy/Nicole may have stayed there for a time. Pieixoto suggests that the letters might have been carved by the half sisters and might be the initials of the central players in their stories: Nicole, Agnes or Ada (a member of the Mayday Resistance), Garth (also Mayday), Victoria (another name Agnes Jemima goes by) and Aunt Lydia. But he points out that we will never know for sure. Atwood, for her part, suggests he’s on the right track. “I think our professor makes a pretty good guess,” she says.

Will Atwood write more Gilead novels?

Atwood’s use of Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy/Nicole to broaden and deepen our understanding of Gilead is effective. If The Handmaid’s Tale was a psychological study — a claustrophobic look at one woman’s sequesterment and inner life — The Testaments is the more sociological counterpart. Offred’s reader knew only as much as she did: very little. But the three narrators together offer a fascinating higher-level view of the world Atwood created. It’s easy to imagine that Atwood could add even more perspective on Gilead through the eyes of more characters. And she wrote the book in part because she sees the world as shifting more toward Gilead than away from it, a sentiment unlikely to dissipate in the near future.

But Atwood isn’t much for discussing her future plans — she tells TIME that doing so often leads to regret. That said, she also doesn’t say she won’t write more Gilead novels. When I ask her to confirm that she’s not saying no to the possibility, she says, “I never say never.”

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Write to Lucy Feldman at lucy.feldman@time.com