“They said women’s minds were too weak for reading.” Forbidden literacy in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Banned and Challenged Books

By: Kate Lechtenberg

On the day Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was released, I went to the bookstore, bought The Testaments and a pair of handmaid-themed socks, and then carried it around for the rest of the week, afraid to get started. Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale was an important book in my reading life when I read it at seventeen, and later I read and discussed the book with high school students when I was a high school English teacher. 

Margaret Atwood
author, Margaret Atwood

I wrote about how the Hulu original series of The Handmaid’s Tale brought new insights about the freedom to choose, and now, Atwood’s sequel, set fifteen years after Offred’s step into the darkness, or else the light, at the end of the original novel, brings us new mediations on the power of reading, the strength of the mind, and women and literacy.

This is not a review, since there is no shortage of praise, mixed with critique of characterization, acknowledgement of the impossibility of surpassing the original, and application to the Trump era, to be found online—as well as accounts of her recent shared-win of the Booker Prize. Instead, this is a tribute to the way Margaret Atwood makes me think anew about being a woman, reader, and citizen in today’s world.

Literature allows glimpses of worlds unimaginable

Agnes, the daughter taken from Offred before the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of three narrators in The Testaments, and because of Gilead’s strict rules against female literacy, Agnes only gains the opportunity to read when she trades the traditional female life of marriage for a different path: training to be an “Aunt,” the battalion of female enforcers in Gilead’s repressive regime.

As an adolescent learning to read, Agnes learns about the world outside Gilead from reading expurgated copies of old Dick and Jane early readers. In these doctored copies of elementary primers, Agnes is shocked to see how exposed Dick, Jane, and Baby Sally are in their world without the strictures of Gilead’s protective/restrictive social constraints:

“The most astonishing thing about these books was that Dick and Jane and Baby Sally lived in a house with nothing around it but a white wooden fence, so flimsy and low that anyone at all could climb over it.  There were no Angels, there were no Guardians. Dick and Jane and Baby Sally played outside in full view of everyone. Baby Sally could have been abducted by terrorists at any moment and smuggled to Canada, like Baby Nicole and the other stolen Innocents.  Jane’s bare knees could have aroused evil urges in any man passing by, despite the fact that everything but her face had been covered over with paint.”

page 292

Agnes is astonished at the freedom—and the accompanying danger—of life in pre-Gilead world. Looking through the paint applied by her fellow Aunts-in-training, Agnes begins to imagine the world and the stories of people who live under a different reality than her own.

Literacy Locked Up: Gilead Edition

As Agnes is trained to be an Aunt, Gileadean literacy is permitted in stages. Agnes describes her literary coming of age as a treasure unit:  “Once I’d passed my sixth-month examination and had been accepted as a permanent Supplicant, I was allowed into the Hildegard Library. It’s hard to describe the feeling this gave me. The first time I passed through its doors, I felt as if a golden key had been given to me–a key that would unlock one secret door after another, revealing to me the riches that lay within.” (page 301)

Only after years is Agnes allowed to read the Bible, “this most forbidden of books.” Agnes infers that Gilead believes a mind must be strengthened to prevent the damage that a book—even the Bible—might inflict on a lesser mind:

“Our Bibles were kept locked up, as elsewhere in Gilead: only those strong of mind and steadfast character could be trusted with them, and that ruled out women, except for the Aunts.”

page 302
Wimborne Minster: later books in the chained library image:

In contemporary U.S. society, reading is a mind-strengthening exercise; in Gilead, the mind must be strengthened to protect against books. Indeed, when she first reads the Bible, Agness realizes that the Aunts who educated her had lied to her about a key biblical story in her upbringing: “It came as a painful shock: kind, helpful Aunt Estée had lied to us. The truth was not noble, it was horrible. This was what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm” (303).

Books and the liberating power of questions

This focus on the weakness of the female mind and the corrupting power of reading is in direct contradiction to the way I have always thought about books and their place in education. Instead of fearing the contradictions that books introduce, I have often viewed books as invitations that help students contemplate, question, and embrace the world’s contradictions. 

Moreover, as a young woman, I found power and companionship in the women whose words I read and whose visions of womanhood I aspired to follow. However, since belief in Gilead is predicated on lies about everything from Bible stories to their their own history, human complexity are not viewed as strengthening challenges but dangerous assaults in the form of sacrilegious questions.

As Agnes is learning to read, she comes to understand that it is this—the liberating power of questions—that is both unsettling and life-saving:

“Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others.”

page 299

Agnes follows the questions of her own origins, her upbringing, and her own experiences in her reading, her relationships, and her pursuit of a world that can hold all of her own contradictions. This ability to sit with complexity, to dwell in the gray areas, is part of her experience and mind. It is part of the life of exploration that happens through words and stories.

Kate Lechtenberg

Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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