in medias res

I have been reading The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I had read soon after its release in 1985. Although 34 years have passed between the publication of these two novels, within the dystopian universe of Gilead it has been only 15 years. Initially I thought Margaret Atwood made this temporal choice in order to provide both herself and the showrunners of the Hulu television series a specific degree of creative breathing room as the seasons continue to unfold. However, I soon realized the narratives for at least two of the main characters demand a time gap of less than a generation. Atwood has been handling the separate threads deftly for the reader. I am at the point in the story when the three primary characters are beginning to converge.

In The Histories, Herodotus relates when Croesus and Solon met. Croesus is the wealthy and powerful king of Lydia, while Solon helped establish Athenian democracy and is now considered one of the Seven Sages. Croesus asks Solon: Who is the happiest man in the world? However, much like the mirror, mirror, on the wall, Solon does not respond that his questioner is the finest. Instead, Solon eventually informs Croesus that no one can judge the happiness of a life until after it has ended. Under this view, I cannot provide a proper review of The Testaments until after I have finished the book, nor can we consider the happiness (or any other condition) of its characters until we reflect on their lives well after they have died.

As a counterpoint to Herodotus, when I taught my course Revolutions of Circularity, on the second of the three days that we discussed Plato’s Meno, I asked the students to consider the dialogue in medias res — in the middle of things — and to predict the flow of the conversation based upon what they had read so far. I reminded them that we are always in the middle of our lives, yet we are called upon to make decisions and judgments.

(Decisions and judgments, testaments and secrets: these are central themes in the novel.)

So while I cannot provide a comprehensive review of The Testaments because I have not yet finished the book, I would still recommend it to anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale and seen all three seasons of the Hulu series. And if you have not yet read and seen those, of course you must, and you must start there.

And while we perhaps cannot fully judge the happiness (or any other condition) of the characters until after their deaths, as with the the first novel, the very existence of these testaments suggests that the reader inhabits a far-flung future, more enlightened at last and at least in some ways, than the misogynistic theocracy of Gilead.

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