Margaret Atwood originally introduced Aunt Lydia in her earlier novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the character seemed fully aligned with Gilead’s oppressive policies against women. The Testaments offers a contrasting view. Prior to the coup that overthrew the United States government and established the Republic of Gilead, Aunt Lydia enjoyed a successful career as a judge. After the transition of power, she became one of four elite women charged by Commander Judd with founding the Aunts, an autonomous order that was to preside over the laws and regulations governing Gilead’s women. Over the course of The Testaments, Aunt Lydia reveals the horrifying conditions that led her to join the ranks of Gilead’s elite. She also explains how she has leveraged the power of her top position. Though no longer officially a judge, Aunt Lydia continues to administer justice in whatever ways she can. She also uses her power to gather evidence against Gilead’s authorities and to plot the regime’s downfall from within. Ultimately, the transformation that Aunt Lydia undergoes in The Testaments has less to do with a change in her character and more to do with a change in the reader’s perception of her.
As one of three narrators in the novel, Aunt Lydia records the story of her rise to power in a manuscript known as “The Ardua Hall Holograph.” Despite claiming that she joined Gilead mainly in order to survive and subvert the regime, Aunt Lydia by no means presents herself as a saint. In her manuscript, she frequently expresses her anxiety about what her unknown future reader will think of her. Aunt Lydia recognizes that her working methods have sometimes proven morally suspect. She may have labored for a good cause, but her efforts have also contributed to a great deal of suffering and even death. In addition to sacrificing individuals in service to her larger goals, she has also found no small amount of personal pleasure in manipulating others and turning them against each other. Aunt Lydia will go to virtually any length to get what she wants, and she finds her substantial power intoxicating. At one point, she even doubts her strength to remain committed to her cause and not give in to the allure of even greater power. In the end, the reader must judge whether Aunt Lydia’s contributions to the greater good outweigh the harm she has caused.