What is the significance of the novel’s title?
The English word “testament” has multiple meanings, each of which resonates with some aspect of the novel. Firstly, “testament” can refer to a sign of a particular quality. For example, the novel opens and concludes with discussions of statues erected as testaments to notable qualities embodied by Aunt Lydia and Becka. This meaning of testament also relates closely to another word: “testify.” To testify means to give evidence, and all three of the novel’s narrators are telling their story—testifying—about their involvement in the plot that initiated Gilead’s downfall. Importantly, the word “testament” only appears once in the novel, on the final page. After cautioning his audience against taking the testimonies of Aunt Lydia, Agnes, and Daisy at face value, Professor Pieixoto offers evidence for why he believes the testimonies are authentic. He discusses an inscription on a statue of a Pearl Girl that he believes Agnes and Daisy erected to honor their friend Becka. He declares: “I myself take this inscription to be a convincing testament to the authenticity of our two witness transcripts.”
“Testament” has two additional meanings relevant to the novel. First, the word can refer to a person’s legal will, in which someone declares what will happen to their property upon their death. Though not explicitly framed as a last will and testament, Aunt Lydia intends for her manuscript to be discovered and read following her death. Furthermore, just as death leads to the dissolution of the deceased person’s estate, Aunt Lydia hopes her own death will be followed by the dissolution of Gilead itself. The third meaning of the word “testament” relates to the two main divisions of the Bible. Whereas the Old Testament contains the story of how a rift developed between humans and God, the New Testament reveals how God repaired that rift by returning to the world as Jesus Christ. Between the Old and the New Testaments, God undergoes a transformation from vengeful to forgiving. The Testaments projects a similar transformation of Gilead’s society from something oppressive and patriarchal into something with the possibility of justice and equality.
What is the importance of Aunt Lydia’s former career as a judge?
Aunt Lydia’s background as a judge indicates that she possesses a strong legal mind with the capacity to take in the big picture. This quality make her a brilliant strategist and a formidable enemy. Soon after her initial arrest, men escorted Aunt Lydia to meet Commander Judd, a powerful founding member of the Sons of Jacob. When he asked her to cooperate with the new regime without explaining what cooperation would entail, she invoked her identity as a judge and told him she refused to sign a “blank contract.” Insisting that Aunt Lydia was no longer a judge, Commander Judd subjected her to days of torture, the aim of which was to break her will and convince her to rethink her position. Though Aunt Lydia eventually agreed to his proposition, she inwardly refused to abandon her training in law and justice. As she puts the matter in Part XI: “Once a judge, always a judge.”
Under the new regime, Aunt Lydia immediately put her training as a lawyer and judge to work, carefully observing her colleagues and collecting evidence about any thoughts, behaviors, and actions that might come in handy at a later date. Aunt Lydia gradually expanded her capacity to acquire information by setting up a sophisticated surveillance network that allowed her to gather intelligence on all of the Aunts living at Ardua Hall. Furthermore, as she gained more power in Gilead and found herself in the confidences of the regime’s most elite figures, she collected damning information about the people who ran Gilead. Although Gileadean law rarely worked in women’s favor, Aunt Lydia found unconventional ways to administer justice to those, like Dr. Grove, whose behavior she judged unforgivable. Finally, Aunt Lydia found a way to smuggle her collection of evidence out of Gilead and present it before the international court of public opinion, which would judge Gilead guilty.
In what ways is The Testaments hopeful, and in what ways is it not?
The ending of The Testaments expresses hope because the novel concludes with Agnes and Daisy successfully completing their mission. They persisted through the emotional and physical difficulties that attended every leg of their journey. Their triumphant escape meant they could deliver the top-secret documents, which made an immediate splash as Canadian news media began to release them. Thus, at novel’s end, the downfall of Gilead seems imminent. More optimism comes from the family dynamics between Agnes, Daisy, and their mother. Agnes and Daisy appear ready to work through their many differences and find solace in their sisterhood. In a novel that has shown how common it is for women treat each other cruelly and thereby uphold the patriarchy, their willingness to find a common cause offers a hopeful message. Additionally, these young women are finally reunited with their mother. As someone who also went through hell to escape Gilead and save one of her daughters, this reunion represents the happy culmination of many years of hardship.
Although the novel has an ultimately happy ending, a couple of details issue a warning. For instance, in a brief moment of dark humor, Aunt Lydia notes how history repeats itself. At the end of her account, she imagines that her future reader—a female graduate student—will occasionally grow bored of working on her manuscript. The graduate student will find it dull because it will be hard for her to fully understand or sympathize with the kind of oppression women faced in Gilead. Such a situation may seem positive, in the sense that equal rights for women would have become commonplace and familiar. Yet such a situation could also lead to the same complacency that allowed for the establishment of Gilead in the first place. Another cause for concern relates to the fact that the novel concludes with a male scholar, not a female as Aunt Lydia had hoped. Given that the novel braids together the voices of three historically significant women, it is significant that a male historian who has made sexist jokes has the last word—particularly given that history has traditionally been written by men.