Embroidery

Crafts are used as a socially acceptable form of creative expression for women in Gilead. When young, upper-class women attend a school that prepares them for married life, they learn all sorts of domestic crafts to signal a Wife’s virtue. However, in contrast to other crafts, embroidery carries a subversive significance throughout The Testaments. For instance, as she waited for the Aunts to arrange her marriage, Agnes embroidered a skull. Although the skull was a traditional symbol within Christian iconography, it carried a secret meaning for Agnes, who embroidered it in order to curse Paula. Thus, under cover of embroidery’s virtue, Agnes expressed her hatred for a cruel woman. Embroidery’s subversive possibilities arise again when Agnes learns to read and write, two skills Gilead’s patriarchy considers dangerous for women. When Agnes has trouble with writing, Becka says that writing is just like embroidery, suggesting that the well-regarded domestic craft may carry an intrinsic danger to Gilead. Finally, Aunt Lydia concludes her manuscript with a reference to a famous phrase that Mary, Queen of Scots embroidered just before she was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Likening embroidery to political intrigue, Aunt Lydia writes: “Such excellent embroiderers, women are.”

Escape

Women try every method possible to escape Gilead and its oppressive regime. Many attempt physical escapes, moving along the Underground Femaleroad toward Canada. In Part VII, Aunt Lydia admits that Gilead has “an embarrassingly high emigration rate,” and the reader sees evidence of this throughout the novel. Agnes and Daisy’s mother managed a successful escape. Others who have less success, such as Paula’s Handmaid, are caught and executed for treason. The restriction of women’s freedoms that drives Gilead’s women to flee physically also causes them to attempt other methods of escape, namely suicide. The issue of suicide arises frequently in The Testaments. Becka, for instance, tries to kill herself in order to avoid having to get married. Agnes also contemplates suicide to evade the trauma of a forced marriage. Other examples include Shunammite’s reference to a Handmaid who drank drain cleaner and Becka’s story of Aunt Lily’s suicide. The motif of escape threaded throughout The Testaments underscores the horrific circumstances that drive many Gileadean women to seek a way out regardless of the cost.

Aphorisms

Gileadeans frequently use aphorisms in everyday speech, which indicates the unreflective and rote nature of their beliefs. The first usage of aphorisms occurs when Ada, a Mayday operative who grew up in Gilead, casually mutters to Daisy, “Least said, soonest mended.” Aunt Lydia says the same phrase in the novel’s next section, suggesting the commonness of the formulaic expression throughout Gilead. In a few instances, Aunt Lydia comments indirectly on the use of aphorisms in Gilead. For instance, in Part III, she describes the Latin saying that she herself made up to serve as the official motto for Ardua Hall: Per Ardua Cum Estrus. She doesn’t fully define the motto for the reader, but she does note that the words she used to compose it have multiple, contradictory meanings. As such, none of the women who utter the motto on a daily basis have a firm grasp of what it really means. Aunt Lydia relishes the irony of believers uttering expressions of belief they don’t actually understand, as it highlights the shaky foundation and weak-mindedness of the regime. The frequent use of aphorisms in Gilead thus demonstrates a widespread willingness to mindlessly follow authority.

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