I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it—formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere: even in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?
These words from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” appear in Part III of the novel. In the first part of her manuscript Aunt Lydia kept her identity a secret, but in this section she reveals herself as the author of the manuscript. Just prior to the quotation, Aunt Lydia addresses the reader directly and expresses concern that her identity will lead her audience to judge her based solely on her reputation. This worries her, because she knows her reputation is a formidable and not altogether positive one. She notes that she has achieved something of a legendary status in Gilead, at once “a model of moral perfection to be emulated” and “a bugaloo used by the Marthas to frighten small children.” But Aunt Lydia also recognizes that anyone looking from outside will likely see her as a puppet of the patriarchal regime. It is to complicate such a judgment that she takes the time to compose her manuscript, which she frames as a defense of her life. Yet the power she has wielded may ultimately render her life indefensible.
In this quote, Aunt Lydia reflects on her complex relationship to power. She fully recognizes that she has become “swollen with power,” which has endowed her with an intoxicating sensation of invincibility. But in spite of her legendary status in Gilead, Aunt Lydia cannot wield her power out in the open. Unlike Gilead’s elite men, who possess ultimate control over social and political matters, Aunt Lydia must exercise her power underground, out of sight. This is what she means when she notes that her power has made her “nebulous—formless, shape-shifting.” Yet it is precisely Aunt Lydia’s capacity to remain invisible that makes her so formidable. Whereas male power appears in highly visible forms of violence, Aunt Lydia works silently, like a spy, relying heavily on surveillance and emotional manipulation. The relative invisibility of Aunt Lydia’s exercise of power renders her a threat even to her male colleagues. Hence her claim: “in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow.” Aunt Lydia clearly understands the power she possesses. She also clearly enjoys her power, which makes the idea of losing it and “shrink[ing] back to [her] normal size” difficult to stomach.