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The Testaments opens with a document titled “The Ardua Hall Holograph,” written in the first person by a woman whom we later learn is Aunt Lydia. The narrator describes a ceremony that occurred nine years prior to honor her achievements and reveal a statue of her likeness. Her colleague and enemy, Aunt Vidala, grudgingly presided over the ceremony.
The statue is larger than life, and it depicts the narrator as a younger woman in a strong, confident stance, looking far away toward “some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty.” The statue also includes two other figures: a Handmaid and a Pearl Girl. In the nine years since its creation, the statue has weathered. Devotees have taken to placing eggs, oranges, croissants, and other offerings at the statue’s feet.
The narrator directly addresses her unknown future reader and expresses concern about the risk she runs by writing this manuscript. She’s writing her testimony in a private room in the Ardua Hall library. She confesses that she has spilled her share of blood in service to Gilead’s reigning regime, which seeks to prepare the way for a “morally pure generation” to come.
Part II shifts to a new narrator named Agnes Jemima, who gives testimony about what it was like to grow up within Gilead. Her narrative is entitled “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A.”
Agnes belonged to an elite family, which meant she was destined to marry a Commander. Her privilege enabled her to attend a special school run by the strict Aunt Vidala and the comparatively gentle Aunt Estée. Aunt Vidala taught that all girls were “precious flowers” and needed to be kept safe from the ravenous men of the world. By contrast, Aunt Estée insisted that some men were decent and that when it came time for the girls to marry, the Aunts would help choose one of the decent ones.
Agnes enjoyed a loving relationship with her mother, Tabitha, who liked to tell a fantastical story about how she chose Agnes from a group of girls locked in an enchanted castle. Every night they sang a prayer about angels keeping watch over them. The prayer soothed Agnes, but it also made her wonder about the difference between biblical angels and the armed guards called “Angels.”
Together with Tabitha, Agnes played with a deluxe dollhouse set that included several dolls. She made the Commander doll act quiet and distant like her own father, Commander Kyle. Agnes left the Handmaid doll in the box since Handmaids made her nervous. Though she didn’t know what Handmaids did, she suspected they took part in “something damaging, or something damaged.” The dollhouse set also came with an Aunt doll, which Agnes kept locked in the cellar. The Martha doll pretended not to hear when the Aunt doll cried for help.
Agnes explains that her second name, Jemima, came from the story of Job. According to the Bible, Job lost his children when God tested him. When Job passed the test, God gave him new children, one of whom was named Jemima. Agnes wondered why Job would accept the replacement children and forget about the dead ones.
Tabitha grew ill, and when she was resting, Agnes spent time with her household’s three Marthas: Vera, Rosa, and Zilla. The Marthas refused to let Agnes help them in their duties. They thought she needed to prepare herself to become a Wife, in which position she would preside over her own Marthas. They did let her play with scraps of dough. Agnes liked to fashion dough men since eating them gave her a sense of power.
At school, Agnes’s peers included Becka and Shunammite. Becka was shy and quiet. By contrast, Shunammite was brash and belligerent. She claimed to be Agnes’s best friend, but Agnes suspected her of social climbing since Shunammite’s father wasn’t as prominent as Commander Kyle. Shunammite had learned from her Martha that Agnes’s mother was dying. The rumor upset Agnes, who insisted that Tabitha was merely sick.
The Testaments is the sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and anyone who has read the earlier novel will instantly recognize the first narrator as a woman living in the Republic of Gilead. For such readers, the Handmaid depicted in the statue will recall the previous novel’s chilling story of Offred, who navigated the terrifying coup that transformed the United States into a theocratic regime ruled by a patriarchal elite known as the Sons of Jacob. Under the dystopian government of Gilead, the sphere of women had its own hierarchy. Aunts stood at the top, presiding over the legal and religious ideology regulating all women in Gilead’s society. Below them stood Wives, the most elite of whom were married to high-ranking Commanders. Wives presided over the other women in their homes. Households of prominent Commanders had servants known as Marthas, who did the cooking and cleaning. Below all others stood the Handmaids, a subclass of women whose only official value in an increasingly barren society was their ability to conceive children. Stripped of her identity and referred to by derivatives of her Commander’s name, a Handmaid bore her master’s children while often suffering the jealous hatred of his Wife.
The manuscript called “The Ardua Hall Holograph” opens with the description of a statue that symbolizes female power. The reader does not yet know whom the statue memorializes, but it’s clear that the woman holds a place of privilege. More specifically, she’s likely a prominent Aunt, as suggested by the way the figure in the statue presides over a Handmaid and a so-called Pearl Girl. The offerings her admirers place at the statue’s feet all honor specifically female attributes. The eggs symbolize fertility, the oranges symbolize pregnancy, and the croissants symbolize the moon, which is traditionally gendered female. Yet for all these symbols of her power, the narrator primes the reader to wonder just how worthy of honor she really is. The statue itself is nine years old and significantly weathered, suggesting that time may also have worn down the confident idealism depicted in her younger self. Furthermore, it is unclear how the viewer should understand her relationship to the other two women included in the sculpture. Does she stand over them in a relationship of collective empowerment, or does she use her power to subjugate them? The ambiguity of female power enshrined in the statue sets the tone for “The Ardua Hall Holograph.”
The first narrator’s concern about the risks of writing indicates how her manuscript poses a twofold threat. On the one hand, her manuscript poses a specific political threat. The confessional tone with which she concludes Part I implies that she writes for the sake of posterity. That is, she has a story to tell about her own actions that, though perhaps distasteful for her future reader, will nonetheless shed light on her own efforts to subvert the Republic of Gilead. On the other hand, her manuscript poses a more general social threat. Anyone who has previously read The Handmaid’s Tale knows that Gilead’s male leadership has forbidden all women from reading and writing. The only women who retain these privileges are Aunts, who only gain access to the library after receiving an intensive education that ensures their unwavering support of the ruling ideology. In summary, the fact that a woman is writing this manuscript seems dangerous enough, and the fact that an Aunt might be writing against the regime may well prove revolutionary.
Despite enjoying a happy childhood in Gilead, the novel’s second narrator, Agnes Jemima, harbored heretical thoughts from an early age. For example, the deluxe dollhouse her mother gave her was clearly designed as a tool for the ideological indoctrination of young girls. The set implicitly reinforced the traditional social hierarchy within the elite Gilead home by including a Commander, a Wife, a Martha, a Handmaid, and an Aunt. Yet the way Agnes played with her dolls demonstrates an innate distrust of the traditional domestic hierarchy. She removed the Handmaid from circulation altogether. She also reversed the usual hierarchy of power among women. Instead of presiding over other women, the Aunt doll got locked in the cellar, begging the unsympathetic Martha doll to let her out. Agnes’s active imagination clearly subverted Gilead’s social norms. Agnes also challenged Gilead’s religious ideology when she learned the origin of her second name, Jemima. In the Bible, Jemima was the name of one of the children God gave Job after he lost his original children in one of God’s moral tests. Agnes wondered why Job accepted the new children instead of revolting against God’s cruelty. These heretical thoughts foreshadow her eventual break with Gilead.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Testaments!