Summary: Part XIX: Study

Aunt Lydia recounts how Aunt Vidala had startled her the previous evening by suddenly appearing at her private carrel in the library. Aunt Lydia had stuffed her manuscript away just in time. Aunt Vidala expressed her concern about the new arrival, Jade (Daisy’s alias in Gilead). Vidala worried that the girl might be a Mayday infiltrator and insinuated that she’d like to interrogate her. Aunt Lydia said she preferred subtler methods.

Afterward, Aunt Lydia went to Commander Judd’s home to speak with him. His new Wife, Shunammite, who had married the Commander after Agnes joined the Aunts, greeted her at the door. Aunt Lydia noted that Shunammite looked ill and offered to get her husband’s permission to send her to a clinic for an evaluation.

Upon entering Commander Judd’s office, Aunt Lydia noticed a nineteenth-century painting of a mostly-naked young girl, hovering over a mushroom with a smirk on her face. On his shelves, she saw biographies of Napoleon and Stalin as well as rare illustrated editions of Dante’s Inferno and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Aunt Lydia informed the Commander of Aunt Vidala’s concerns about Daisy and concluded that her colleague was no longer reliable. She also suggested that he send Shunammite to the Calm and Balm Clinic for treatment, implying that she would take care of killing the young woman there so that he could “remain above suspicion.”

To her reader, Aunt Lydia confesses that she feels “poised on the razor’s edge,” with two ways to proceed. Either she could continue with her plan to use Daisy to topple Gilead, or she could hand Daisy over to Commander Judd and rise to even greater power. She wonders whether, after having taken her plan so far, she could abandon her own desire for vengeance.

Summary: Part XX: Bloodlines

In Part XX, the witness testimonies of Agnes and Daisy begin to interweave.

Daisy explains her first impression of Gilead as a “slippery” place where she couldn’t read people’s facial expressions or understand the real meaning of what they said. She recalls how upset she felt by the execution she witnessed the day after she arrived. She wondered whether her mother, a Handmaid, had been as “feral” as the Handmaids who tore the two men apart.

The narrative shifts to Agnes’s testimony, which recounts the challenges she and Becka faced in trying to teach Daisy how to behave in Gilead. Daisy lacked gratitude for the food she was served. She also spoke glibly about shaving her green hair, which caused a horrified Becka to cite Corinthians I: “A woman’s hair is her glory.”

In her testimony, Daisy registers that neither Agnes nor Becka approved of her. Yet she had no one else to speak to, and she suffered from fear and homesickness. She worried, too, that the person Ada and Garth had called “the source” might not even exist, meaning she might never get out of Gilead.

Agnes elaborates on other aspects of her disapproval of Daisy, who proved an untidy and unthoughtful roommate. More damning was the tattoo on Daisy’s forearm. According to Daisy, it marked her conversion to the true faith, but Agnes notes how Daisy once called God “an imaginary friend.” Agnes also recalls how Daisy performed strenuous exercises in her room in order to stay strong to fend off aggressive men.

Agnes continued to receive folders of top-secret information. One morning she found a file from the Bloodlines Genealogical Archives with information about her own lineage, including a photograph of her mother. The file also revealed that her mother had a second child: Baby Nicole. Agnes felt a mix of excitement and confusion.

One day, Aunt Lydia summoned Daisy to her office and revealed herself as the source who had been in contact with the Mayday operatives in Canada. She surgically inserted a microdot into the raised scar under the letter “O” in Daisy’s tattoo.

Two days after reading the file about her mother, Agnes went with Becka to Aunt Lydia’s office and found Daisy already there. Aunt Lydia explained that Daisy was Baby Nicole and that she was Agnes’s sister. She also explained how, despite its noble goals, Gilead had turned rotten to the core, which both Agnes and Becka should understand given the secret folders she’d been sneaking them for years.

Aunt Lydia then laid out a plan to smuggle Daisy out of Gilead. Agnes and Becka were scheduled to do their Pearl Girls missionary work soon, but Daisy would exchange places with Becka and go to Canada with Agnes in her stead.

Analysis: Parts XIX–XX

Shunammite’s marriage to Commander Judd carries a tragic irony. As Agnes has explained, Shunammite was a bold and shameless social climber from an early age. When they were in the Vidala School together, Shunammite claimed to be Agnes’s best friend. But Agnes understood that Shunammite only befriended her to gain access to power since Agnes’s father, Commander Kyle, occupied a high position in Gilead’s social hierarchy. Later on, when she reached marriageable age, Shunammite felt impatient for her wedding. She longed to possess the power and prestige that would come to her as the Wife of an elite male. Shunammite’s commitment to achieving the most advantageous marriage possible eventually led her to abandon her first engagement. When she learned that Agnes had joined the Aunts, she took the opportunity to rearrange her betrothal and marry Commander Judd instead—all at Aunt Lydia’s suggestion. And yet, considering everything the reader now knows about Commander Judd’s propensity to poison his Wives, we see how Shunammite’s great social achievement in marrying the man carries a tragic irony. All her social climbing has led her into a lion’s den, likely to die a painful and pointless death.

Aunt Lydia’s impromptu meeting with Commander Judd in his home office gave her a revealing glimpse of the man’s character as an abuser. The first thing she noticed upon entering was a painting. He attempted to hide this painting from female eyes by placing it behind a door that, under normal circumstances, remained open whenever a woman was present. The painting reflected Commander Judd’s perverse sexual attraction to very young women. It depicted a girl wearing little more than an inviting grin, suggestively hovering above a forest mushroom that resembled a penis. When Aunt Lydia concludes in her manuscript that the painting encapsulated the Commander’s immoral desires, she implies that the phallic mushroom serves as a stand-in for the Commander and that he imagines himself about to have sex with the youthful nymph. The second thing Aunt Lydia noticed in Commander Judd’s office were his books. In particular, she noted the biographies of two controversial male leaders: Napoleon Bonaparte and Joseph Stalin. Stalin, in particular, has a historical reputation as a man who enacted extraordinary violence in the service of his own political ideology. These biographies indicate that Commander Judd strives to attain a greatness through war and conquering, similar to these men of the past.

At the conclusion of Part XIX, Aunt Lydia’s confession that she feels poised on a razor’s edge demonstrates her vulnerability. Despite the confidence she has exuded since she first became one of the four Founders of the Aunts and despite the power she has accumulated in the years since, Aunt Lydia remains doubtful about whether she’ll be able to bring her plan to topple Gilead to completion. Significantly, her doubt does not stem from a question about her own abilities but from a desire to save her own skin. Like everyone else, Aunt Lydia is only human and hence may succumb to the temptation for even more power and influence, especially given the inevitability of her execution should she try to topple Gilead. A more skeptical reading is that Aunt Lydia is leveraging this climactic moment to add tension to her story. She has frequently shown concern about her future reader and what they might think of her. As such, the suggestion that she feels tempted to give up might be a ploy to make her look more vulnerable than she is and hence earn the reader’s praise when she overcomes her own temptation. In either case, the fact remains that Aunt Lydia is taking grave personal risk by engaging in acts against the state.

Part XX represents a significant turning point in the novel when the distinct narrative threads belonging to Agnes and Daisy begin to weave together. Prior to this point, the narrative followed a predictable pattern in which sections of testimony from Agnes and Daisy appeared on their own, separated by sections of Aunt Lydia’s manuscript. Now, however, the narrative begins to alternate quickly between their distinct points of view. On the surface, this shift in narrative strategy reflects the fact that Agnes and Daisy have met and now live together at Ardua Hall. The oscillation between their points of view also serves the purpose of speeding up the narrative pace, accelerating toward the novel’s climax. Yet the coming-together of their two testimonies also reflects that their lives are connected in more profound ways that have, until now, remained hidden. More specifically, the shift in narrative strategy draws attention to their shared origins and points toward their shared destiny. Agnes and Daisy are bound together by blood, and the journey they will take in ensuing chapters will bind them further through shared action toward a common goal.