Summary: Part XXVII: Sendoff

Aunt Lydia speculates once again on who her future reader might be. She pictures a young woman scholar, bright and ambitious, who will labor tirelessly over her manuscript and eventually produce a “warts-and-all portrait” of her life.

She expresses regret that she won’t live to see Gilead’s downfall and explains her plan to use the vial of morphine to kill herself if and when the authorities come after her.

Aunt Lydia concludes her account by echoing a quotation from Mary, Queen of Scots: “In my end is my beginning.” She imagines this motto embroidered on a wall hanging.

Summary: The Thirteenth Symposium

The novel’s final section features the partial transcript of the proceedings of the Thirteenth Symposium of Gileadean Studies, which took place in June 2197 in Passamaquoddy, Maine.

Professor Maryanne Crescent Moon opens the proceedings by noting that Passamaquoddy, formerly known as Bangor, was once an important hub for refugees fleeing Gilead as well as a key stop on the Underground Railroad in the United States’s antebellum period. She then introduces the keynote speaker, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto.

Professor Pieixoto congratulates Professor Crescent Moon on her recent promotion to President of the association and apologizes for jokes of questionable taste he made at the previous symposium two years prior. Professor Pieixoto reminds the audience of the lecture he gave at the last symposium. A collection of tapes attributed to the Handmaid “Offred” had recently been discovered in a footlocker in Passamaquoddy, and he had presented his tentative conclusions about the tapes. Although some historians doubted the authenticity of the material and its dating, the professor declares that several independent studies have since confirmed his initial assumptions.

Professor Pieixoto goes on to describe two more recent discoveries. The first is a handwritten manuscript known as “The Ardua Hall Holograph,” which had been concealed in a nineteenth-century copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Carbon dating places the manuscript in the Late Gileadean period. The manuscript was apparently composed by a certain “Aunt Lydia,” whose name also appears in the footlocker tapes as well as several known Mayday debriefings. Professor Pieixoto reminds the audience of the need for skepticism and suggests the possibility that the manuscript could have been a forgery meant to frame Aunt Lydia. Nevertheless, he says much of the available evidence confirms Aunt Lydia as the manuscript’s authentic author.

Among that evidence are two other recently discovered documents, which contain witness testimonies from two young women. These women learned they were sisters and became involved in Aunt Lydia’s plot to smuggle secret documents out of Gilead. Their successful mission led to the “Ba’al Purge,” which thinned the ranks of the elite class and initiated Gilead’s final collapse. A graduate student discovered the transcripts in a university library, tucked away in file with a misleading title. She concluded that Mayday operatives must have transcribed the testimonies. Professor Pieixoto again cautions against taking the documents at face value, but he introduces a variety of evidence that strongly indicates the documents’ authenticity. He also speculates that the mother of the two women was the author of the “Handmaid’s Tale” tapes.

Professor Pieixoto concludes his lecture by discussing an inscription found on an old statue of a young woman in a Pearl Girl dress. The inscription dedicates the statue to “Becka, Aunt Immortelle” and formally recognizes the “invaluable services provided by A. L.” It states that the statue was erected by “her sisters Agnes and Nicole and their mother, their two fathers, their children and their grandchildren.”

Analysis: Part XXVII and The Thirteenth Symposium

Aunt Lydia has labored to create an opening for women’s liberation, and her vision of a female scholar discovering her manuscript represents a freer future that she hopes her work will help bring to pass. When Aunt Lydia envisions this female graduate student, she flouts the conventions that oppress women in Gilead. With the exception of Aunts, Gileadean law forbade women from reading or writing, and barred them from all access to information. This system sought to keep women ignorant and complacent with their lot and to prevent them from learning about alternative ways of living and thinking. By contrast, the graduate student Aunt Lydia imagines has not only received an education, but has pursued her education to its furthest reaches. As a scholar, she doesn’t just study the world; she actively contributes to the archive of human knowledge. In such a future where women occupy the highest echelons of learning, the basic rights that Aunt Lydia has worked so hard to revive will seem so commonplace that women might not even think much of them. As such, Aunt Lydia humorously suggests that her future scholar might even grow bored as she works on the manuscript.

Aunt Lydia concludes her manuscript by positioning herself in a lineage stretching back to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary served as the Queen of Scotland from 1542 to 1567. Her reign ended in a moment of crisis that forced her to abdicate the throne to her one-year-old son. After trying and failing to retrieve the throne, Mary sought protection from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. But Elizabeth distrusted Mary and threw her in prison for eighteen years. History best remembers Mary for being convicted of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Found guilty in 1586, Mary was executed the following year. In the period shortly preceding her death, Mary embroidered the words: “In my end is my beginning.” It is these words that Aunt Lydia invokes at the conclusion of her manuscript. By repeating this motto, Aunt Lydia draws attention to certain parallels between her life and Mary’s. Like the Queen of Scots, Aunt Lydia was forcibly removed from power and unjustly imprisoned in oppressive circumstances. Aunt Lydia also sees a parallel between Mary’s alleged involvement in a plot to take down Elizabeth and her own plot to take down Gilead. This quotation also reflects her hope that, like Mary, she will be remembered by generations to come.

Just as the book opened with a statue, so it concludes with one. The Testaments begins with Aunt Lydia describing a statue of her likeness that the Aunts had commissioned to celebrate her accomplishments. That statue portrayed a young Aunt Lydia presiding over two other figures: a Handmaid and a Pearl Girl. However, it remained unclear whether the sculpture’s dominant figure empowered the other women or subjugated them. By contrast, the statue that concludes the novel clearly celebrates female empowerment. This statue depicts Becka, a young woman who readily gave her life to enable two other young women complete a mission of the utmost importance. Furthermore, the statue also features text that clarifies in no uncertain terms who the sculpture is meant to celebrate. Commissioned by Agnes and Daisy, the statue celebrates Becka not only as a hero but as their sister. Like the first statue, this one also honors the work of Aunt Lydia, cryptically referenced as “A.L.” Ironically, the statue of Becka honors Aunt Lydia’s legacy more fully than the earlier statue of her own likeness. Unlike the earlier statue, the later one truly encapsulates Aunt Lydia’s belief in female liberation; the ambiguity of her purpose is gone, and now she is remembered as she wanted to be: a champion for female liberation.