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The author of “The Ardua Hall Holograph” reflects on the appearance of her aging body. She explains that though she used to be “handsome,” but now the best word to describe her look would be “imposing.” She also wonders how her story will end. She wonders whether she’ll die of old age, or if the state will execute her. She recognizes that she still has some choice in how she’ll die, which is “freedom of a sort.”
Once again addressing the reader, the narrator explicitly reveals her identity as Aunt Lydia, a legendary figure who serves as a “model of moral perfection” yet has become tainted by power. She also notes that before Gilead, she was a family court judge.
Aunt Lydia writes this installment on Easter. She describes the meal the Aunts shared at Ardua Hall, where she saw Aunt Elizabeth take one more egg than her share. She also describes how she led the Prayer of Grace, which ends with a motto she wrote herself: Per Ardua Cum Estrus. It brings her pleasure that the other Aunts don’t know for sure what the motto means but that they nonetheless repeat the words piously.
Aunt Lydia notes how she has used the figure known as Baby Nicole as a propaganda tool. Baby Nicole is the name of an infant who, many years prior, was successfully smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada. Ever since that infamous event, Aunt Lydia has mobilized Baby Nicole’s image in various ways to manipulate the emotions of people in Gilead. Aunt Lydia remarks that Baby Nicole still has “a brilliant future.”
After the Easter meal, she retreated into the depths of the library. She has a private inner sanctum there with a small personal library of forbidden books as well as a set of files containing the secret histories of Gilead. It is in this sanctum that Aunt Lydia composes her manuscript, which she keeps hidden inside a copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, meaning “A Defence of One’s Life.” She reflects on the appropriateness of the book’s title. Like Cardinal Newman, she is writing to defend her life.
Part IV shifts to a new narrator named Daisy, who is giving testimony about her involvement in “this whole story.” Her narrative is entitled “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B.” Daisy begins her story just before what she thought was her sixteenth birthday, around the time she discovered that everything in her life was a lie.
Her parents, Melanie and Neil, owned and operated a used clothing store called The Clothes Hound in Toronto, Canada. Melanie worked the sales floor and managed inventory, and Neil did the accounting. Neil also collected a variety of objects on shelves in his office, and he had a special interest in cameras. He also kept a mysterious object in his safe, which Daisy thought was a toy but never got to play with. Daisy spent virtually all of her free time helping out in the store since Melanie worried about her staying in the house alone.
In addition to customers, several other types frequented the store. Street people sometimes came in to use the restroom. A middle-aged woman named Ada also visited often. Melanie claimed she was a close friend, but Daisy found it suspicious that Ada always arrived in a different car. Finally, silver-clad missionaries from Gilead—known as “Pearl Girls”—occasionally came in to deliver brochures. Many of these brochures featured images and slogans related to Baby Nicole.
Melanie and Neil were different from other parents. For one thing, they had no photographs of Daisy growing up. For another, they were overprotective. Just before her sixteenth birthday, Daisy attended an assembly protesting Gilead’s human rights violations against her parents’ wishes. At first, the protest thrilled her, but when skirmishes broke out, she tried to flee. Ada found her in the crowd and escorted her home, where she saw herself on the news.
Three days later, there was a break-in at The Clothes Hound, and Neil said the thieves had taken an old camera. That night, the news reported on a Pearl Girl known as Aunt Adrianna, who was found dead, hanging from a doorknob in a condo.
On the day of her birthday, Daisy went to school as usual. But at the end of the day, Ada appeared to pick her up instead of Melanie and explained that Daisy’s parents had both died from a car bomb planted outside their store.
In the second part of her manuscript, the author of “The Ardua Hall Holograph” reveals herself as Aunt Lydia. Readers of The Handmaid’s Tale will know that Aunt Lydia featured prominently in that novel as one of the most formidable and dangerous female representatives of Gilead’s theocratic regime. Aunt Lydia made many misogynist statements that showed her to be complicit in sustaining the patriarchal system of male dominance. Offred, the protagonist of the earlier novel, had special contempt for Aunt Lydia, who compelled her to go through a traumatic process of “re-education.” However, now that Aunt Lydia speaks from her own point of view, her character begins to take on a different appearance. Whereas in The Handmaid’s Tale the reader only ever viewed Aunt Lydia through the eyes of others, her first-person narrative in The Testaments promises to provide a behind-the-scenes account of her own experience. Even if such an account may not exonerate her of her crimes, it may help explain the reasons for her involvement with Gilead’s ruling class and the actions she’s performed on its behalf.
Aunt Lydia presents herself as a woman who wields great power, and already the reader can discern some of the sources of her power. For one thing, she takes pleasure in her ability to manipulate others. When she turned the story of Baby Nicole into propaganda, she demonstrated her significant influence over the hearts and minds of everyday people in Gilead. Yet Aunt Lydia’s ability to manipulate others does not always serve the interests of the Gileadean regime. For instance, she clearly relishes the confusion that her Latin motto causes her fellow Aunts. In this case, her manipulation has a subversive effect since the Aunts’ blind display of piety demonstrates how statements of faith in Gilead are often only skin deep. Stated differently, Aunt Lydia shows that her fellow Aunts either don’t believe what they say, or else they don’t understand their own beliefs. As the example of the Latin motto shows, Aunt Lydia has a leg up on others in large part because she knows more than they do. She collects secrets about other people’s behavior, both through her own observations and through a network of surveillance equipment and informants. As a former judge, Aunt Lydia is symbolically poised to gather evidence and pass judgment.
When Aunt Lydia declares that she possesses “freedom of a sort,” she points to the ambiguous nature of the choices she has had to make throughout her life. As a woman living under a male-dominated regime, Aunt Lydia’s options have been strictly limited. Yet whatever constraints others may have placed on her, she also recognizes that she has never fully lost the power to make choices. Given the nature of her restrictions, those choices have not always been easy to make or to stomach. Even so, she made her own choices and wishes to take responsibility for them, provided that she has an opportunity to clarify the context in which she made them. To give a sense of the high stakes involved in her decision-making, Aunt Lydia describes how she possesses the dubious “freedom” to choose how she will die. Either she can continue to write her manuscript and risk a horrific execution at the hands of the state, or she can stay silent and die of old age. The former path entails great personal suffering but for a greater cause. The latter path ensures relative personal comfort, but the betrayal of her personal beliefs.
Daisy’s narrative introduces a new kind of genre to The Testaments: that of the thriller. The other two narrators’ accounts read like memoirs. Aunt Lydia’s narrative reads like a confessional memoir, and Agnes’s narrative reads like a coming-of-age memoir. By contrast, Daisy’s account of how she became involved in “this whole story” uses foreshadowing to add tension and plant clues about false identities, foreign spies, and covert revolutionary operatives. Daisy begins her story by telling the reader how she found out her whole life was a “fraud.” Although she is not specific about what she means by this, Daisy offers several clues that the facts of her life didn’t quite add up. Her parents, for instance, struck her as oddly overprotective, and the lack of photographs of her as a child also seemed suspicious. She mentions a mysterious object in Neil’s safe, which we later learn is a covert communication device. In Neil’s office, there’s also a poster that reads, “Loose lips sink ships.” The poster is a piece of World War II–era paraphernalia urging people to hold their secrets close, and it foreshadows the revelation that Neil and Melanie are both operatives in the covert revolutionary group known as Mayday.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Testaments!