Summary: Part V: Van

Aunt Lydia speculates on who her future reader might be. She assumes her future reader will wonder how she has avoided being found out and executed by Gilead’s male ruling class. She attributes her political longevity to three facts. First, as the leader of the Aunts, she controls the women’s cultural sphere of Gilead. Second, she has collected a lot of dirt on those in power. Finally, she’s discreet and patiently waits for opportunities to use her power.

Aunt Lydia describes a meeting she had with Commander Judd the day before. Commander Judd controls the intelligence agency known as the Eyes and hence wields great power and influence in Gilead. He works closely with Aunt Lydia, who knows he has discreetly killed several of his wives in order to marry ever-younger women.

Commander Judd informed Aunt Lydia that agents of the Eyes in Canada killed two of the most active Mayday operatives, based on valuable information provided by Pearl Girls. Aunt Lydia notes that she came up with the Pearl Girls missionary program at a time when many Gilead women were successfully escaping to Canada. However, Commander Judd took credit for the Pearl Girls idea, which saved his political reputation. At the end of their meeting, Commander Judd expressed concern that the Canadian Mayday operatives must have been in contact with someone in Gilead.

Aunt Lydia writes of her regret at not having escaped before the coup that established Gilead but then dismisses such regret as being of no practical use. She then begins an account of her experience during the coup. Shortly after the Sons of Jacob “liquidated” the U.S. Congress, armed men came to the office where she worked as a judge. The men arrested all of the women there, and they ordered Aunt Lydia and her colleague Anita to be sent to a nearby stadium.

Summary: Part VI: Six for Dead

Agnes’s testimony picks up following the death of her mother, Tabitha. At the funeral, Agnes spoke with a recent widow named Paula, whose husband’s death had inspired gossip. Paula claimed that their Handmaid had accidentally killed her husband. However, another version circulating among Marthas held that Paula’s husband had made illicit sexual demands on the Handmaid, who had killed him for revenge. Agnes preferred the second version, and she liked to imagine Paula kneeling in a pool of her late husband’s blood. Not long after the funeral, Agnes’s father married Paula.

Around that time, a disturbing even occurred at school. Aunt Vidala told Agnes’s class the story of “the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces,” in which a man’s concubine runs away. The man finds her at the house of her father, who agrees to give her back to the man. As they journey home, lustful men come to assault the man, but instead of facing the angry mob himself, the man throws the concubine out of the house. Agnes later learned the part of the story Aunt Vidala left out, in which the man cuts the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, sends one to each of the twelve Tribes of Israel, and starts a war between them. But even without the full story, the story disturbed the girls. Becka, in particular, felt horrified by the injustice in the story and claimed that she’d never get married.

Around the same time, Agnes was entering puberty and grew concerned about her changing body. In anticipation of getting her first period, she felt like her body was a minefield. One day, she went to see the dentist, Dr. Grove, who happened to be Becka’s father. During the appointment, Dr. Grove sexually molested Agnes. She felt defiled and believed Paula knew what might happen at the dentist’s office, but she didn’t tell anybody.

At school, Shunammite spread rumors that Tabitha wasn’t Agnes’s biological mother and that her real mom was a Handmaid who had tried to smuggle her out of Gilead. Agnes felt that this story must be true. Anxious about her status as “the daughter of a slut,” Agnes prayed to Aunt Lydia.

A Handmaid joined the household to conceive Commander Kyle’s baby. The Handmaid, known as Ofkyle, eventually became pregnant and carried the child to full term. When the day came for Ofkyle to give birth, a medical complication arose, and a male physician performed an operation that saved the baby but killed the Handmaid. Traumatized, Agnes promised never to forget Ofkyle, whose real name, she learned later, was Crystal. At the Handmaid’s modest funeral, Agnes fumed silently at the injustice of her death.

Analysis: Parts V–VI

Aunt Lydia’s meeting with Commander Judd clearly demonstrates the considerable nature of the power she holds in Gilead. Despite appearing to take a subservient role, Aunt Lydia shows the extent to which Commander Judd’s reputation rests on initiatives that she created. For instance, she was the one to design and implement the Pearl Girls missionary initiative, which aimed to draw domestic and international attention away from the large numbers of fugitive women escaping from Gilead to Canada. The Pearl Girls program succeeded, and Commander Judd took credit for its success. In this way, Aunt Lydia exposes for her reader the basic fact that Commander Judd owed her his good reputation, which provided her with some security. And just as Aunt Lydia’s ingenuity propped Commander Judd up, her knowledge of his darkest secrets made it possible for her to bring him down at any time. She convinces him that she’s on his side by helping him to disguise the murders of his wives but harbors an ulterior motive that she does not yet reveal. Aunt Lydia wields her power skillfully and quietly, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Agnes continues to showcase her heretical imagination when she discusses the competing stories about the death of Paula’s husband. In Part II, Agnes described her unconventional ways of playing with her dollhouse set. From a young age, she used her imagination to subvert Gilead’s orthodox ideas about the organization of a household. Some years later, following the death of her beloved mother figure, Tabitha, Agnes once again shows herself capable of unorthodox thoughts. Agnes recounts two different stories about how Paula’s husband died. The official story, as told by Paula, had a simple and undramatic narrative that treated the man’s death as an unfortunate accident. But the alternative story, transmitted by gossipy servants, introduced elements of intrigue, betrayal, and gruesome violence into the otherwise bland official account. Attracted to good storytelling, Agnes strongly preferred the latter narrative, which fed her imagination with violent ideas of a female’s revenge on her male oppressor. In particular, the enjoyment Agnes found in picturing Paula kneeling in a pool of her husband’s body shows her natural capacity to think outside the confines of official Gilead ideology.

Agnes took a further step toward discovering the moral rottenness of Gilead as she reached puberty and saw how her changing body brought unwanted attention. From an early age, Agnes learned in the Vidala School that her body was a source of sin. She also learned that any inappropriate male attention to her body would reflect negatively on her, not the men. As such, when puberty hit and Agnes began to notice changes in her body, she feared that bad things would start happening to her. Agnes learned just how dangerous and unavoidable this minefield of her body was during an appointment with Dr. Grove, her family dentist. Dr. Grove had a good local reputation even though the some girls at school gossiped about his being a “pervert.” However, Agnes knew to respect his male authority. For this reason, she felt paralyzed and powerless when, in the middle of her appointment, he began to grope her. The experience traumatized her, not least because she felt unable report the incident since she assumed she would be blamed. Though she felt too confused at the time, the older Agnes now understands this incident as a sign of Gilead’s moral corruption as the state protected a pedophile.

Agnes approached a breaking point when she personally witnessed the injustice perpetrated against her family’s Handmaid, Ofkyle. Prior to Ofkyle’s arrival in the house, Agnes knew little about who Handmaids were or what duties they performed. They unnerved her, and she even refused to play with her Handmaid doll. But Agnes came to learn more about Handmaids and their role in Gileadean society once Ofkyle came to conceive Commander Judd’s child. Significantly, Ofkyle’s arrival roughly coincided with Agnes learning that her own biological mother was a Handmaid. At first, the news terrified and depressed her. Most people in Gilead thought of Handmaids as “sluts,” and as such, Agnes couldn’t help but think badly of her real mother. But her mind changed when she witnessed how Ofkyle was used as a breeding machine then cruelly sacrificed and summarily disposed of and forgotten. Agnes understood that her own mother may have suffered similar injustices. This realization helped Agnes begin to see the systematic subordination of Handmaids. Although she didn’t yet make the further step to link this subordination with Gilead’s state-sanctioned violence against women in general, Agnes’s outrage about Ofkyle and her mother does foreshadow her eventual willingness to join a plot against Gilead.