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Aunt Lydia describes how Commander Judd had summoned her for a meeting earlier in the day. She believes that he considers her “the embodiment of his will.” Commander Judd reported that his Wife was suffering some affliction of the internal organs. Aunt Lydia offered to arrange a consultation at the Calm and Balm Clinic at Ardua Hall. Commander Judd declined the offer, and Aunt Lydia suspected that his Wife would die soon, putting him in search of another young bride.
Commander Judd told Aunt Lydia that the Canadian government had officially ruled Aunt Adrianna’s death a suicide. Gilead’s official response would be that the Canadian government was covering up Mayday terrorist activities. Aunt Lydia praised the official response despite knowing the real story. Aunt Sally, who had served with Aunt Adrianna as a Pearl Girl in Toronto, had come to see her immediately upon returning to Ardua Hall. Aunt Sally had explained that Aunt Adrianna had suddenly attacked her and that she had killed her in self-defense. Aunt Sally also suspected that Melanie and Neil’s daughter may have been Baby Nicole. Once she confirmed that Aunt Sally hadn’t told anyone else about her experiences in Canada, Aunt Lydia sent her to the Margery Kempe Retreat House, where she would be drugged into oblivion.
Commander Judd explained that the Eyes discovered among Neil’s possessions a microdot camera, an old technology once used to print information on easily concealable microscopic dots. He suspected that someone in Gilead was using the same technology to communicate with Mayday operatives, and Aunt Lydia pledged that they would “outfox Mayday yet.”
Aunt Lydia returns to the story of her arrest. She describes the unsanitary conditions of the stadium and its restrooms, which reduced the women to subhuman animals. Each day more women were executed, and one afternoon Aunt Lydia noticed women among those performing the executions. On the sixth night, guards took Anita, and men came for Aunt Lydia the following night. The men escorted her to a former police station, where she met Commander Judd. He asked her if she would cooperate, and she said she couldn’t agree without knowing more details.
He ordered her sent to the “Thank Tank” for solitary confinement. After an unknown period of time, men came and beat her. Sometime later guards took her from the cell and brought her to a luxury hotel room. She recuperated there for three days, at the end of which she found laid out for her a garment that she recognized from seeing it on the female shooters at the stadium. Not knowing what else to do, she put it on.
Agnes describes the preparations leading up to her betrothal. One evening, Paula called her into the living room, where Commander Kyle, Aunt Vidala, and another woman named Aunt Gabbana awaited her. Aunt Gabbana, who specialized in mediating marriage proposals, physically examined Agnes. She declared her ready to marry despite being only thirteen.
Agnes was removed from the Vidala School and spent her days at home. On a footstool square she embroidered a skull that she claimed was a memento mori but which she secretly considered a symbol for Paula. Increasingly frustrated and bored, Agnes plucked the Wife doll from her dollhouse and threw it across the room. During her days locked in the house, Agnes began to wonder what it took to become an Aunt and what kind of woman received the calling required to pursue that path.
Aunt Gabbana came with a wardrobe team to design the special clothing Agnes would wear in the period leading up to her wedding. The dominant color of the new clothing was spring green to signify readiness for marriage.
Once Agnes had her new wardrobe, she was enrolled in Rubies Premarital Preparatory, where young women from elite families prepared for married life. Both Shunammite and Becka were in her class. Whereas Shunammite was eager to marry, Becka was extremely reluctant. Becka had begged her parents not to marry her off. To Agnes, she also expressed her revulsion at the idea of a man crawling on her. Remembering Becka’s strong reaction to the story of the concubine, Agnes suspected that Becka had experienced sexual trauma.
Becka’s mood deteriorated as the arrangements for her wedding proceeded. One day, during a class on flower arranging, Becka slashed her wrist with a pair of pruning shears. Agnes recalls the ferocious look on Becka’s face as she made the incision then said, “Goodbye, Agnes.”
Aunt Lydia’s manuscript reaffirms the power she retains over Commander Judd. In Part V, Aunt Lydia stated that she came up with the Pearl Girls program at a time when Commander Judd’s reputation had come under fire. He took credit for the idea, which saved his career. However, it was clear that Aunt Lydia’s ingenuity gave her more lasting power than her male superior, who was reliant on her for ideas. In Part IX, Aunt Lydia again indicates the advantage she has over Commander Judd. In this case, however, her advantage lies not solely with her own ingenuity but with her greater access to information. Though Commander Judd summoned Aunt Lydia to update her on the latest news about Aunt Adrianna’s death, Aunt Lydia already possessed the full story. In fact, she knew far more than Commander Judd, whose access to information remained limited to intelligence gathered by the Eyes. By contrast, Aunt Lydia had received a full debriefing from Aunt Sally herself, who told her in confidence that she’d killed Aunt Adrianna in self-defense. Aunt Sally also told her about the possible identification of Baby Nicole. Aunt Lydia skillfully hid this information from Commander Judd to retain her advantage.
Aunt Lydia’s continuing account of her arrest and detainment foreshadows the painful decision she will make to join the ranks of Gilead’s theocratic elite and gives context for some of her more heinous acts. During her first encounter with Commander Judd, she quickly realized that she possessed something of value to the new regime. However, lacking any clarity about what the Commander wanted from her, she invoked her legal training and refused to sign a “blank contract.” What followed was a two-part technique of torture and pampering that served, respectively, to show the regime’s power over her and to demonstrate the safety and comfort that could be hers if she agreed to cooperate. Commander Judd’s two-part conversion tactic concluded with an ultimate test, the nature of which Aunt Lydia understood when she found the brown dressing-gown-like garment laid out for her in her hotel room. She knew instantly that Commander Judd wanted her to show her loyalty by participating in the public execution of other women. This also represents a symbolic choice between her own future, which could be assured through loyalty to the regime, and the humanity of other women. The choice set before her made Aunt Lydia feel trapped, and she felt powerless to do anything but put the gown on. Yet the reader already knows that she has since found ways to grow her power despite the constraints on her freedom.
The skull Agnes embroidered on a footstool square provides a symbol of her resistance to the accepted norms as well as an example of her cunning ability to keep up appearances despite her resistance. To keep herself sane during the empty days she spent waiting for her family to marry her off, Agnes worked on her embroidery. Along with flower arranging and other domestic arts, embroidery represented an admirable activity for a future Wife. As such, her embroidery project made it appear as though Agnes accepted her new role without question. Furthermore, the image she embroidered had a long history in Christian iconography as a memento mori, which means “reminder of death.” The choice of the skull therefore appeared to express Agnes’s traditional faith. Yet in her mind, Agnes intended the skull not as a traditional memento mori but rather as a curse and a death wish for her step-mother. The skull also covertly expressed her growing concern that life as a Wife would be tantamount to death. Agnes’s subversive memento mori demonstrates her continuing resistance to Gilead’s norms under the cover of respectability. More broadly, it also introduces the motif of embroidery as a symbol of women’s collective resistance.
Becka’s suicide attempt at the end of Part X underscores how desperation can arise from oppressive situations. Agnes understood that Becka felt deeply averse to men and grieved over violence against women, hence her strong reaction to the story of the murdered concubine. Becka identified with the woman who ran away from her male master, and she couldn’t stomach the injustice of the concubine’s final, so-called sacrifice. Furthermore, just as the concubine suffered a horrific death, Becka concluded that her own marriage would be tantamount to death. Believing that she had no other viable way to escape her fate, Becka’s sense of oppression gave way to an act of desperation. Her suicide attempt particularly affected Agnes. Like Becka, she’d grown increasingly suspect of Wifehood and of Gilead more generally. Thus, Agnes had compassion for Becka’s experience. Becka’s suicide attempt also foreshadows a future event in Part XIV when Agnes loses hope for her own future and contemplates taking her own life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Testaments!