Summary: Part XI: Sackcloth

Aunt Lydia recounts a dream she had the previous night. She dreamt that she stood in the stadium wearing a brown dressing gown. She stood alongside other women in the same garb as well as several men. Each had a rifle, some with bullets and some without. They faced two rows of women. Aunt Lydia recognized the face of each woman, and she recognized former friends, clients, and colleagues. The women smiled enigmatically as Aunt Lydia and those beside her raised their guns and fired.

She returns to the point in her story when she put on the garment laid out for her in the hotel room. An hour later, men escorted her to Commander Judd. He asked her again if she would cooperate, and this time she said yes. Her agreement meant that she had to participate a stadium execution, which she did. Anita was among the victims executed that day.

Aunt Lydia describes her first meeting with Aunts Elizabeth, Helena, and Vidala. Elizabeth and Helena had, like Aunt Lydia, been selected for their past professional experience. Elizabeth had worked as the executive assistant to an influential female senator, and Helena had served as a public relations representative for a lingerie company. Vidala, by contrast, had taken part in planning the coup, and she was poised to serve as the other women’s spiritual advisor.

Commander Judd tasked these four women with creating laws and regulations to govern Gilead’s women. Aunt Lydia insisted that if there was to be a separate female sphere, then women should have sovereign command over it. Commander Judd agreed, which boosted her confidence. In their early work together, Aunt Lydia observed the other Aunts’ vanities and weaknesses. She believed she could rise to power by playing these women against each other. She lived by three commandments: “Listen carefully. Save all clues. Don’t show fear.” She committed herself so fully to the work that she almost believed the ideology she and her colleagues were making up.

Years later, Commander Judd apologized to Aunt Lydia for the extreme measures he took “to separate the wheat from the chaff.” He assured her that her rifle had contained a blank.

This portion of Aunt Lydia’s manuscript concludes with an account of a visit Aunt Vidala had paid her the previous evening. Vidala had come to report Aunt Elizabeth’s concern that the food offerings left at the feet of Aunt Lydia’s statue constituted cult worship. However, Aunt Vidala said she’d personally witnessed Aunt Elizabeth placing offerings herself, as if to create evidence that Aunt Lydia encouraged others to worship her.

Summary: Part XII: Carpitz

Daisy’s account picks up just after Elijah told her about her real identity as Baby Nicole. Ada explained how they had worked hard to keep her identity safe. Even so, Ada worried that Gileadean spies may have infiltrated Mayday’s ranks, meaning they had to take extra precautions.

Ada moved Daisy into another room in the same building. There she met Garth, who drove them to a new location. In the back of the van, Daisy asked Ada how she’d been smuggled out of Gilead. Ada explained that her mother had entrusted Daisy to her, and that she had traveled through woods and mountains with Daisy in a backpack until they arrived in Canada. Daisy asked where her parents were, and Ada said their whereabouts were top secret.

The van arrived at a wholesale carpet outlet with a secret hideout area in the back. The news ran a story about Aunt Adrianna, the Pearl Girls missionary found dead in a condo. The police had ruled out suicide and now suspected foul play. Worried that Gileadean agents could attack soon, Daisy’s caretakers brainstormed about where to move her. Elijah explained one possible plan. Mayday used to have a valuable source within Gilead who had corresponded with Neil via microdot. Before communications got cut off, their Gileadean source had promised to deliver a big document cache with seriously damaging information about Gilead’s elite. In the event that The Clothes Hound was compromised, the source had proposed a fallback plan in which Mayday would send Baby Nicole into Gilead with Pearl Girls, disguised as a fresh convert.

Daisy expressed reservations but did not refuse the mission, and Garth taught her self-defense in preparation. Ada taught Daisy how to get along in Gilead’s social environment. Daisy also received a forearm tattoo that, according to specifications dictated by the Gileadean source, featured the words “LOVE” and “GOD” arranged in a cross with both words sharing the “O.”

Analysis: Parts XI–XII

Despite Commander Judd’s pledge that her rifle had contained a blank, Aunt Lydia knows she’s guilty of murder. When Aunt Lydia participated in one of the stadium executions, she and the other executioners didn’t know whether their rifle contained a real bullet or a blank. The reader knows this in part because this is what happened in the dream Aunt Lydia recounts at the beginning of Part XI and because when Commander Judd eventually apologized to Aunt Lydia for putting her through the traumatizing experience, he promised her that her rifle had contained a blank. Whether or not Commander Judd spoke the truth, Aunt Lydia recognizes that her guilt derives not from actually killing another human being but from her intention to do so. Traditionally, armies and militias have used the firing squad as a form of execution meant to exonerate the executioners from guilt. When many executioners shoot at a single victim, they cannot know whose bullet actually took that victim’s life and hence needn’t feel personally responsible. But Aunt Lydia understands that the executioners all share a collective guilt based solely on their involvement with the murders, and because of this knowledge, she cannot be manipulated by Commander Judd, who tries to inspire more loyalty in her by claiming to have spared her from firing an actual bullet.

As Aunt Lydia provides more details about her past, a clearer understanding of the ambivalence that has defined her life and continues to haunt her develops. The word “ambivalence” refers to a state of mixed feelings or contrary ideas that cannot be easily resolved. In Aunt Lydia’s case, the ambivalence that defines her life stems from the fact that she has done terrible things but with good intentions and in the midst of terrible oppression. As the dream that opens this part of the manuscript suggests, Aunt Lydia remains haunted by her participation in the stadium execution. Yet despite knowing how reprehensible her actions were, she finds little point in expressing regret. Instead, she focuses on the work she did with the other founding Aunts. If Aunt Lydia continues to take pride in this work, it’s partly because it made her feel powerful. But her pride also stems from knowing that her power has enabled her to work against Gilead’s interests in the long term. Aunt Lydia finds it impossible to judge whether or not her actions are defensible, and she remains haunted by the fact that her good intentions may not truly exonerate her.

When Aunt Lydia admits that she occasionally found herself believing in the ideology she helped make up, she demonstrates just how susceptible human minds are to indoctrination. In the first weeks and months of their work together, Aunt Lydia and the other three founding Aunts labored to invent the laws that would govern women’s lives. Creating such a complex set of regulations required a remarkable act of the imagination. Everything had to be invented, if not solely from the minds of the Aunts, then from a set of religious and cultural principles derived from the Christian Bible. Aunt Lydia immersed herself in this work, so much so that at times she forgot that the ideology was a product of her own invention. If a grounded and clear-headed woman like Aunt Lydia could fall prey to her own false ideology, then others of less robust intellectual ability must have had a much harder time seeing through the veil of indoctrination. This example gives perspective on how so many everyday Gileadeans could come to accept their oppressive government. It also gives the reader renewed respect for Agnes and Becka, both of whom see through Gilead’s lies, despite having been born and raised knowing no different way of life.

Part XII concludes with Daisy preparing to infiltrate Gilead even though she never explicitly agreed to take part in the mission, which calls into question whether or not the Mayday operatives are really as virtuous as their opposition to Gilead would make them appear. Although Daisy agreed with her caretakers that Gilead needed to collapse and hence acknowledged the importance of the mission, she takes care to note that she never properly gave consent. As both Daisy and Aunt Lydia have made clear in their testimonies, Gilead has worked hard to turn Baby Nicole into an icon for the purposes of propaganda. No longer strictly a human being, Baby Nicole now serves as a symbol meant to inspire feelings of national belonging and resentment of foreign nations in the people of Gilead. Daisy, who has studied the subject in school, understands Baby Nicole’s role as an instrument of manipulation. Although the Mayday operatives are starkly opposed to Gilead’s government, they seem equally willing to use Daisy—the real Baby Nicole—as an instrument for their own mission. They do not hesitate to send a teenager into a cruel and oppressive regime alone, highlighting that people with extremely strong belief systems are willing to do risky, even cruel, things if it serves their political purposes. Though Gilead’s leaders are ruthless in their oppression of women, Mayday’s leaders also use a young woman solely to serve their own ends.