Summary: Part XIII: Secateurs

Aunt Lydia describes how she installed a hidden camera at the base of her statue, hoping to capture footage of Aunt Elizabeth placing an offering. Several days went by without activity, but on the fourth day, Aunt Vidala came at dawn and placed an egg, an orange, and a handkerchief embroidered with lilacs, Aunt Lydia’s botanical symbol. Aunt Lydia filed the footage away for future use against Aunt Vidala and wondered how to use the information to turn her fellow Founders against each other.

Aunt Lydia turns to a matter that happened nine years prior to her writing when Aunt Lise came to her office to report Becka’s suicide attempt. Aunt Lise explained that Becka was threatening another attempt on her own life unless her wedding was called off. Aunt Lydia asked what stood at the root of Becka’s aversion to marriage, and Aunt Lise admitted that the girl had a fear of penises. Aunt Lydia decided to admit Becka to Ardua Hall on a six-month trial, after which she could become a Supplicant to the order of the Aunts.

Wanting to know more about Becka’s background, Aunt Lydia asked her if anything traumatic had happened to her involving a man, but the girl didn’t wish to talk about her experience. Aunt Lydia declared that whoever it was, he would eventually receive punishment for his behavior.

Summary: Part XIV: Ardua Hall

Though worried about Becka, Agnes had no information about her friend’s circumstances. Meanwhile, the preparations for her own wedding proceeded apace. Aunt Gabbana returned to present Agnes with three options for a future husband. One was the son of a low-ranking Commander, another was a young intellectual type whose previous Wife had ended up in a mental institution, and the third was Commander Judd. Though the adults presented Agnes with the semblance of a choice, she knew they’d force her to marry Commander Judd because of his elite status. That night, she lay in bed imagining herself stone cold and dead as each of the men tried to have sex with her.

Agnes had a week to choose her future husband, during which time she considered running away or committing suicide. One day, she overheard the Marthas talking about how Aunts sometimes drugged women on their wedding days. The official announcement of Agnes’s engagement to Commander Judd came at the end of the week. The Commander came to the house to express his pleasure, and Agnes felt repulsed by his foul breath. She experienced a nightmare vision of “an enormous, opaque white blob” pursuing her with something like the mouth of a leech.

More Aunts came to make arrangements for the wedding and design the bride’s dress. With only two weeks to go, Agnes’s thoughts returned to suicide. She also imagined murdering Commander Judd on their wedding night, and she relished the thought of Paula discovering his bloody corpse.

One day, Aunt Lydia unexpectedly arrived at the house while Paula was out to visit Agnes. Aunt Lydia told her about Becka’s enrollment as a Supplicant. She also implied that if Agnes herself had received a calling to become an Aunt, she might wish to consult her former teacher, Aunt Estée, about what to do.

Worried that Paula might drug her and lock her up, Agnes made a plan to contact Aunt Estée. She briefly visited the Aunt in charge of making her wedding dress to discuss design changes, then she asked her Guardian driver to take her to her old school. When he hesitated, she implied that her marriage to Commander Judd would make her more powerful than Paula and that she would later reward him for his help. He relented and chauffeured her to the school, where Agnes found Aunt Estée and expressed her desperation.

Aunt Estée agreed to intervene on Agnes’s behalf and brought her to a room in Ardua Hall, where she saw a book for the first time. As she flipped through its pages, Becka entered the room and they shared a joyful reunion. Becka explained that her new name was Aunt Immortelle, and she described what Agnes would have to do to get through the mandatory six-month trial before she could enroll as a Supplicant.

Paula came to Ardua Hall to order Agnes to return home. During their meeting, Agnes followed Becka’s advice and acted crazed. Aunt Lydia intervened and whispered something that caused Paula to relent. Afterward, Agnes passed her entrance interviews with the founding Aunts and received an official invitation to stay at Ardua Hall.

Analysis: Parts XIII–XIV

Agnes’s two nightmare visions of sex demonstrate that, like Becka, she saw marriage as inevitably leading to powerlessness and sexual violence. In the first of her two visions, Agnes imagined her body cold and motionless as each of her three potential husbands crawled on top of her. Her sense of immobility suggests the imminent threat of rape. To make matters more disturbing, Agnes adds that in addition to being motionless, she imagined herself as dead. In this sense, Agnes equates the performance of her sexual duties as a Wife not just with sexual violence but with her own spiritual or physical death. She sees marriage as a literal death of her self. Agnes’s second vision came after she met her future husband, Commander Judd, for the first time. In this vision, Commander Judd transformed into a horrific larval creature with a leech-like mouth that threatened to suck her blood or drain her soul. This vision mirrors the first in that it forecasts marriage as a nightmarish union that will sap Agnes of everything that keeps her alive.

Following Becka’s attempt to take her own life at the end of Part X, suicide becomes a significant motif in The Testaments, particularly in this section of the novel. Like Becka, Agnes found it difficult to imagine what to do in the face of her inevitable marriage to a man who repulsed and threatened her. In her view, marriage would result in spiritual death, and if she tried to run away the Eyes would track her down, execute her, and string her corpse up on the Wall as a cautionary example to other women. Given the options, suicide appeared the most reasonable way to escape a far more terrible death. Agnes and Becka are not alone in their thinking. Suicidal ideation is extremely common amongst the women of Gilead. Shunammite, for instance, tells a gruesome story about a Handmaid who swallowed drain cleaner to escape her fate. Agnes also heard her Marthas lecture on the immorality of suicide, a lecture they would only feel the need to deliver if they suspected Agnes of pursing that escape route. The fact that suicide is a rampant problem in Gilead shows how trapped many people—especially women—really feel.

Aunt Lydia’s unexpected visit to Agnes constitutes the first time the reader sees Aunt Lydia taking direct action to set her plan in motion. It is also the first time the narrators meet and interact, though the novel has foreshadowed the eventual convergence of the narrators’ stories. For instance, we know from previous sections that Aunt Lydia is actively engaged in tracking down the location of Baby Nicole—who is actually the novel’s third narrator, Daisy. However, it comes as a surprise when Aunt Lydia shows up in Agnes’s living room with no warning. Her unexpected visit at once indicates her desire to undermine Commander Judd and to bring Agnes under her control. As the reader already knows, Aunt Lydia has proof that Commander Judd poisoned his Wives. Now that Commander Judd has officially become engaged to Agnes, Aunt Lydia uses her knowledge to intervene and save Agnes’s life. Yet Aunt Lydia would not necessarily have intervened solely to undermine Commander Judd. She previously stated that she fully understood the importance of waiting patiently until just the right moment to enact her plans. At this point in the narrative, however, it remains unclear what purpose Agnes will serve in Aunt Lydia’s scheme.

Following Aunt Lydia’s surprise visit, Agnes learned the power of acting. Before meeting Aunt Lydia, Agnes had felt hopeless and suicidal. However, after Aunt Lydia suggested that she might pretend to receive the call to become an Aunt, Agnes immediately jumped into action. Significantly, the action she took depended on carrying out a series of deceptions. First, she needed to deceive Paula into believing her urgent desire to alter her wedding dress design. Second, she needed to make her Guardian driver believe that her marriage would enable her to protect him from Paula’s wrath. And third, she needed to convince Aunt Estée of the authenticity of her calling and the depth of her despair. She practiced her acting once again when Paula visited her at Ardua Hall. Taking Becka’s advice, she performed hysteria by dashing a teacup to the ground, which prompted Aunt Lydia to intervene and send Paula away for good. The success of this series of deceptions immediately changed the course of Agnes’s life and provided her first taste of female power. She learns that, within Gilead’s oppressive regime, women survive by being “prepared to wheedle, and lie, and go back on their word.”