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Aunt Lydia writes that her greatest fear is that her efforts will fail, allowing Gilead to last for a thousand years. Despite her fear, she takes pleasure in the few “small mercies” available, such as the Particicution over which Aunt Elizabeth presided the previous day. Two men suffered the ritual participatory execution by a crowd of Handmaids: an Angel caught selling smuggled lemons and Dr. Grove.
Aunt Lydia recounts the performance that Aunt Elizabeth delivered in order to bring Dr. Grove to justice. She booked a dentist appointment, during which she ripped her clothing and screamed that he had tried to rape her. At the trial, Dr. Grove vigorously protested his innocence, but his receptionist, who suspected his boss of other wrongdoing, testified against him. Aunt Lydia watched with Commander Judd as the Handmaids ripped Dr. Grove apart. Commander Judd asked if Dr. Grove was really guilty. Aunt Lydia replied that he was not guilty of assaulting an Aunt but of molesting girls and so ruining them for marriage.
Aunt Lydia changed the subject to inform Commander Judd that Baby Nicole had arrived in Gilead. She wanted to wait for the newcomer to convert fully before informing her of her real identity or presenting her publicly in Gilead.
Agnes recalls when she and Becka first saw Daisy, whom they knew as Jade, at the Thanks Giving ceremony for the returning Pearl Girls. Agnes notes that Daisy’s introduction to Gilead was harsh since the following day she had to attend the Particicution of Dr. Grove.
On that day, Agnes stood with Becka, who fainted at the sight of her father’s gruesome death. Becka felt responsible. Even though she had told Agnes the story of her father’s abuse in confidence, Aunt Lydia must have found out somehow. Agnes registered that this must be how Aunts gained their power: “by finding things out.”
When Becka and Agnes returned to Ardua Hall after the Particicution, Aunt Lydia brought Daisy to their rooms. Agnes instinctively knew that the relatively placid life they’d led at Ardua Hall was swiftly coming to its end.
Back when Agnes first arrived at Ardua Hall, Aunt Lydia had allowed her to live with Becka, who helped Agnes choose her new name: Aunt Victoria. Becka confided that none of the books she’d read seemed as dangerous as she’d expected. Becka also told Agnes that her acceptance to the Aunts wasn’t a sure thing. She described an event that had occurred just before she arrived, when an Aunt named Lily had expressed a desire to live alone and work on a farm. Aunt Vidala had submitted Aunt Lily to a severe punishment called “Correction,” and afterward Aunt Lily had drowned herself.
Agnes had spent the next six months learning to read and write. At first, she had struggled with the new skills, but Becka provided assistance. Agnes quickly learned that reading and writing didn’t provide answers so much as lead to more questions. After six months, Agnes passed the entrance examination and officially became a Supplicant.
Though excited by her new status, certain events shook her certainty. One day, just as Agnes earned the right to read the Bible on her own, Becka warned her that the book didn’t say what they had learned it said as schoolgirls. She told Agnes to read Judges 19–21, where Agnes found the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces. Whereas the Aunts had taught that the concubine bravely accepted her sacrifice as penance for running away, Agnes saw now that their version was intentionally misleading. The realization inspired a crisis of faith in Agnes. Becka said she’d managed her own crisis by deciding that she could believe in Gilead or God but not both.
One day three years later, when Agnes arrived at her desk in the Hildegard Library, she found a folder containing top-secret information about the death of Paula’s first husband. The folder included evidence that Paula had killed her husband and framed the Handmaid. Paula had also been sleeping with Commander Kyle long before either of their spouses had died.
Over the next two years, Agnes received similar folders with dirt on Gilead’s most powerful, including Commander Judd. Although Agnes didn’t know who was feeding her the folders, she knew the knowledge they contained conferred power, and she longed to become a full Aunt.
Aunt Lydia’s strategy for sentencing Dr. Grove to death discloses the unconventional, roundabout tactics required to serve real justice in Gilead. Prior to the coup that established the new Republic, the United States’ legal system had required a judge to carefully examine the available evidence in relation to the formal charges brought against a defendant. If the evidence did not prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge had no cause to sentence the defendant. In Gilead, however, matters of law proved much more flexible, even slippery. Aunt Lydia understood that in Gilead, women had virtually no recourse against men’s violence, particularly in cases of sexual harassment or assault. Officially, any sexual violence against women constituted a terrible crime. However, as Agnes and her classmates learned in the Vidala School, Gileadean society typically held women accountable for men’s sexual temptation. As such, victims of sexual violence tended to remain silent. With no direct form of recourse available to charge Dr. Grove for molesting young girls, and especially his own daughter, Aunt Lydia took a roundabout path to justice. She fabricated a more obvious legal breach in order to convict him for crimes Gilead’s law would never formally charge him with.
Becka’s story of Aunt Lily’s death adds to the motif of female suicide as a means of escape. The motif first became clear in Part X, at the end of which Becka attempted to kill herself with a pair of pruning shears, a symbol of female captivity. In Part XIV, Agnes began to consider suicide as a way to avoid marriage. She heard stories of other women who had killed themselves, including a Handmaid who drank drain cleaner, also a symbol of women’s entrapment in the home. All of these instances of contemplated or attempted suicide have one thing in common: they arise from a sense of desperation in the face of oppression. With no options for pursuing liberty or happiness, many women in Gilead have chosen death. Aunt Lily offers yet another example. Her early studies as a Supplicant introduced her to information about other places and times in which women enjoyed more freedom. This information sparked a dream to live on her own and farm the land. Gilead’s establishment considered any such vision of female independence dangerous, which is why Aunt Vidala subjected her to a violent “Correction.” But this violence did not correct Aunt Lily’s behavior. Instead, it taught her that Gilead would never allow women freedom, and she chose death over imprisonment.
As she prepared for the examination that would enable her formally to enroll as a Supplicant Aunt, Agnes learned the essential danger to the state posed by reading and writing. Upon first arriving at Ardua Hall, Agnes had assumed that the danger of writing lay in the content it expressed. This explains why she asked Becka if the books she’d read contained any dangerous material. Although Becka told her that the books with truly dangerous content remained strictly forbidden to Supplicants, Agnes slowly came to realize that the particular information conveyed in a book only accounted for part of its danger. Far more threatening was the way reading and writing encourage a person to think for themselves. More specifically, reading and writing enable a person not just to answer questions but to pose new ones. For example, Aunt Lily’s death resulted in part because of her ability to ask new questions. Her reading gave her access to knowledge about other ways of living, which caused her to ask what her own life would be like if she had an opportunity to exist under different circumstances. Such a question undermined Gilead’s patriarchal authority, for which she needed to be “Corrected.”
The deeper she went in her training to become an Aunt, the more tantalized Agnes felt by the prospect of wielding ever greater power. Agnes realized early on that the Aunts got their power by collecting other people’s secrets. However, it wasn’t until an anonymous source started feeding her top-secret information that she understood the kinds of secrets the Aunts really collected or how she might use them for her own personal gain. Everything changed for her when the first few couple of folders provided her with dirt on two individuals she knew personally. One folder revealed that Paula had killed her own husband. Another showed that Commander Judd had murdered his previous wives, which implied that Agnes had avoided a death sentence by refusing to marry him. Armed with secrets pertaining to people who had personally wronged her, Agnes came to understand that an Aunt’s power was neither general nor vague. Instead, this power was specific, pointed, and would enable her to take vengeance on those who had betrayed her.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Testaments!