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.

Analysis: Parts XVII–XVIII

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.