The narrators of The Testaments contend with the allure of power in a society that otherwise disempowers women. Prior to the coup that established Gilead, Aunt Lydia enjoyed the power and prestige that accompanied her work as a judge. Though she lost this power upon her arrest, Aunt Lydia quickly rose in Gilead’s ranks to become the most powerful of the four founding Aunts. Aunt Lydia wanted to use her power to topple Gilead. However, she also enjoyed the privileges power brought her, and she worried that her all-too-human vulnerability to the allure of power would tempt her to abandon her life’s plan of bringing down the regime. As someone who learned early in life just how powerless Gileadean women were, Agnes felt tantalized by the power wielded by the Aunts. When she realized that Aunts got their power from collecting other people’s secrets, she envisioned an intoxicating future in which she could take vengeance on those who had wronged her. Daisy proves comparatively more reluctant to embrace the power she possesses as Baby Nicole, but she ultimately uses that power to help take Gilead down.
The Collective Nature of Guilt
The Testaments emphasizes how guilt is not simply a matter of individual actions but of societal complacency. The novel explores this theme in terms of gender. Though men controlled Gilead, the regime used certain women’s participation in the patriarchy to lend it a form of legitimacy. The four founding Aunts collaborated with Commander Judd to establish oppressive new laws to restrict women’s freedoms and govern every aspect of their life. Likewise, some upper-class women adapted to their new lives by innovating fresh ways to assert their dominance over other women, particularly Handmaids. These women are, in their own way, guilty of collectively supporting Gilead’s theocratic regime. A more explicit example of collective guilt arises when Commander Judd tests Aunt Lydia’s loyalty by coercing her to participate in an execution of other women. After the event, Commander Judd claims that the rifle Aunt Lydia used had a blank in it rather than a bullet. Though he says this to relieve her sense of guilt for killing another woman (and inspire loyalty in her), Aunt Lydia understands that her intention to kill already condemned her even if her action caused no direct harm. Thus, any individual who either directly or indirectly contributed to Gilead’s survival shares in the society’s collective guilt.
The question of what the future will bring resonates throughout much of The Testaments. The novel’s major conflict centers on Gilead’s oppression of women and their consequent desire to topple the patriarchal regime to secure a better, freer future. Each of the three narrators worries about the attainability of such a future. Aunt Lydia frequently meditates on the uncertainty of her plan’s success and on the strength of her own commitment. She also frets over whether her unknown future reader will believe her to be a monster. More than anything, though, she fears the possibility that Gilead will remain intact for the next thousand years. Agnes’s and Daisy’s stories go some way to balance Aunt Lydia’s uncertainty. Whereas Aunt Lydia composes her manuscript not knowing what will happen in the future, the young women offer retrospective accounts that indicate the eventual success of their mission. Despite this formal aspect of the novel’s structure, both Agnes and Daisy recount moments of profound loss and disillusionment in their youth, which led to feelings of confusion and hopelessness. However, despite their uncertainty, all three women committed themselves to a vision of a better world at great personal risk.
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