The Testaments opens with a document titled “The Ardua Hall Holograph,” written in the first person by a woman whom we later learn is Aunt Lydia. The narrator describes a ceremony that occurred nine years prior to honor her achievements and reveal a statue of her likeness. Her colleague and enemy, Aunt Vidala, grudgingly presided over the ceremony.
The statue is larger than life, and it depicts the narrator as a younger woman in a strong, confident stance, looking far away toward “some cosmic point of reference understood to represent my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty.” The statue also includes two other figures: a Handmaid and a Pearl Girl. In the nine years since its creation, the statue has weathered. Devotees have taken to placing eggs, oranges, croissants, and other offerings at the statue’s feet.
The narrator directly addresses her unknown future reader and expresses concern about the risk she runs by writing this manuscript. She’s writing her testimony in a private room in the Ardua Hall library. She confesses that she has spilled her share of blood in service to Gilead’s reigning regime, which seeks to prepare the way for a “morally pure generation” to come.
Part II shifts to a new narrator named Agnes Jemima, who gives testimony about what it was like to grow up within Gilead. Her narrative is entitled “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A.”
Agnes belonged to an elite family, which meant she was destined to marry a Commander. Her privilege enabled her to attend a special school run by the strict Aunt Vidala and the comparatively gentle Aunt Estée. Aunt Vidala taught that all girls were “precious flowers” and needed to be kept safe from the ravenous men of the world. By contrast, Aunt Estée insisted that some men were decent and that when it came time for the girls to marry, the Aunts would help choose one of the decent ones.
Agnes enjoyed a loving relationship with her mother, Tabitha, who liked to tell a fantastical story about how she chose Agnes from a group of girls locked in an enchanted castle. Every night they sang a prayer about angels keeping watch over them. The prayer soothed Agnes, but it also made her wonder about the difference between biblical angels and the armed guards called “Angels.”