Together with Tabitha, Agnes played with a deluxe dollhouse set that included several dolls. She made the Commander doll act quiet and distant like her own father, Commander Kyle. Agnes left the Handmaid doll in the box since Handmaids made her nervous. Though she didn’t know what Handmaids did, she suspected they took part in “something damaging, or something damaged.” The dollhouse set also came with an Aunt doll, which Agnes kept locked in the cellar. The Martha doll pretended not to hear when the Aunt doll cried for help.
Agnes explains that her second name, Jemima, came from the story of Job. According to the Bible, Job lost his children when God tested him. When Job passed the test, God gave him new children, one of whom was named Jemima. Agnes wondered why Job would accept the replacement children and forget about the dead ones.
Tabitha grew ill, and when she was resting, Agnes spent time with her household’s three Marthas: Vera, Rosa, and Zilla. The Marthas refused to let Agnes help them in their duties. They thought she needed to prepare herself to become a Wife, in which position she would preside over her own Marthas. They did let her play with scraps of dough. Agnes liked to fashion dough men since eating them gave her a sense of power.
At school, Agnes’s peers included Becka and Shunammite. Becka was shy and quiet. By contrast, Shunammite was brash and belligerent. She claimed to be Agnes’s best friend, but Agnes suspected her of social climbing since Shunammite’s father wasn’t as prominent as Commander Kyle. Shunammite had learned from her Martha that Agnes’s mother was dying. The rumor upset Agnes, who insisted that Tabitha was merely sick.
The Testaments is the sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and anyone who has read the earlier novel will instantly recognize the first narrator as a woman living in the Republic of Gilead. For such readers, the Handmaid depicted in the statue will recall the previous novel’s chilling story of Offred, who navigated the terrifying coup that transformed the United States into a theocratic regime ruled by a patriarchal elite known as the Sons of Jacob. Under the dystopian government of Gilead, the sphere of women had its own hierarchy. Aunts stood at the top, presiding over the legal and religious ideology regulating all women in Gilead’s society. Below them stood Wives, the most elite of whom were married to high-ranking Commanders. Wives presided over the other women in their homes. Households of prominent Commanders had servants known as Marthas, who did the cooking and cleaning. Below all others stood the Handmaids, a subclass of women whose only official value in an increasingly barren society was their ability to conceive children. Stripped of her identity and referred to by derivatives of her Commander’s name, a Handmaid bore her master’s children while often suffering the jealous hatred of his Wife.
The manuscript called “The Ardua Hall Holograph” opens with the description of a statue that symbolizes female power. The reader does not yet know whom the statue memorializes, but it’s clear that the woman holds a place of privilege. More specifically, she’s likely a prominent Aunt, as suggested by the way the figure in the statue presides over a Handmaid and a so-called Pearl Girl. The offerings her admirers place at the statue’s feet all honor specifically female attributes. The eggs symbolize fertility, the oranges symbolize pregnancy, and the croissants symbolize the moon, which is traditionally gendered female. Yet for all these symbols of her power, the narrator primes the reader to wonder just how worthy of honor she really is. The statue itself is nine years old and significantly weathered, suggesting that time may also have worn down the confident idealism depicted in her younger self. Furthermore, it is unclear how the viewer should understand her relationship to the other two women included in the sculpture. Does she stand over them in a relationship of collective empowerment, or does she use her power to subjugate them? The ambiguity of female power enshrined in the statue sets the tone for “The Ardua Hall Holograph.”