The luxury dollhouse that Agnes played with as a girl symbolizes Gilead’s traditional social hierarchy. The set included several dolls: a Commander, a Wife, a Martha, a Handmaid, and an Aunt. Taken collectively, the set reproduced Gileadean society in miniature. Despite being a toy, the set functioned as a tool for indoctrinating young girls, ensuring that they would accept Gileadean social and gender roles as normal. By playing with the different dolls, girls would practice everyday social relations until they came to seem natural. In Agnes’s case, however, the dollhouse did not function as a tool for replicating Gilead’s normative social dynamics. Instead, she played with her dolls according to her own rules. For instance, instead of imagining the Commander doll as a masculine, commanding figure, Agnes modeled him after her own father, a quiet and distant man who retreated into his study. Agnes also enjoyed locking the Aunt doll in the cellar, and she positioned the Martha doll nearby, pretending not to hear the Aunt doll’s cries for help. Even though the dollhouse was intended to indoctrinate her, Agnes turned it into a tool for imaginative subversion, foreshadowing how she will subvert the regime later in life.
Although Baby Nicole is a real person, her fame and status both inside and outside of Gilead turned her into a symbol with competing meanings. The story of Baby Nicole caused a scandal about fifteen years prior to the events that lead to Gilead’s collapse. At the time, Gilead had a problem with women trying to escape to Canada. The most infamous case involved a Handmaid who successfully crossed the border with a baby that legally belonged to a prominent Commander. This baby was Baby Nicole. Many outside of Gilead celebrated the successful escape and saw Baby Nicole as a symbol of triumph over oppression. In Gilead, however, Aunt Lydia and the Commanders used Baby Nicole as a propaganda tool to spark the fire of nationalism. They wanted the people of Gilead to see Baby Nicole as a symbol of the outside world’s cruelty. If Gileadeans felt victimized, then their allegiance to the regime would grow in kind. Baby Nicole’s competing symbolic meanings come to a head when Daisy learns that she’s really Baby Nicole. As a young person with an interest in social justice, she ultimately chooses to leverage her legendary status against the very regime that created it.
The Story of the Concubine
The biblical story that Aunt Vidala tells Agnes and her classmates about a concubine symbolizes how Gilead’s regime uses censorship as a tool for oppression. Vidala’s story tells of a concubine who runs away from her master. The man tracks her down, and as they journey back to the man’s house, lustful local men try to attack the man, who puts the concubine in front of them instead. She is raped and killed. Much later, when she joins the Aunts and learns to read the Bible on her own, Agnes learns that Aunt Vidala had left out the part where the man cuts the murdered concubine into twelve pieces, sends each to one of the twelve Tribes of Israel, and starts a war between them. Aunt Vidala’s censored version of the story attempted to make the violence against the concubine seem justified. In retrospect, however, Agnes understands that Aunt Vidala had intentionally modified the story to scare her pupils into submission and warn them of what happens to disobedient women. This recognition inspires a crisis of faith that leads Agnes to distrust the story of Gilead’s exceptional status.