Aunt Lydia

Name and function

The Aunts are, in spite of their cosy-sounding title, far from pleasant. They run the Rachel and Leah (or Red) Centre, enforcing order with cattle-prods, and brutally punishing misdemeanours. In the Historical Notes section, we are told that the Aunts' names are:

‘derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them - the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes, frozen desserts...'.

We hear of several Aunts, including Aunts Sara and Helena, but especially Aunts Elizabeth and Lydia.

Aunt Elizabeth

Aunt Elizabeth becomes significant when Moira ambushes her and steals her uniform to escape. She reappears at the Birth Day (chapter 20), taking charge at Janine's delivery. It was Aunt Elizabeth who told the women at the Red Centre that anaesthetics weren't allowed in childbirth, as an anaesthetic-free birth ‘was better for the baby', but also that such a birth fulfilled the consequence of Eve's disobedience against God, stated in Genesis 3:16: ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.'

Aunt Lydia's voice

By far the most significant Aunt is Lydia, whose maxims are recalled by Offred throughout the novel. Until she appears at the Particicution, Aunt Lydia is memorable mainly for her proverb-like remarks, designed to brainwash her charges, the future Handmaids. The first time we hear of her is when Offred looks at her own room in the Commander's house, and recalls Aunt Lydia saying that this was ‘not a prison but a privilege'. As Offred tartly remarks, Aunt Lydia ‘was in love with either/or.'

Perhaps Aunt Lydia's most memorable either/or is her comment (chapter 5) that:

‘There is more than one kind of freedom ... Freedom to and freedom from.'

Although Atwood clearly intends Gilead as a dystopia, and its régime to be seen as oppressive and brutal, she also allows us to see that there is sense in this remark and some justification for it. Atwood makes us aware of the dangers, failures and excesses of a liberal, materialistic society as well as of the totalitarian state which may replace it. Aunt Lydia's showing of pornographic films which graphically portray the physical and mental degradation of women common in the pre-Gilead time is a warning to Atwood's readers as to what they allow and accept in their late twentieth century world.

A manipulative figure

There is no doubt that Aunt Lydia is a despicable and vicious - and at times self-deluding - woman. Offred describes her in ways which underline that she is deeply unpleasant, with:

  • ‘the tremulous smile, of a beggar'
  • ‘round steel-rimmed glasses' (associated with photographs of the Nazi, Himmler)
  • the ‘mouth of a dead rodent'.

The sayings with which she seeks to brainwash the Handmaids are often inaccurate:

  • We do not know whether she herself realises this, but the reader may know that ‘From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs' (chapter 20) is a travesty of Karl Marx's slogan and certainly not from the Bible, as the Handmaids are told
  • Other of Aunt Lydia's inaccuracies Offred is well aware of, for example mentally correcting Aunt Lydia's ‘All flesh is weak' to ‘All flesh is grass' (Isaiah 40:6 and 1 Peter 1:24).

She encourages the vulnerable Janine to blame herself for being gang-raped (chapter 13) and uses her to spy on the other girls once Moira has escaped (chapter 22). She believes ‘Janine had been broken,' and fails to understand that Janine would ‘tell anything, just for a moment of approbation.'

Sadism

More noticeably, Aunt Lydia is sadistic:

  • She is responsible for beating Moira's feet with steel cables after her first escape. Moira later tells Offred at Jezebel's, that:
‘She enjoyed that, you know. She pretended to do all that love-the-sinner, hate-the sin stuff, but she enjoyed it.'
  • We can well believe this when we see that it is Aunt Lydia who is in charge of the hangings at the Salvagings (chapter 42) and, much worse even than that, conducts the Particicution, smiling at the Handmaids as if she is doing something ‘generous, munificent'
  • Earlier, she had shown no sympathy for the Handmaids when threatening them with beatings which might irreparably damage their hands or feet:
‘Remember, said Aunt Lydia, for our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.'

Although she has wept in front of the Handmaids (chapter 10) claiming that ‘I'm doing my best' and telling them, ‘Don't think it's easy for me', there is no evidence that she has any compassion. The central emotion which, to Offred, is vital for all human relationships, is scorned by Aunt Lydia:

‘No mooning and June-ing around here, girls. Wagging her finger at us. Love is not the point.'

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