The Handmaid’s Tale
Chapters 45–46 & Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale
Summary: Chapter 45
Offred feels great relief when she hears that Ofglen has committed suicide, for now Ofglen will not give her name to the Eyes while being tortured. For the first time, Offred feels completely within the power of the authorities. She feels she will do anything necessary to live—stop wanting control of her body, stop resisting, stop seeing Nick. From the porch, Serena calls to Offred. When Offred comes in, she holds out her winter cloak and the sequined outfit Offred wore to the club. She asks Offred how she could be so vulgar, and then tells Offred she is a slut like the other Handmaid and will come to the same end. Nick stops whistling, but Offred does not look at him. She manages to remain calm and composed as she retreats to her room.
Summary: Chapter 46
After her confrontation with Serena, Offred waits in her room. She feels peaceful. Night creeps in, and she wonders if she could use her hidden match and start a fire. She might die from smoke inhalation, although the fire would be subdued quickly. Or she could hang herself in her room from the hooks in the closet, she thinks. Or she could wait for Serena and kill her when she opens the door to her room. Nothing seems to matter. In the twilight, she hears the van coming for her, and she regrets not doing something while she had the chance. As the van pulls into the driveway, she sees the Eyes painted on its sides.
The van pulls in, and Nick opens the door of Offred’s room. Offred thinks he has betrayed her, but he whispers that she should go with the Eyes. He tells her they are in Mayday and have come to save her. Offred knows that he might be an Eye, because the Eyes probably know all about Mayday, but this is her last chance. She walks down the stairs to meet the men waiting for her. Serena demands to know Offred’s crime, and Offred realizes Serena was not the one to call these men. The men say they cannot tell her. The Commander demands to see a warrant, and the Eyes—or the men from Mayday, perhaps—say that she is being arrested for “violation of state secrets.” As Serena curses her, Offred follows the Eyes to the van waiting outside.
Summary: Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale
The epilogue is a transcript of a symposium held in 2195, in a university in the Arctic. Gilead is long gone, and Offred’s story has been published as a manuscript titled The Handmaid’s Tale. Her story was found recorded on a set of cassette tapes locked in an army foot locker in Bangor, Maine. The main part of the epilogue is a speech by an expert on Gilead named Professor Pieixoto. He talks about authenticating the cassette tapes. He says tapes like these would be very difficult to fake. The first section of each tape contains a few songs from the pre-Gileadean period, probably to camouflage the actual purpose of the tapes. The same voice speaks on all the tapes, and they are not numbered, nor are they arranged in any particular order, so the professors who transcribed the story had to guess at the intended chronology of the tapes.
Pieixoto warns his audience against judging Gilead too harshly, because such judgments are culturally biased, and he points out that the Gilead regime was under a good deal of pressure from the falling birthrate and environmental degradation. He says the birthrate declined for a variety of reasons, including birth control, abortions, AIDS, syphilis, and deformities and miscarriages resulting from nuclear plant disasters and toxic waste. The professor explains how Gilead created a group of fertile women by criminalizing all second marriages and nonmarital relationships, confiscating children of those marriages and partnerships, and using the women as reproductive vessels. Using the Bible as justification, they replaced what he calls “serial polygamy” with “simultaneous polygamy.” He explains that like all new systems, Gilead drew on the past in creating its ideology. In particular, he mentions the racial tensions that plagued pre-Gilead, which Gilead incorporated in its doctrine.
He discusses the identity of the narrator. They tried to discover it using a variety of methods, but failed. Pieixoto notes that historical details are scanty because so many records were destroyed in purges and civil war. Some tapes, however, were smuggled to Save the Women societies in England. He says the names Offred used to describe her relatives were likely pseudonyms employed to protect the identities of her loved ones. The Commander was likely either Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd. Both men were leaders in the early years of Gilead, and both were probably instrumental in building the society’s basic structure. Judd devised the Particicution, realizing that it would release the pent-up anger of the Handmaids. Pieixoto says that Particicutions became so popular that in Gilead’s “Middle Period” they occurred four times a year. Judd also came up with the notion that women should control other women. Pieixoto says that no empire lacks this “control of the indigenous by members of their own group.” Pieixoto explains that both Waterford and Judd likely came into contact with a virus that caused sterility in men. He says the evidence suggests that Waterford was the Commander of Offred’s story; records show that in “one of the earliest purges” Waterford was killed for owning pictures and books, and for indulging “liberal tendencies.” Pieixoto remarks that many early Commanders felt themselves above the rules, safe from any attack, and that in the Middle Period Commanders behaved more cautiously.
The professor says the final fate of Offred is unknown. She may have been recaptured. If she escaped to England or Canada, it is puzzling that she did not make her story public, as many women did. However, she might have wanted to protect others who were left behind, or she may have feared repercussions against her family. Punishing the relatives of escaped Handmaids was done secretly to minimize bad publicity in foreign lands. He says Nick’s motivation cannot be understood fully; he reveals that Nick was a member both of the Eyes and of Mayday, and that the men he called were sent to rescue Offred. In the end, Pieixoto says, they will probably never know the real ending of Offred’s story. The novel ends with the line, “‘Are there any questions?’”
Analysis: Chapters 45–46 & Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale
Offred’s story ends abruptly and uncertainly, which illustrates the precarious nature of existence in a totalitarian society in which everyone stands constantly poised on the edge of arrest and execution. Offred learns of Ofglen’s death, finds that Serena knows of her visits to Jezebel’s, and is (possibly) rescued by Nick’s intervention, all in the same day. Yet, even as events move quickly, Offred herself does absolutely nothing. Things happen to her; she does not make them happen. She demonstrates her lack of agency when she spends hours alone in her room, listlessly contemplating murder, suicide, and escape, but unable to act. Gilead has stripped her of her power, and so in a moment of crisis she can do nothing but think, and worry, and wait for the black van to come. Throughout the novel, Offred has maintained an internal struggle against the system, and a cautious outward struggle. It is when the news of Ofglen’s death terrifies her, and when she realizes she would rather give in than die, that help arrives. Atwood suggests that in Gilead the tiny rebellions or resistances of one person do not necessarily matter. Offred escapes not because of her resistance, but despite her passivity. Luck saves her; she does not save herself.
When the van comes, Offred has no way of knowing whether it comes to save her or to bring her to her death, but she must go. In Gilead, women cannot escape alone. Someone must help them attain freedom. Her story ends either in “darkness” or “light,” she says, not knowing which it will be. After this ending, with its leap into the unknown, the epilogue follows. It is simultaneously a welcome objective explication of Gileadean society, a parody of academic conferences, and offensive to the reader. We have just suffered through Offred’s torments with her, and it is shocking, as Atwood means it to be, to hear her life discussed in front of an amused audience, joked about, and treated as a quaint relic.
Professor Pieixoto makes references to Gilead’s clever synthesis of ancient customs and modern beliefs, he discusses the use of biblical narratives to justify the institution of the Handmaids, and he mentions the similarities between the “Particicution” and ancient fertility rites. None of these things will have escaped the notice of an alert reader, but this marks the first time we have heard them explained clearly and analytically. The epilogue also reveals information beyond Offred’s experience—the identity of Offred’s Commander, the purges that took place frequently under the regime, and the success of the underground resistance at infiltrating the command structure.
By telling us that The Handmaid’s Tale was transcribed from tapes found in an “Underground Femaleroad” safe house, the epilogue undercuts the powerful ambiguity of the novel’s ending, letting us know that Nick was a member of Mayday, and he did attempt to get Offred out of the country. Offred’s final fate remains a mystery, but the faithfulness of Nick does not.
In the epilogue, Atwood inverts Gilead, overthrowing the terrible world that she created. In opposition to the Gilead’s white, male-dominated patriarchy, in the new world the whites are the subjects of study, not the scholars and rulers. Professors have names like Johnny Running Dog and Maryann Crescent Moon, which suggests that Native Americans dominate the academy. The great universities are in Nunavit, in northern Canada, and the map of the world, we are assured, has been remade. Once, white people studied the Third World; now the chair of the conference announces a speech from Professor Gopal Chatterjee, from the Department of Western Philosophy at the University of Baroda, India.
Pieixoto’s comment, that Gilead should not be judged too harshly because all such judgments are culturally conditioned, echoes and calls into question the moral relativism common among academics today. The novel has asked us to sympathize with Offred, and to judge Gilead evil, tyrannical, and soul-destroying. In that case, -Pieixoto’s appeal for understanding, and the applause that follows it, suggests that such moral ambivalence sows seeds for future evils. The professor and the conference attendees are insufficiently moved by Offred’s plight. They discuss her as a chip in a reproductive game, belittling her tale as the crumbs of history, and openly prizing a few printed pages from the Commander’s computer over her tale of suffering. This belittling of a woman’s life and glorification of a man’s computer suggests the patriarchal leanings of this new society. Offred and her trauma are remote to this group, but Atwood’s novel urges us to think that such a fate is not far off, but imaginable, for societies like ours and like Professor Pieixoto’s, which fancy themselves progressive but hold seeds of patriarchal oppression. The academics’ complacency and self-satisfaction seems dangerous. The closing line—“Are there any questions?”—gives the story a deliberately open-ended conclusion. The end of The Handmaid’s Tale begins a discussion of the issues the story raises.
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