The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
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Chapters 45–46 & Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

Summary 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.