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?’”
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.