lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 41–46 and Historical Notes: Summary

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Last Updated February 27, 2023.

Chapter 41

Offred expresses regret for the fragmented and unresolved nature of her story and the pain it may cause. She acknowledges how difficult it is for her to recall and relive the events. Despite the challenge, she is committed to complete transparency and promises to refrain from withholding information. As she agrees to perfect honesty, she admits her failures and explains that there are points in her story that will reflect poorly on her.

After adding this caveat, she continues to retell her story, revealing that she frequently visits Nick, even though their relationship is risky. She considers his apartment a safe haven from the chaos outside. Moreover, she entrusts Nick with her true identity and confides in him about everything except for details about Luke and the previous Offred. Nick, however, does not reveal much about himself.

At one point, Offred asks Nick to place his hand on her belly to feel the movement of the new life growing inside her. However, she is uncertain if what she is feeling is accurate or simply wishful thinking because it is still too early to determine for certain.

Ofglen urges Offred to search through her Commander's papers in his study, but Offred is hesitant, claiming to be scared. However, the truth is that she no longer cares much for the Commander and has instead developed strong feelings for Nick. When Ofglen persists in asking Offred to help the resistance and assures her that the Mayday group could rescue her if needed, Offred realizes that she no longer has the desire to escape. She thinks to herself that she wants to remain where she is with Nick. Ofglen detects her lack of enthusiasm and begins to lose hope in her.

Chapter 42

As a tolling bell sounds in the distance, Ofglen and Offred make their way toward the university. When they reach the main entrance, they encounter a significant number of Angels equipped in riot gear. It turns out that there is going to be a Salvaging event specifically for women.

In front of the old library, a wooden platform has been constructed, which brings back memories for Offred of the graduation ceremonies she attended in the past. She notes that this is the second Salvaging she has witnessed. The wives and their daughters sit on foldable chairs towards the rear, followed by the Marthas and Econowives. In the front, the Handmaids kneel on soft velvet cushions.

The three individuals to be Salvaged are seated on the platform. A procession arrives, consisting of Aunt Lydia and two Salvagers wearing black hoods. Aunt Lydia addresses the audience for several minutes, after which she removes a piece of paper from her pocket and announces the name of the first person who is to be Salvaged.

Although Offred has witnessed a Salvaging before, the sight is still awful. The victim of the Salvaging stands on a stool, and a white bag is placed over their head, followed by a noose around their neck. The stool is then kicked away, and the person struggles, slowly suffocating until their body becomes lifeless. Offred gazes fixedly at the grass instead, finding it difficult to watch.

In the past, the crimes of those being Salvaged were usually announced before the punishment was carried out. However, no such announcement was made on this occasion.

Chapter 43 

The three white-hooded and hanging individuals bring to Offred's mind the image of chickens hanging on display in a shop window. After their execution, the Salvaging comes to an end and is followed by the Particicution phase. Aunt Lydia advises the Handmaids to wait for her signal, as two Guardians bring in another Guardian; he is badly beaten with a swollen, bruised face and can barely walk. Aunt Lydia informs the audience that he has been found guilty of rape; as such, his punishment will be in accordance with the laws of Deuteronomy. In unison, the women let out a sigh, and Offred states that she can sense the intense desire for revenge surging within her.

Aunt Lydia wears a smile before blowing her whistle to commence the Particicution. The convicted man is released but is weak and unsteady on his feet. After a brief pause, the Handmaids charge forward, striking, kicking, and shouting loudly. Offred observes Ofglen push the man to the ground and deliver three forceful blows to his head with her feet before withdrawing to allow the other Handmaids to join in and finish the act.

Offred is taken aback by Ofglen's viciousness, but Ofglen responds bluntly, revealing that the man was not actually a rapist, but a Mayday member. She kicked him with such force to render him unconscious, and thus spare him further pain.

Aunt Lydia blows her whistle once more, and the two Guardians remove the victim's body. Janine walks by Offred; blood streaks one of her cheeks, her eyes are unfocused, and she laughs hysterically. As she walks past Offred, she says, "have a nice day." For a brief moment, Offred feels envious of Janine's descent into insanity.

Although she did not participate in the killing, Offred vigorously washes her hands upon returning home in a vain attempt to eliminate the scent of tar and the feeling of complicity.

Chapter 44

Offred sets out to meet Ofglen for a shopping excursion. However, someone other than Ofglen appears; a thin, pale woman greets Offred with a formal phrase: "Blessed be the fruit." When Offred inquires about Ofglen's whereabouts, the strange woman responds, "I am Ofglen." Offred regrets never asking her friend for her real name.

As they walk in silence, Offred notices three female corpses hanging from the Wall, who were executed that morning. On the way back home, Offred mentions that she has known her former friend since May, hoping to gauge if the new woman knows about Mayday. Offred becomes nervous and her heart races as she says this. She clarifies that she is referring to the beginning of May, which used to be called May Day. However, the new Ofglen responds coldly, telling Offred to forget about any remnants of the past. Offred concludes that although the new Ofglen does not appear to be part of the resistance group, she is still aware of Mayday and seems to be warning Offred to abandon any thoughts of resistance.

Offred is scared and considers all the different ways of torture she might experience. She worries that they might threaten her daughter, or if Luke is alive and being held captive, they might harm him as well. They could also force her to confess, testify against the other Ofglen, and reveal everything she knows about Mayday.

The new Ofglen reveals to Offred that the former Ofglen hung herself when she saw an Eyes van coming for her. She adds that it was better that way, then leaves.

Chapter 45 

Offred is deeply affected by the news of Ofglen's suicide and feels as though the wind has been knocked out of her. She is terrified of being executed like the women on the Wall and resolves to do whatever it takes to stay alive. Gilead's power over her is overwhelming, and she is filled with fear and despair.

As she makes her way toward the rear door of the house, she is suddenly stopped by Serena Joy in the garden. Serena Joy has discovered her private encounters with the Commander and their visit to Jezebel's. In frustration and anger, she throws the sequined and feathered outfit worn by her during the visit to the brothel to the ground. “Behind my back,” she accuses. “Just like the other one. A slut.”

Defeated, Offred takes the showgirl costume and heads to her room.

Chapter 46 

That night, Offred sits in her room, convinced that she will soon be arrested. She repeats the phrase scratched on her closet floor— “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”—like a mantra. She remembers she still has the match and could set the house on fire, killing herself and becoming a beacon of protest to others. She considers using the bedsheets to make a rope and hang herself. Additionally, she wonders if she should see Nick one last time. She does not feel alone as she feels her predecessor is very much with her.

Offred realizes it is too late to take action when she hears the sound of a van approaching the house. She could have stolen Serena Joy’s knitting needles or gardening shears to use as weapons but it is too late now; she has missed her chance.

Suddenly, Nick pushes open her door and tells her that Mayday has come. There are two men behind him in the hall, so she has a hard time believing what Nick is telling her until he says, “Trust me.” Those two words touch something inside of Offred; moreover, she realizes that, despite her reservations, she ultimately has no choice.

She decides to go downstairs with the men and Nick, passing by Serena Joy and the Commander, who looks devastated. Offred can not help but feel sorry for the Commander.

The Eyes arrest Offred, place her into their van, and drive away. The story ends ambiguously, leaving readers to wonder if Nick was telling Offred the truth when he said that the Eyes were really members of Mayday who have come to save her. As Offred puts it: "And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light."

Historical Notes

This chapter acts as an epilogue, explaining that it is the year 2195, and the following is a transcript of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held at the University of Denay, Nunavut, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Professor Maryann Crescent Moon is hosting this symposium and the main speaker is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University.

Crescent Moon opens the symposium by announcing the other activities available later in the day, including speeches and other symposia. She then introduces Professor Pieixoto, mentioning his article, “Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Mono Theocracies, as Seen through Diaries.” His talk today is in regard to “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Pieixoto turns out to be a perfect example of a male chauvinist as he starts off with a nasty joke about Crescent Moon and includes other jokes about women in his talk—for example, referring to the Underground Femaleroad as “the Underground Frailroad.”

Offred’s tale, he explains, was found among thirty other cassette tapes in an old U.S. Army locker in Maine. The first couple of tracks on each cassette is music, but Offred’s voice soon cuts in, and she begins to tell her story. Pieixoto adds that Offred’s story ends in Maine but that there is no further record of what happened to her after that.

He speaks of the problems Gilead faced, which eventually led to its downfall. Pieixoto does not provide much detail, and readers do not learn the specifics of when and how Gilead fell. Pieixoto instead goes on to explain why Gilead came to be and seems sympathetic to the founders of Gilead, who were attempting to prevent the extinction of white America.

Then, he chooses to concentrate on the identity of the Commander, offering two possibilities: Frederick R. Waterford, who came up with the Handmaid costume, and B. Frederick Judd, who planned the destruction of Congress.

He tells the audience of historians that they should not pass moral judgment on Gilead because the regime did what it felt was right at the time. His philosophy is one of understanding and forgiveness, making it clear that he neither disapproves of Gilead nor feels compassion for Offred or any of the other victims of Gilead’s regime. 

His speech ends with thunderous applause from the audience, as he asks, “Are there any questions?”

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Chapters 31–40: Summary