Chapters 41–46 and Historical Notes: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3659

Chapter 41 Summary

Offred apologizes for her story’s fragmentary nature, its pain, and lack of resolution. She says how hard it is having to relive these events and suffer her devastating boredom, but she is determined to hide nothing. She is even determined to honestly relate the part of her story in which she claims she does not behave well.

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She says she chooses to return to Nick’s room on many evenings. Although their affair is very dangerous, she still views his apartment as a haven of safety “where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside.” She tells him her real name and confides in him about everything except Luke and the previous Offred. Nick tells her little about himself.

One night, she has Nick put his hand on her belly to feel the new life stirring inside her—but she’s not sure it’s true. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, as it is too early to tell.

Ofglen encourages Offred to go into her Commander’s study to look through his papers, but Offred shies away from this, saying she is afraid. In actuality, she has grown indifferent to the Commander, now that she has become so serious about Nick. When Ofglen pressures her again to work for the resistance, promising her that the Mayday people could get her out if it became too dangerous, Offred realizes she no longer even desires escape. “I want to be here with Nick, where I can get at him,” she says to herself. Ofglen senses her apathy and starts to give up on her.

Chapter 41 Analysis

So much of the novel has dealt with Offred’s misery at the Commander’s house, her desire to escape and rejoin her husband and daughter, and her temptation to follow her predecessor’s example by killing herself that the reader may be surprised that she doesn’t jump at the chance for freedom.

But this is very human. Someone freed after a long prison term frequently finds the outside world terrifying. There are so many choices, and the imprisoned have lost the ability to make choices after years of being told when to wake, eat, shower, and so on.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Offred has developed serious feelings for Nick, and this results in her sense of complacency. She loses interest in both the resistance movement and her own escape as the sinks deeper into the illusion that she can build a life with Nick in these circumstances. By suggesting this change in Offred’s character, Atwood is perhaps illustrating the dangers that can result when women allow men and their romantic ties to these men to become their sole focus. This type of complacency may have helped enable the leaders of Gilead to stage their revolution with relative ease.

Chapter 42 Summary

While a bell tolls in the background, Ofglen and Offred head for the university. At the main gate a large group of Angels in riot gear stands by. There is to be a Salvaging for women only.

A wooden stage has been erected in front of the former library that reminds Offred of the graduation ceremonies of the past. She remarks that this is her second Salvaging. Wives and their daughters are seated on folding chairs at the back, then Marthas and Econowives, and Handmaids kneel in the front on velvet cushions.

The three who are to be salvaged are seated on the stage. A procession enters: Aunt Lydia of the Red Center and two black-hooded Salvagers. Aunt Lydia speaks to the crowd for several minutes, then takes a paper from her pocket and calls out the name of the first of the three who will be salvaged.

Offred has seen this before—the victim stands on a stool, the white bag is placed over her head and a noose around her neck, then the stool is kicked away, there is a death struggle, and finally the body goes limp. She cannot look, so she stares at the grass.

But, there is a difference in this Salvaging. Previously, the victim’s crimes had been read out before the execution. This time they were not.

Chapter 42 Analysis

That Gilead’s executions are sexually segregated is part of Gilead’s perverse “women’s culture.” Only women hang women.

The victims’ crimes are no longer announced because the authorities don’t want others to know what the crimes are because they might imitate them.

The term Salvaging combines “salvation” and “savaging” and sums up Gilead beautifully: savagery masquerading as holiness.

Gilead’s public executions are another return to the past. A few countries, mostly dictatorships, still hold public executions. But most did away with them years, even centuries, ago. When he was very young, Charles Dickens saw one in London, one of the last there. Almost all Western countries have done away with all forms of execution within the last 25 years. The most notable exception is the United States.

One of the primary reasons for public, or any other, executions is that they provide a cautionary lesson to others, those who otherwise might commit crimes. Of course, there is evidence to the contrary. The abandonment of executions is inevitably followed by a decline in the crime rate, not a rise. All Gilead is doing is exercising its blood lust.

Chapter 43 Summary

The three victims, with the white sacks over their heads, remind Offred of chickens hanging in a poultry shop window. The Salvaging is over.

Now comes the Particicution. Aunt Lydia cautions the Handmaids to wait for her whistle, and two Guardians lead in a third Guardian. He can scarcely walk and his face is battered and swollen. Aunt Lydia says he has been convicted of rape, and the penalty is meted out according to Deuteronomy. A collective sigh comes from the women, and Offred says she can feel the blood lust rising in her.

Aunt Lydia smiles, then blows her whistle. The convicted man is freed: he staggers and almost falls. The Handmaids pause, then surge forward, punching, kicking, and screaming. Offred sees Ofglen push the victim down and kick him hard three times in the head. Then she retreats as the other Handmaids finish him off.

Offred is shocked at Ofglen’s brutality, but Ofglen curtly tells her the man wasn’t a rapist. He was a member of Mayday. She kicked him so hard to stun him, to put him beyond pain.

Again, Aunt Lydia blows her whistle and the two Guardians carry off the body. Janine wanders past Offred, blood smeared on her cheek, her eyes glassy, giggling. “You have a nice day,” she says as she passes. For a moment Offred envies Janine’s lapse into madness.

Back at home, even though she took no part in the killing, Offred fiercely scrubs her hands to wash away the smell of tar.

Chapter 43 Analysis

Atwood clearly has taken the title for the second part of this ceremony from a Canadian government fitness program, Participaction, begun in 1972.

Although Aunt Lydia’s justifications for this murderous brutality is that it’s from the Bible, the actual Deuteronomy text reads, “But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her, then the man only that lay with her shall die.” It then prescribes death by public stoning.

But this man is not stoned to death; he is punched, kicked, scratched, perhaps even bitten to death. This is hands-on execution, as the blood on Janine’s face shows. It is much like the ritual orgies of the Maenads, female worshippers of the god Dionysus. These women, dressed in animal skins, danced and drank themselves into a frenzy, then tore apart any animal or man they encountered.

This is Gilead’s “ecumenical” side again: a mix of Marxist slogans, Milton’s poetry, and biblical texts, with some pagan bloodlust, murderous racism, and fundamentalist Christianity thrown in. No wonder Offred must scrub until her hands are almost raw.

If Ofglen is right, and the victim was killed for his Mayday membership rather than for rape, this clearly is because Gilead wants to hide the existence of Mayday.

Chapter 44 Summary

After her usual bland, but healthy lunch, Offred goes to meet Ofglen for a shopping trip. But it is not Ofglen who appears. A stranger, thinner and paler than Ofglen, greets Offred with the formal “Blessed be the fruit.” When Offred asks if Ofglen has been transferred, the stranger answers, “I am Ofglen.” Offred wishes she had asked her friend her real name.

They pass three female corpses on the Wall, the women executed that morning. Offred and the new Ofglen walk by them wordlessly. On the way home, Offred says of her former friend, “I’ve known her since May,” a cue to see if the new woman knows of the Mayday network. Offred flushes when she says this and her heart races. She adds that it was at the beginning of May, “What they used to call May Day.” The new Ofglen coldly replies that Offred should forget such vestiges of the past. Offred concludes this newcomer is not one of “us,” but she is aware of Mayday, and apparently is trying to warn Offred to give up thoughts of resistance.

Offred is frightened and thinks of all the ways she can be tortured. They can threaten to harm her daughter; if Luke is alive and a prisoner, they can harm him. They can make her confess, make her testify against the other Ofglen, make her tell everything she knows about Mayday.

Then, just before leaving, the new Ofglen whispers, “She hanged herself.” Ofglen had seen an Eyes’ van coming for her, this woman explains. “It was better,” she says, and walks off.

Chapter 44 Analysis

The first Ofglen’s near-arrest and suicide, like that morning’s killing festival, shows Gilead’s brutality as well as Mayday’s vulnerability. Perhaps Offred was right to not accept Ofglen’s offer of escape. Better safe than sorry. Except, of course, she isn’t safe at all unless she becomes pregnant.

Chapter 45 Summary

Learning of Ofglen’s suicide makes Offred feel she’s had the air kicked out of her. She doesn’t want to die or to be one of those creatures strung up on the Wall. She will do anything to stay alive. She feels overwhelmed by Gilead’s power.

She heads for the house’s back door, only to be confronted in the garden by Serena Joy, who has found out about her secret meetings with the Commander and their trip to Jezebel’s. She flings down the sequined, feathered showgirl costume. “Behind my back,” she accuses. “Just like the other one. A slut.”

Offred picks up the costume and goes to her room.

Chapter 45 Analysis

Serena Joy’s confrontation takes away what little ground Offred still has under her feet. Before, Serena Joy was willing to conspire with her about Nick, despite her dislike of Offred. Now she has become an outraged enemy, one with resources.

Offred’s new willingness to abase herself to Gilead is now impossible. She cannot stay in this house, and probably can’t stay alive in Gilead, but she has no way now of contacting Mayday. Only death awaits her; her only choice is whether it be by Salvaging or suicide.

Chapter 46 Summary

That night Offred waits in her room. Soon they will be coming to arrest her. Yet, she feels “serene, at peace....” She repeats the phrase scratched on her closet floor— “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”—like a mantra.

She still has the match, she reminds herself. Setting the house ablaze, she could take her death into her own hands, and the fire would be a beacon of protest to others. Or she could tear her bedsheets into strips and fashion a rope to hang herself. Or she could go to Nick one last time, if he would let her in.

Her predecessor is very much with her, and she feels she is not alone.

Then she hears the sound of a van approaching the house and realizes it is too late to do anything. Too late to start a fire or make a rope. There were so many things she could have done—stolen Serena Joy’s knitting needles or gardening shears, a variety of weapons—but she has missed all her chances.

Nick pushes her door open, to her surprise. He tells her it’s Mayday that has come, and she sees two men in the hall behind him. She can’t believe it, but Nick says, “Trust me.” Somehow those two words reach her. She will trust him. Besides, has she any choice?

She goes downstairs with the three men. Stunned, Serena Joy and the Commander hover in the front hall, and Offred can’t help but feel pity for the Commander, who looks a wreck.

The two Eyes make an arrest, showing the Commander their authorization. Then Offred is taken out to the van and driven away.

Chapter 46 Analysis

Offred’s condemnation of herself for not taking things into her own hands—exerting control over her own destiny—raises questions about how to survive in Gilead. On the one hand, things have not gone well for those who were activists. Her mother is dead in the Colonies; Moira is doomed at Jezebel’s; Ofglen has killed herself. That’s where their activism has taken them. But Janine, the obedient one, obviously will die, too.

Perhaps Offred’s idea of starting a fire is a valid alternative. She thinks that she will die anyway, why not burn herself in protest? Why not determine when and where her life will end?

The story’s ending is ambiguous. Neither Offred nor the reader can be sure that Nick is a good guy and that the two Eyes really are members of Mayday who have come to save her. Perhaps he has been a spy all along, sent to investigate the Commander.

The Commander has broken many rules. Aside from what goes on at his home, he has taken a Handmaid—two of them, at least—to Jezebel’s and flaunted her. There are resident prostitutes like Moira at Jezebel’s for the hierarchy, but he brought Offred. Perhaps his colleagues are out to get him, strip him of his authority and maybe his life.

Totalitarian regimes are hothouses of intrigue, plots, and corruption. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s henchmen intrigued against each other. Himmler, head of the SS, spied on Goering. Canaris, head of intelligence, spied on Himmler and others. Hitler’s secretary, Borman, spied on everyone.

Stalin is alleged to have been murdered by his security chief, Beria, as part of a plot to replace him. Then Beria was shot by his fellow conspirators.

A free society has its share of plotting and corruption, too, but it also has a free press to expose such things, and a court system to curb abuses and put the worst abusers in prison. Its voters are able to change the government at each election if they choose.

Perhaps Nick is a spy and Offred is doomed. But he may be exactly what he says he is, Offred’s savior, in which case she soon will find herself alive and free, with a chance of reuniting with her family.

Her story ends with this ambiguity: is she safe or is she doomed? That Atwood chose not to end the novel here is puzzling to many readers. To them, the final chapter, “Historical Notes,” is a confusing anticlimax.

Something worth noting: the only humane organizations in Gilead, Mayday and Underground Femaleroad, combined women and men working for a common goal. Atwood seems to be telling the reader: only cooperation works. It echoes John Donne’s famous funeral sermon, “No man is an island.” No man, and no woman either, not if he or she wants to survive.

Historical Notes Summary

This chapter purports to be the transcript of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held in 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in Canada’s Northwest Territories (the Denay are a major tribe of the North). Professor Maryann Crescent Moon chairs this symposium. The main speaker is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University.

Crescent Moon opens with an announcement of the other activities available later in the day, including speeches and other symposia, whose leaders almost all have non-European names. Then she introduces Pieixoto, mentioning his article, “Iran and Gilead:

Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies, as Seen through Diaries.” His talk today is “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Pieixoto starts off with a nasty crack about Crescent Moon and lards his talk with jokes about women—for example, referring to the Underground Femaleroad as “the Underground Frailroad.” He is the perfect example of a male chauvinist.

He tells his audience that Offred’s book was found in an old U.S. Army-issue footlocker in Bangor, Maine. The locker held 30 tape cassettes, including “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings” and “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years.” The first couple of tracks on each cassette is such music. But then Offred’s voice cuts in and she tells her tale. Clearly Offred spent a considerable time hiding somewhere near Bangor to have taped all this. Pieixoto says that Offred’s trail ends in Maine; there is no record of what happened to her after that.

He talks about the problems that overwhelmed Gilead and led to its end, but with little detail. Readers do not learn exactly when and how Gilead fell—whether it lost its various wars or was toppled by a revolution.

Pieixoto explains why Gilead came into being, and seems sympathetic to the aims of its founders: to prevent the gradual extinction of white America. He puts Offred into the context of historical change, rather than seeing her as an individual who was victimized by a fanatical regime.

He concentrates more on the Commander’s identity and offers two possibilities: Frederick R. Waterford, who designed the Handmaid costume, and B. Frederick Judd, who organized the massacre of Congress and came up with the idea for Particicution.

His main message is that historians should not pass moral judgment on Gilead: it did what seemed right at the time. His philosophy seems to be, “To understand all is to forgive all,” for he clearly does not condemn Gilead and feels no pity for Offred or any of Gilead’s other victims.

When his speech ends, the audience of historians applaud. The novel ends with his “Are there any questions?”

Historical Notes Analysis

The fact that almost every name mentioned at the symposium seems Native American suggests that the world’s Caucasian population has declined, perhaps close to extinction. For all its fury, Gilead failed to stop this.

But it is the unbearably smug Pieixoto who dominates this chapter, showing that sexism is alive and well in the Twenty-second Century. And nobody objects, nobody walks out on him.

Even worse is his insistence that historians be nonjudgmental about the Gilead regime. He is a moral relativist—that is, he believes there is no overriding morality, and events, institutions, and people should be seen as products of historical situations that merely reacted to events.

While there is some validity to this philosophy, clearly it’s dangerous to stretch it too far. Morality does count. Otherwise one can argue that Hitler’s problems with his stern, elderly father and his doting mother made him what he was, making his terrorism in Europe an understandable acting-out of these problems—understandable, and, therefore, forgivable. Moral relativity can excuse Stalin’s, Mao’s, Idi Amin’s, Pol Pot’s, and even Jack the Ripper’s crimes.

Pieixoto ends with, “Are there any questions?” Atwood obviously wants the reader to raise questions, starting with, “Who is this creep? And why doesn’t anybody object to his drivel?”

Atwood is also addressing the reader in this final sentence. Having experienced Offred’s realities in Gilead through the reading, the reader is now being challenged to question and problematize misogynistic structures and attitudes in his or her own society. It is only through inquiry and challenge—as opposed to complacency—that society will rid itself of the sexist ideology that hinders both men and women from living free and fully realized lives.

Perhaps the biggest question is: Why did Atwood add this chapter, when Chapter 46 is a very fitting end? Possibly she felt readers might close the book thinking that although Gilead was an awful place, where horrible things were done, it was an isolated episode in history; and surely, people would learn from it and not allow such a horror to arise again.

So Atwood counters with a room of eminent historians, shapers of society’s thoughts, who have learned absolutely nothing from Gilead’s history. They look at Gilead as if they were looking through a microscope at a cancer cell—interesting, but without any moral relevance.

The American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But this audience does know history. It reads it and writes it, yet it is prepared to ignore history’s lessons, just as the world did when it allowed ethnic murder and war to break out in Bosnia.

Perhaps these historians should read something else of Santayana’s, from one of his poems:

It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.

Pieixoto has no heart when it comes to Offred and Gilead’s other victims. Atwood seems to say that this is his crime and the crime of his audience. Only if they, and humanity in general, have a heart, can they learn from the crimes of the past and prevent the crimes of the future. Only then will there be a balm in Gilead.

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Chapters 31–40: Summary and Analysis

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