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: Questions and Answers

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Study Questions 1. Why does Offred offer two different versions of her encounter with Nick?

2. Why does Offred say that she did not behave well when speaking of her relationship with Nick?

3. Why are the Salvagings and Particicutions public ceremonies?

4. Why do the Handmaids act so murderously?

5. Why doesn’t Offred take part in the Particicution?

6. What are possible reasons for Ofglen’s near-arrest?

7. How does Serena Joy find out that Offred and her husband have been meeting secretly at night?

8. Who has summoned the Eyes to arrest Offred?

9. One of the events Crescent Moon announces is a nature walk. Given that the symposium takes place close to the Arctic Circle, what does this suggest?

10. What is the significance of Pieixoto’s article on Iran and Gilead?

Answers 1. In one version, she and Nick immediately make passionate love; in the other, there is awkwardness and tension between them before they begin. The reader is not certain which version is accurate. Offred herself says, “All I can hope for is a reconstruction.” It is possible that Offred’s guilt over her betrayal of Luke keeps her from squarely facing the truth of that encounter.

2. Offred seems to be ashamed that she became so engrossed in her relationship with Nick that she became careless and complacent. She divulged secrets to Nick without being certain he was trustworthy, thereby putting people like Ofglen at potential risk.

3. Ceremony is important in people’s lives, from Santa Claus parades and Fourth of July celebrations to Thanksgiving dinners. It helps give people a sense of community, a sense of what their society is all about. Gilead is about fear and blood, and its ceremonies demonstrate this. It is Gilead’s way of saying, “We are all in this together, and look what happens to those who try to break loose.”

4. As we have seen with Offred, everyone in Gilead feels isolated and oppressed and murderous or suicidal. This communal killing lets them act out their murderous impulses and serves as a catharsis. The victims are scapegoats upon whom the Handmaids, the most repressed people in Gilead, can act out their rage.

5. Offred doesn’t participate because the thinks it is wrong. The other Handmaids have either internalized their oppression or are frightened of being picked out as rebels. They want to appear true believers. That Offred resists this response suggests that she still rejects the inhumanity of the regime, despite the complacency she demonstrated in the previous chapter.

6. It is possible that Ofglen fell under suspicion because of her unusual aggressiveness in the Particicution. Also, she may have been overheard explaining to Offred that she kicked the Guardian in the head so as to spare him the suffering of the fatal beating he was about to face. Nick could also have reported on Ofglen since Offred told him everything about her. Finally, there may have been informers in Mayday who turned her in.

7. Serena Joy finds lipstick on the cloak that her husband took from her closet for Offred to wear to Jezebel’s. This must have prompted her to investigate her husband’s study in which she found the sequinned outfit. This evidence leads her to conclude that once again her husband has been consorting with the Handmaid.

8. The ending is ambiguous so the reader cannot be certain of who summoned the Eyes to arrest Offred. It wasn’t Serena Joy or the Commander; both are shocked to see the Eyes at their door. Nick claims that he summoned them and that they are actually people from Mayday...

(This entire section contains 968 words.)

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in disguise. Nick would have had the chance to make these arrangements between the time that Serena Joy confronts Offred about her misbehavior and the time that the black van arrives. The question remains whether this is really a rescue attempt, as Nick claims, or whether he has turned her over to the authorities.

9. One of Atwood’s underlying messages in the novel is that the consequences of worldwide pollution will have an impact on human health and reproduction, which, in turn, may affect the kind of government we have. Under Mao, China experienced a population explosion that led to a policy of one child per family. This was enforced by government ordered abortions and sterilization, the idea being that harsh problems required harsh solutions. America’s problem, in Atwood’s novel, is harsh, resulting in a government that undertook harsh and murderous solutions. Atwood likely is saying that we had better solve the environmental problem in a reasonable, democratic way while we can, or we might end up with a Gilead-like regime that will solve it the hard way. The territory where the symposium is set has a harsh climate with a very short summer. While a variety of flowers burst into bloom during that short summer, it’s hardly the place for a nature walk—unless global warming, another by-product of pollution, has warmed Nunavit appreciably, giving it a climate similar to that of, say, Washington. In that case, what has Washington’s climate become?

10. Pieixoto’s linking Iran and Gilead, two “monotheocracies” (i.e., states with one official religion and ruled by that religion’s leaders) is a clear indication of what inspired Atwood to write this novel. If such a restrictive regime could happen to Iran, an oil-rich, industrializing country with a history of secular government that looked to the West for its model, perhaps such a regime could come to power here, too. The lesson is, don’t be smug and think you’re immune, as in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935). Lewis’s novel predicted with remarkable accuracy the rise to power of an American politician identical to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose communist-hunts terrorized many Americans in the 1950s. Will Atwood prove to be just as accurate?


Chapters 31-40: Questions and Answers