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The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 44-46 & Historical Notes

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That afternoon, Offred goes shopping with Ofglen, but Ofglen is no longer the same woman. She has been replaced by someone else. Offred tries to test the new Ofglen, to see if she is a true believer or a member of the resistance. She uses the password, Mayday, and Ofglen's reply shows she is a true believer. Offred also guesses that Ofglen knows that she, Offred, is not. She worries that the former Ofglen will be tortured and be forced to betray her.
As Offred and the new Ofglen are about to part, Ofglen confides that the former Ofglen hanged herself after the Salvaging. She saw what was coming for her and decided that suicide would be better.
Offred feels relieved that Ofglen is dead, and is thankful to her, since this means that Offred is safe. When Offred returns home, Serena Joy confronts her with the lipstick on her cloak that Offred wore to the club. She also has the dress that Offred wore. With bitter words, she sends Offred to her room, calling her a slut.
In her room, Offred considers her options. She could burn the house down, or appeal to the Commander for protection, or hang herself.
Later that evening, she hears a black van arrive. She thinks they have come for her, and regrets not having killed herself. Nick enters her room, uses the password Mayday, and tells her it is all right, she should go with the men in the van. She doesn't know whether he is an Eye or not. The Eyes must surely know the password, she thinks. She is escorted downstairs. The Commander and Serena Joy watch her in the hallway, and Serena asks what she has done. The Eyes reply that she has violated state secrets. This worries the Commander, since he assumes that she has been talking about him. As she is taken away, Offred has no idea whether she is being taken to freedom or into more servitude and punishment.
The Historical Notes section is set in the year 2195, at a scholarly conference in northern Canada of the Gilead Research Association. It features a talk by a Professor Pieixoto entitled, "Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale." He reports that the tale, placed on thirty audio cassette tapes, was found in an army footlocker on the site that was once Bangor, Maine. Experts had established that it was not a forgery, but they had little luck in correlating the people in the narrative to real people known to have lived in Gilead at the time. Records from Gilead are inadequate, since the regime had the habit of destroying computer files. Pieixoto also discusses the reasons for the plunging birth rate in Gilead, including AIDS, which killed many people of reproductive age, nuclear-plant accidents and sabotage, leakages from chemical and biological warfare stockpiles, toxic waste disposal sites, and uncontrolled use of insecticides and herbicides. All of these factors produced an epidemic of miscarriages, still births, deformed babies, and sterility in men.
Pieixito spends some time discussing the possible identity of the Commander, who may have been either the historical Frederick R. Waterford or B. Frederick Judd. Both men were leaders during the early period of Gilead. Judd probably orchestrated the President's Day Massacre that enabled the new regime to seize power. It was also Judd who created the savage ritual of the Particicution and realized that women could be controlled by other women (the Aunts). However, Pieixito believes that Waterford was more likely the Commander Offred refers to. He possessed a background in market research, and was later accused of possessing pictures and books, and harboring a subversive, who may have been Offred. Waterford was tried and executed.
Pieixito then states that Offred's ultimate fate is not known. She might have been able to escape to Canada or England; on the other hand, she might have been recaptured. Finally, Pieixito speculates about Nick's motivations in arranging Offred's escape. He may have felt in jeopardy himself, since after Ofglen's death, Offred would eventually have been interrogated, and would probably have divulged her sexual relationship with Nick. The penalty for both of them would have been severe. Pieixito ends by commenting on how much of what really happened in history cannot be known, and calling for questions from the audience.
Offred's story ends on a note of uncertainty. The reader does not know what her fate will be, since it is not clear whether she has been freed or betrayed by Nick, who may be a member of the resistance, or a member of the secret police, the Eyes. The Historical Notes offer some clarification, since the Professor believes that Offred must have escaped, aided by Nick, although what happened to her after that can never be known.
The Historical Notes suggest a very different world than that of Gilead is in existence at the end of the 22nd century. The symposium takes place in Nunavit, which is within the Arctic Circle, and presumably the University of Denay is now a prominent university. The conference is chaired by Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, of the Department of Causcasian Anthropology at the University of Denay. Another professor is called Johnny Running Dog. These names suggest the prominence of Native Americans and the decline of Caucasian influence in the world (since Caucasians are now the objects of study in anthropology departments). The balance of power and influence in the world has obviously shifted. Gilead has long since vanished, and no information is given about what replaced it, although it appears that Texas is now an independent country.
The Historical Notes offers a kind of analytic commentary on Gilead that provides some background information on Offred's story. Many readers find that it strikes a jarring note, however, since Professor Pieixoto is unwilling to condemn Gilead. Instead, he suggests that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned that all such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. . . . Our job is not to censure but to understand." For the reader, having just read Offred's story, sympathized with her plight and seen the true nature of the Gilead regime, such scholarly detachment and "understanding" may seem hopelessly misplaced.


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