Section 14: Salvaging - Chapter forty-two

Synopsis of chapter forty-two

A bell tolls to call the women of the area to a district ‘Salvaging' - that is, a public execution. They arrive at what was the University, where the buildings are now the Headquarters of the Eyes. The Handmaids have to kneel on red cushions, with a rope on the ground winding past them, which they must all grasp, to indicate their participation. There are three women to be executed: two Handmaids and a Wife. Offred wonders what their ‘crimes' were. Aunt Lydia arrives to conduct the proceedings. As the first of the two Handmaids is hanged, Offred leans forward to touch the rope, but does not want to look at the actual death.

Commentary on chapter forty-two

The bell is tolling – This is an echo of the famous line from one of his sermons of John Donne, the seventeenth century poet and priest. In the sermon he advised that:

‘No man is an island',
and that
‘any man's death diminishes me';
all humanity is intertwined and
‘therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

By beginning a chapter about an execution with these words, Atwood is also making us aware of our own involvement (like Offred's forced ‘complicity') in any deaths committed in our name.

We've had no breakfast - Offred explains later that this is because they might otherwise be physically sick at what they are forced to witness.

what used to be the library ... Commencement - University educationCommencement has ceased in Gilead. ‘Commencement' in some American universities is the equivalent of the British ‘Degree ceremony' or graduation. Later in this chapter, Offred points out the bleak irony that the women sitting on the platform, waiting to be hanged, look ‘like graduating students who are about to be given prizes'.

I don't want to be telling this story - by placing this line on its own, Atwood introduces ambiguity: Is this Offred's comment, because she has had to witness something so horrible? Or is it Atwood's comment on her reaction to the fact that public executions are still a fact of life in several régimes, such as Sudan? (See also Social and political context > Political satire > Punishment and human rights.)

Eggdandelion ... the colour of egg yolk - Because of the centrality to the novel of issues of fertility, eggs are frequently mentioned, not least because they are a daily part of a Handmaid's diet. See also Imagery and symbolism.

‘Good afternoon, ladies' - The prissy nature of Aunt Lydia's announcement, which sounds superficially like that of a Headmistress of an upper-class school for girls, only makes its true significance worse.

The same platitudes, the same slogans - Offred has already commented in chapter 40 on how clichés can be used to gloss over lack of feeling and to distance ourselves from personal responsibility.

Through them we show ourselves what we might be capable of - Committing ‘copycat' crimes can give the oppressed women of Gilead a sense of hope. Until she had seen what Moira had become reduced to, at Jezebel's, Offred grasped at the idea of Moira as such a rebel.

Reading? … only a hand cut off - The word ‘only' attached to such an appalling penalty, suggests that there are far worse punishments in Gilead. It is a kind of grim humour for Atwood to suggest that we, as her readers, might be subject to such a penalty. (See also Social and political context > Political satire > Punishment and human rights.)

Janine, most likely - Ofglen thinks that the ‘retching' could be from Janine because she is far from well since finding that her baby was a ‘shredder'. Janine may also be only too aware that her failure to produce a healthy child brings her own demise closer.

As if she's being helped up the steps of a bus ... the noose ... like a vestment – A vestment is associated with a holy context. Atwood's choice of these two images, which are as far removed as possible from what is happening to this woman, ironically underscores the horror of the situation.

Investigating chapter forty-two

  • The subject of capital punishment - which is a common penalty in many countries - has been hotly debated for many years. In the United States of America today, some states use capital punishment whilst others do not.
    • Consider the arguments for and against capital punishment.
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