Section 15: Night - Chapter forty-six

Synopsis of chapter forty-six

Offred sits in her room, wondering what horrible punishment Serena Joy has in mind for her, and whether she will be handed over to the Eyes. She wonders whether she should try to escape, or to commit suicide.

Suddenly she hears a black van arrive. Nick comes into her room, followed by two other men. Nick whispers to her that this is a plan organised by Mayday, and that she can confidently go with the men. However, she has no way of knowing whether this is true or whether Nick himself is an Eye.

As she is led downstairs, Serena Joy and the Commander are there waiting, wondering why Offred is being arrested. The men say that Offred has violated state secrets. Offred realises that Serena Joy has not summoned the Eyes for her, and that the Commander's career will be ruined, and possibly his life put at risk:

  • If the men are really Eyes, he has allowed his Handmaid to contact a subversive group
  • If the men are from Mayday, he will be found to have let his Handmaid escape.

Offred goes out and gets into the black van, not knowing whether she is being arrested or if she is escaping.

Commentary on chapter forty-six

What are you waiting for? ... For what are you waiting? - Atwood shows how apparently slight alterations can completely change meaning. She goes on to play on ‘suspension' and ‘suspense', and ‘disgrace' and ‘grace'.

There's nobody ... take long - These short sentences, set out in spaces, indicate for the reader how time is passing.

To put her out of her misery ... out of our misery - A final indication that Offred sees a certain parallel between her wretched existence and that of Serena Joy. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

Faith is only a word, embroidered - This sentence has more connotations than might at first be obvious:

  • In chapter 10 Offred described the cushion in her room with ‘faith' embroidered on it. There had presumably once been three, with the others saying ‘hope and ‘love' (or ‘charity'; see the commentary on chapter 10)
  • Here, the reminder that love and hope seem to have been removed from Gilead is implicit in Offred's moment of despair
  • Also, ‘a word embroidered' can mean language which is over-elaborate, suggesting that in Gilead the idea of religious faith is artificial.

My ancestress, my double - Offred thinks of the earlier Offred, who hanged herself after being found out by Serena Joy, as her exact counterpart. See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling. (Atwood may perhaps also be including a glancing reference to her ancestress in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, Mary Webster, who was ‘half-hanged', being hanged as a witch but surviving because her neck was not broken. Atwood has written a poem about her: Half-Hanged Mary.)

Nick, the private Eye - A pun and an example of grim humour:

  • Nick may have secretly been a member of the Eyes
  • A ‘private eye' is an American term for a private detective.

my real name. Why should this mean anything? - Throughout the novel, Offred feels that her real name is a talisman, a way of preserving her personality and identity. In chapter 41 she told Nick her name because she decided to trust him. However, as Atwood does not let us know what happens to Offred, we do not know whether Nick's use of Offred's real name is an ultimate betrayal, or a sign that her trust was reciprocated.

Trust me ... It's all I'm left with - Nick's words offer a faint chance that there may still be trust, hope and even love in Gilead, where the régime may not have had the power to destroy all human relationships. (See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.)

a security risk now ... There have already been purges. Serena Joy goes white - The euphemistic word ‘purges', which originally referred to purifying the body's internal workings, came to be associated in the 1930s and afterwards with political purges, in which opponents of a régime, or those whom the state found undesirable, were removed, usually by being executed. (See Social and political context.)

And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light – Is the van a tomb or a tunnel? Atwood leaves the Handmaid's story here. Readers can choose for themselves, if they wish, to imagine what happens to Offred next... 

Investigating chapter forty-six

  • Several twentieth century novels - for example John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman - or films - for example Sliding Doors - offer the reader possible alternative plots or endings. Atwood herself leaves endings open in her dystopian novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
    • Is the ‘open-ended' approach more interesting, or simply frustrating for the reader?
    • Consider the same question again after reading the final section of The Handmaid's Tale: ‘Historical Notes'.

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