Summary: Chapter 41
Offred tells her imagined listener that her story is almost too painful to bear, but that she needs to go on telling it because it wills her listener into being. She may be addressing the reader, or she may be addressing Luke; she says she wants to hear her listener’s story too, if her listener escapes. Offred says she continues to see Nick at night without Serena’s knowledge. She feels thankful each time he opens the door to her. He never says much, but she finds herself telling him about Moira and Ofglen. She tells him her real name. She never mentions Luke. Eventually, she tells him she thinks she is pregnant, although privately she feels this is wishful thinking. During their shopping trips, Ofglen pressures Offred to break into the Commander’s office. She wants Offred to find out what he really does, what responsibilities he has. But Offred now tunes out Ofglen and spends her time thinking about Nick.
Summary: Chapter 42
A women’s “Salvaging,” or large-scale execution, is held in what used to be Harvard Yard. All the women in the district must attend. On the lawn in front of the former library sits a stage like the one used for commencement in pre-Gilead days. Aunt Lydia sits on the stage, supervising the hangings. It is the first time Offred has seen Aunt Lydia since leaving the Red Center. Aunt Lydia announces that they have decided to discontinue announcing the crimes of the convicted because it sparks copycat crimes. The Handmaids are dismayed; the crimes give them hope by showing them that women can still resist. Three women are hanged, two Handmaids and one Wife. Offred speculates that the Handmaid tried to kill her Commander’s Wife. She says Wives get salvaged for only three things: killing a Handmaid, adultery, or attempted escape. The Handmaids must place their hands on a long rope as the women hang, in order to show their consent to the salvaging.
Summary: Chapter 43
After the hanging, Aunt Lydia instructs the Handmaids to form a circle. A few of the other women leave, but most Wives and daughters stay to watch. Then two Guardians drag a third Guardian to the front. He is disheveled and smells of excrement. He looks drunk or drugged. Aunt Lydia announces that he and another Guardian have been convicted of rape. His partner was shot already, but this man has been saved for the Handmaids, who will take part in what is called a “Particicution.” Aunt Lydia adds that one of the two Handmaids involved was pregnant and lost the baby in the attack. A wave of raw fury courses through the crowd; Offred feels bloodlust along with the others. Aunt Lydia blows a whistle, and the Handmaids close in on the man, kicking and beating him to a bloody pulp. Ofglen dashes in first and kicks his head several times. Afterward, disgusted with her friend, Offred asks Ofglen why she did it. Ofglen whispers that the supposed rapist was part of the underground rebellion, and she wanted to put him out of his misery quickly. Offred sees Janine carrying a bloody clump of hair. Her eyes look vacant, and she babbles some cheerful greetings from the time before Gilead. Offred admits, ashamed, that she feels great hunger.
Summary: Chapter 44
Soon after the Salvaging, Offred goes out for a shopping trip, comforted by the ordinariness of the routine. To her dismay, the Handmaid who meets her is not Ofglen. When Offred asks her where Ofglen went, the woman replies, “I am Ofglen.” Since this new Handmaid now lives with the Commander named Glen, her name becomes Ofglen. Offred realizes how women get lost in this ocean of fluctuating names. Trying to see if the new woman belongs to the resistance, Offred suggests they go to the Wall. As they walk there, Offred works the password “Mayday” into the conversation by mentioning the old holiday of “May Day.” The new Ofglen looks at her coolly and tells her that she should forget such “echoes” from the old world. Terrified, Offred realizes that the new Ofglen knows about the resistance and does not belong to it. She suddenly imagines herself found out and arrested. She thinks that perhaps they will torture her daughter until she tells them everything she knows. She and the new, treacherous Ofglen walk home. As they part, the new Ofglen suddenly whispers that the old Ofglen hanged herself when she saw the van coming to arrest her. “’It was better,’” she says, and then walks quickly away.
Analysis: Chapters 41–44
As soon as she begins her affair with Nick, Offred slips into complacency, showing how it is that oppressive regimes like Gilead come to power and survive unchallenged when their subjects become listless. Offred remembers her mother saying that people can grow accustomed to almost anything “as long as there are a few compensations,” and Offred’s relationship with Nick shows the truth of this insight. Offred’s situation restricts her horribly compared to the freedom her former life allowed, but her relationship with Nick allows her to reclaim the tiniest fragment of her former existence. The physical affection and companionship becomes a compensation that makes the restrictions almost bearable. Offred seems suddenly so content that the idea of change, embodied in the demands that Ofglen makes of her, becomes too difficult to contemplate. The Salvaging shakes Offred, however, and her complacency shatters when Ofglen disappears and a sinister, conformist woman takes her place. During this climactic shopping trip, the horror of living in a totalitarian state reasserts itself, and events begin to rush toward the novel’s conclusion.
The “Salvaging” and its aftermath show Gilead at its most cruel. It is unclear why the execution is called a salvaging, a word that means “saving.” Perhaps the name refers to the society at large, which is saved from the potential threat posed by the offenders when those offenders are hanged. Less ambiguous is the meaning of the “particicution,” a term derived by combining the words “participation” and “execution.” As its etymology suggests, the particicution is an execution carried out by a group. Its design shows the cleverness of Gileadean totalitarianism, since it provides both a gruesome death for traitors and discourages other rebels, who face the possibility of dying at the hands of those they were trying to help. Its main function, though, is to provide an outlet for the rage and hatred that the Handmaids harbor toward the men who oppress them. Even before Aunt Lydia announces the guilty Guardian’s crime, a “murmur of readiness and anger” builds among the Handmaids. They burst with frustration and anger at their repressed existence, and perhaps at their inability to conceive children. Without outlets for women’s emotions, Gilead faces the danger of a sudden upheaval. By allowing them to participate in the Guardian’s execution, Gilead channels the Handmaids’ anger onto a single man, who serves as a scapegoat for everyone else. The man is presented as a rapist of Handmaids who caused a miscarriage, meaning that not only does he suggest the sanctioned rape of the Handmaids by the Commanders, but he has robbed the women of the one thing that gives them value, babies.
The Salvaging takes place in Harvard Yard, in front of what was Widener Library. As a university, Harvard once symbolized the free pursuit of knowledge; as the location for the Salvaging, it symbolizes the denial of access to knowledge. Gilead has turned the old world upside down, making a former liberal arts university the seat of the secret police.