Offred sits in her room and waits, holding "a handful of crumpled stars" in her lap. She should feel terrible about what happened, but she doesn't. She thinks about what she could do. She could set fire to the house. She could try to break the window and escape. She could beg the Commander for help. She could hang herself. She could go to Nick's room. Ultimately, however, she decides that she isn't going to do any of those things.
Night begins to fall, and Offred feels the presence of her "ancestress" behind her, hanging from the chandelier. She imagines her hanging there wearing a costume of feathers and spangles. She hears the black van and, looking out the window, sees two men ring the bell. Nick opens her door, and she is afraid for a moment, but he whispers to her that "it's Mayday." She doesn't believe that the men are, as Nick has intimated, here to save her, but it doesn't matter, and she thinks that it might as well be true. Together, they go down the stairs, passing Serena Joy, then the Commander. The Commander asks the men if they have a warrant, and they reply that they don't need one, since it is a "violation of state secrets." The Commander suddenly looks afraid. Cora is crying. The men lead her to the van, and she climbs "into the darkness within; or else the light." With this, Offred's story comes to an end.
The novel closes with a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195." The Chair, Maryann Crescent Moon, makes a few announcements about the activities at the conference, and then introduces the keynote speaker, Professor Pieixoto, who is going to speak about "Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale."
Pieixoto describes how the item was unearthed in the city of Bangor, which prior to the Gileadean regime was in the state of Maine. Inside a metal footlocker, they found about thirty tape cassettes. Most began with a few songs, then contained recordings made by the same person who was singing. He explains that the tapes were not stored in any particular order, so he and Professor Wade had to take some guesses as to the progression of the story when they arranged the tapes. He discusses the possibility of forgery, and comments on the foolishness of making moral judgments about the Gileadeans. He suggests that "we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a great deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise." He then speaks about the account itself, and the methods that might be used to verify whether or not it is a truthful, valid story written by a real Handmaid.
Pieixoto then describes how they attempted to figure out who had owned the house, a tactic that failed almost immediately. One of the major obstacles was the policy of destroying massive amounts of documents whenever the regime went through one of its many purges. He then explains why it proved nearly impossible to trace the narrator herself. He talks about how Handmaids were created and why, going into detail about the possible explanations for the declining birthrates that afflicted the Gileadeans. He talks about how Biblical precedents were used to justify the choices made by the new government. He also points out that the names used in the narrative were most likely all pseudonyms, which fits with their belief that the tapes were made within the borders of Gilead.
Next, Pieixoto talks about their attempts to trace the identity of the Commander. He describes the two possible candidates that they located, the evidence supporting each theory, and their reasons for favoring a man named Waterford. He also speaks a bit about the Underground Femaleroad and the Mayday operatives. Finally, he laments Offred's failure to provide any real insight into the Gilead regime, commenting on how extraordinarily useful it would have been to have even a twenty page printout from the Commander's computer. He speculates as to what happened to Offred, and why she didn't take the tapes with her if she left. He also suggests that Nick helped Offred escape in order to save himself, commenting that "he could, of course, have assassinated her himself, which might have been the wiser course." He concludes his talk by stating that it is not possible to fully interpret the events of the past in the "light of the present day."
The ending of The Handmaid's Tale is abrupt, and in some ways dissatisfying. Why is the reader left uncertain as to Offred's fate? Why is the reader never told her real name? Why do we learn what happened to the Commander, but not what happened to Nick? One possible explanation for these choices is that Atwood thought that The Handmaid's Tale would have more of an impact if she left it without a clear ending. Atwood has stated her belief that the novel is a vehicle for social change, and useful for furthering human understanding. By forcing us to think about the end of Offred's story through the lens of the Historical Notes, Atwood urges the reader to think about why they feel as they do - even if what they feel is dissatisfied and ambivalent - rather than allowing them to experience a simple, emotional reaction to a powerful story.
The presence and content of the Historical Notes immediately forces the reader to consider the purpose of history with respect to the purpose of stories. The historians are frustrated that Offred's story cannot be fact-checked and verified by independent sources. They are irritated that given her many opportunities, Offred failed to secure some more tangible artifact of the Gileadean government, such as a printout from the Commander's computer. Atwood is subtly satirizing a type of historiography that considers facts more important than narratives - to these historians, information about the government is far more interesting than information about individuals. They look down on Offred's account in the same way that some look down on oral histories, assuming that such subjective tales are far less useful than the written, verifiable opinion of an "expert" or "leader." Though the speaker raises real questions - stating, for example, that the reader obviously cannot know whether Offred is a real person or whether the narrative is "accurate" - this section of the novel serves to spark antagonism in the reader. The question is, of course: to what purpose?
For starters, The Handmaid's Tale presents a slightly biased - yet unquestionably intelligent - case for the importance of storytelling in creating human understanding. Even within the fiction of Gilead, Offred repeatedly stresses that her account is a story. She does not necessarily intend it as a fair or accurate representation of the world she describes; she merely wishes to relate her experiences to someone that she loves and wants to understand what has happened to her. The historians seem willing to listen to Offred's account without attempting to understand her or her experiences. The reader, however, who takes in the story without worrying about its factual validity, cannot help but see things from Offred's perspective. Perhaps the historians have a more accurate picture of life under the Gileadean regime, but the reader seems to have a fuller understanding of the truth of Offred's situation.
The historians' distance stems from their belief in the idea of cultural, or moral, relativism. Pieixoto reminds his audience that they should know better than to judge Gilead by the standards of their own culture. He points out that the Gileadeans created their seemingly barbaric rules to accommodate unique pressures that no longer exist, and that "contemporary" society can thus not fully appreciate their purposes or rationale. Whether or not the reader agrees with this point, it seems likely that approaching The Handmaid's Tale as a fictional account makes one more likely to judge and disagree with the Gileadeans, and more apt to side with Offred. This difference allows us to see first-hand the power of so-called "speculative fiction"; reading a story allows us to examine our judgments and assumptions in a more leisurely and less dangerous manner than when they are tested out on real events and problems.
Atwood's decision to end her novel with the Historical Notes is intended to urge the reader to consider the work's overarching moral and philosophical issues. At the same time, she risks leaving readers deeply unsatisfied if they are unable or unwilling to consider the purposes of such an ending. Throughout the novel, the reader has been caught up in Offred's point of view, and has been granted no access to other characters' consciousnesses. Offred tells her audience what she thinks about Luke, Moira, and the other people who have disappeared from her life. She truly believes in the possibility of multiple "endings" occurring all at the same time. At the end of the novel, it is Offred who disappears for her readers, effectively abandoning them much as she has been abandoned. As the historians point out, she may have been killed, she may have escaped, or she may have escaped only to be recaptured later. Like Offred, the reader has learned to believe in multiple possibilities. It doesn't really matter whether or not Offred escaped. Her words escaped, so she survived. Though no one knows her real name, she is not like Ofglen; she has not been erased from the historical narrative. Whether or not the historians understand the importance of Offred's effort, the reader understands that she has made her story permanent, and has thus, in a way, given herself and her fellow Handmaids immortality.