Wanted: Dead or Alive
You know the saying: is the glass half empty or half full? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Well, your natural level of optimism or pessimism is probably going to influence what you think happens at the end of this book.
The Handmaid's Tale doesn't provide a definitive answer about its heroine's fate. If you're feeling positive when you hit the end of the book, you might walk away thinking, "Phew. She totally made it." If you're feeling negative, you might just think, "Uh oh." So how do both of those options play out?
Well, we've got two mini-endings going on. In the first, which closes off the narrator's story, the heroine gets into a black car with men who are either there to arrest her for treason or to smuggle her to safety. Oh, that's comforting.
She has—and we have—no way of knowing which it is. If Nick's as trustworthy as he says he is, then the men are there to rescue her and take her to safety. He addresses the narrator by her actual name, which could be proof that he's genuine—or proof that he's really working for The Man. If he's not trustworthy, this has been a giant conspiracy to weed out traitors, and the narrator's going to suffer the consequences.
As she says, "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped" (46.41). A "new beginning" would mean freedom, a regained identity, and being allowed to think again. Yet it seems like even death would be preferable to the stagnant, imprisoned life of a Handmaid.
The second mini-ending can also be taken two ways. It's a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" (Historical Notes.1) and it takes place more than two hundred years after the events of the novel. In this "transcript," scholars discuss a series of audiotapes that recorded the narrator's story, which we've just read.
They try to make assumptions about who the narrator was, where she was, and who else she was talking about. They can't figure out her identity or what happened to her, although the fact that the tapes were made suggests she at least made it to a safe house on her way out of Gilead.
After that, who knows? She could have gained freedom or been recaptured and killed. As one of the fictional scholars says at the end of his talk, "As for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure" (Historical Notes.43). The odds of surviving would have been against her, but she at least escaped for long enough to preserve her story.
In an interview with the New York Times, Atwood said:
The central character—the Handmaid Offred—gets out. The possibility of escape exists. A society exists in the future which is not the society of Gilead and is capable of reflecting about the society of Gilead in the same way that we reflect about the 17th century. Her little message in a bottle has gotten through to someone—which is about all we can hope, isn't it? (Source)
So the rest of the narrator's story is left to the reader's imagination. Is your glass half empty or half full?